With farm bill negotiations dramatically raising the stakes for conservation program funding, the USDA is considering allowing third-party vendors to provide technical assistance in implementing conservation practices.

Traditionally, assistance with the design, layout and adoption of conservation practices has been provided USDA employees.

The new proposal would allow participating farmers to choose to receive technical assistance either from NRCS personnel or someone else certified by NRCS as a third party, says Homer Wilkes, Mississippi state conservationist.

“As a landowner, you'll be able to choose between the two. If we get the conservation dollars that are being proposed, there will be a lot of work out there and a lot of things we'll need help on,” said Wilkes at a recent public hearing on the proposal held in Greenwood, Miss.

“We're already stretched thin, so we're going to need help implementing any increase in conservation programs,” says Delmer Stamps, state resource conservationist. “We still must meet the legislative mandates while also meeting the needs of our clients. There will be rigorous requirements for certification to become a third-party vendor.”

It's a given there will be more money for conservation in the new farm bill, says Marc Curtis, president of Mississippi Conservation Districts and a farmer and landowner in Leland, Miss.

“I don't know of a single commodity group or farm organization that has gone to Congress to ask for more money for conservation. It has been the wildlife groups, the conservation groups and the environmental groups that have put this money in the farm bill, and they're expecting something out of it,” says Curtis.

These groups, he adds, will be watching closely to see how new funds are spent. “A number of them have made public statements to the effect that if this gets messed up by NRCS, they will do everything in their power to make sure that NRCS becomes part of FSA.

“Consequently, it's important that NRCS and farmers insure that this work gets done efficiently and promptly. It can't be done by the current staff of NRCS. That's the why Congress had the foresight to put third-party vendors in the legislation. NRCS needs to embrace the third-party vendor system,” he says.

The third-party vendor system program, says Curtis, needs to be constructed so that any reasonably intelligent, educated individual can be trained by the NRCS and become successfully qualified to do the work. “This system must be open to everyone, and you've got to compensate your third-party vendors adequately so you can attract these people into the program and get them to help you.

“If you don't get enough third-party vendors in the program, the program is going to fail, the whole larger conservation program is going to fail, and we are all going to be worse off for it. We need to make sure that the program is constructed so that we're putting conservation on the ground. We don't need to have a program just to make paperwork,” says Curtis.

Tom Gary, presenting a resolution from Delta Council, Delta FARM and Delta Wildlife, says those agencies acknowledge the need for a third-party vendor system to help administer and implement federal conservation programs.

“However, all certified vendors must be trained thoroughly and adhere to rigid standards in order to insure the highest possible level of cost efficiency, continuity, and conservation,” he says.

The idea of third-party vendors isn't a new one, says crop consultant Phil McKibben of Mathiston, Miss. “In fact, NRCS working with private groups and staff in order to certify crop advisors is nothing new. The idea and the concept is a good one. Another benefit is that third-party vendors working directly with farmers encourages private involvement,” he says.

“This is a healthy idea and a movement in the right direction,” says Sam Newsom, certified crop advisor, chemical company representative and chairman of the Delta Conservation Demonstration Center in Washington County, Miss. “We have an opportunity to bring the private sector and the federal sector together through NRCS.”

Newsom suggested that the Delta Conservation Demonstration Center in Washington County near Greenville, Miss., be used as a training facility for third-party vendors, and its employees considered as possible vendors. “This implements all of the conservation practices that we have been talking about for a number of years. We think there is great potential and we want to offer our services, and to be considered, as a training center for third-party vendors.

“We fully believe the success of this program, to a large degree, will hinge on the quality and the training of those people who are certified as third-party vendors,” he says.

Bob Cato, chairman of both the Yazoo County and the Delta Water Conservation Districts, doesn't believe allowing soil and water conservation district employees to serve as third-party vendors would be a conflict of interest.

“We have to remember that the local farmer had been a conservationist for many years before that term became popular. I'm concerned that in our training, even for the administration of the programs, everything will be weighted towards taking care of ducks and trees, and we're going to lose the emphasis of keeping the soil in the proper place. I hope we don't over-emphasize keeping the game and the ducks on the land,” says Cato.

Will Long, a Greenwood, Miss., landowner and self-titled farmer emeritus, says he is not volunteering to be a third-party vendor. “The environmental imperatives that are being justly demanded by the American public are going to be vastly increased in the years to come, and I think that's good. The idea of third-party vendors to shop out the design and the training involved in these things may or may not be a good idea. I can't say yet, but the devil is going to be in the details,” he says.

Agriculture in this Delta has come a long way, says Long. “Some may look at it as a static thing, but it definitely is not. The imperatives that are coming down the pike demanding that we take more account of the environment are good. We have a group of people who have been excellent in the delivery system of technology and quality assurance, and I can't imagine this process continuing without them,” he says.