The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2010, marking quite a milestone for an agency created to get things “under control” during the Dust Bowl. Now, NRCS Chief Dave White says, the agency is looking to the future with a host of issues on its docket.
With the United Nations predicting the global population will grow by 2.3 billion in 40 years, White says, agriculture is going to have to figure out how to increase production—by as much as 70%, some estimate. NRCS is focusing on how to address this issue without “trashing our resource base,” he says. “It’s going to be a huge challenge for our farmers and ranchers.”
NRCS is accustomed to dealing with a variety of problems across the country—from dairy and diversity issues in the Northeast to water issues in the Southeast, nutrient management in the Midwest and water and wildlife issues in the West. Despite this array, White says, his goal is simple: “We are trying give our producers certainty that they can operate regardless of these external factors.”
In the West, endangered species are a high priority. White says that NRCS is helping producers deal with the potential addition of the lesser prairie chicken and the sage grouse to the endangered species list. A “breakthrough” agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “stipulates that if a rancher works with us and we address the threats to the sage grouse, even if the sage grouse is listed, that producer won’t have to do anything extra,” he says.
In California, White says, his agency spent $22 million to help producers update engines in irrigation systems and other areas to Tier 3. “It had the effect of losing something like 300,000 cars from the road,” he adds. “That’s an area where we’re trying to work with producers to make regulation unnecessary, so our men and women who grow our food can continue to operate.”
Farmers pitch in. One of the more controversial topics in agriculture is climate change. “Our whole premise is working one-on-one with producers to understand their goals and objectives and then offering them alternatives,” White explains. “It’s not that we’re pushing any particular environmental agenda. What we would like to do is make sure our ag sector is healthy and environmentally sound and that we maintain the productivity of our nation.”
White is proud of farmers’ efforts to repair damage to wildlife habitat from the recent oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. In July, NRCS asked farmers in eight states if they would be interested in creating shallow-water habitats for migrating birds. “Every fall, you get something like 40 million to 50 million birds coming down the Mississippi,” White notes. “We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could provide them resting spots, feeding spots and loafing spots and keep them out of the oiled waters?’”
NRCS hoped to get 100,000 acres of wetland habitat established. “At the end of the day, 471,000 acres are being built in portions of those eight states,” White says. “The outpouring was just tremendous. In Louisiana, we had people [lined up] around the block. You’re going to see birds that are much healthier and fatter when they migrate north. It’s just incredible what they’ve done.”
Compensating farmers for their conservation actions have long been an effective tool of federal farm programs. But White says that what sometimes is forgotten is that the federal government shoulders only part of the cost. “The other part comes from the farmer, the rancher or the forest landowner. It’s their commitment to conservation that makes this possible,” he says.
As farmers face these and other challenges in the years ahead, White and the NRCS are trying to make sure that they don’t encounter obstacles from the government.