Meet the New Chief Conservationist

February 25, 2019 10:55 AM
 
Top priorities for Matthew Lohr: conservation practices, farm bill and customer service

The newly named chief conservationist of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is a fifth-generation Virginia farmer committed to creating opportunities for U.S. farmers, ranchers and growers. As a husband and father of six children, Matthew Lohr is well aware his agency has a tremendous responsibility to support multigenerational farm families and beginning farmers in their stewardship of land, water and other natural resources.

Tucked in the Shenandoah Valley, Lohr’s farm includes feeder cattle, barley, hay and sweet corn. He has a passion for putting conservation practices to work, which includes no-till,  cover crops, rotational grazing and nutrient management plans. Federal programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program have helped his family integrate conservation.

Among the top priorities of Lohr and his team is the implementation of the newly authorized farm bill. That includes developing new rules that take full effect by Oct. 1. His team is hard at work building those processes and timelines, he says. Amid a government shutdown, mandatory and carryover funding permitted his office to continue some operations.

In addition to the farm bill, Lohr will support Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue’s vision of maximizing efficiency and improving customer service in USDA’s Farm Production and Conservation division, which includes NRCS. Lohr will meet with farmers to understand how producers interact with NRCS in the field. Outcomes of those conversations could include actions that save farmers time in applying for program dollars and reducing paperwork requirements.

“We want to be seen as farmer-friendly,” Lohr says. That’s true not only for longtime farm families but also for those new to agriculture, including young, beginning, small, minority and veteran operators who are “extremely important for the future of this great industry,” he notes.

Headwinds are an inevitable part of farming, Lohr acknowledges, including the weather. This past year, his family’s farm saw more than 60" of rain versus the average of 32".

More broadly, Lohr sees three particularly challenging issues for farmers. One is environmental regulations. NRCS can be a proactive partner in helping farmers identify resource concerns and  prevent regulatory intervention, he says. Another is urban sprawl, which can spread rapidly in times of high land prices and low commodity prices. Easements are among the tools NRCS provides to keep land in agriculture, which Lohr’s family has used on its operation. The third challenge is succession planning and passing on working lands not only within families but to newcomers eager to farm.

“NRCS is here to help all types of producers,” Lohr explains. “There are so many programs available for any type of operation.”

While his team will continue seeking ways to improve, Lohr is proud of the 10,000 NRCS employees staffing nearly 3,000 offices across the U.S.

A year from now, he is hopeful more farmers will be able to give concrete examples of ways NRCS has added efficiency and value to their operations. For now, he seeks to deliver on those promises by serving in a role he feels he has been training to perform.

“It is one of the greatest honors of my life to serve in this position,” Lohr says.

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