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User-friendly conservation programs a high NRCS priority

Conservation and environmental stewardship programs, regardless of their value to the rural landscape, mean nothing if they're difficult to sign up for and manage, thereby keeping farmers from participating.

Making these programs a user-friendly fit into every farm's management and operation is a high priority at the federal level, according to USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service administrator Arlen Lancaster. Yet, even if they are easy to implement on the ground, Lancaster, who succeeded Bruce Knight as NRCS administrator in August 2006, tells Agriculture Online it's important for farmers to know their conservation needs when entering into the program.

"My focus is to make the programs easier and make conservation planning easier. We need to be making the programs more accessible for the producer," Lancaster says. "But, I couldn't tell anyone what their conservation concerns would be."

The ideal system starts with the farmer. First, he or she must have a good understanding of the farm's conservation needs. This step, Lancaster says, can be aided by working with local NRCS officials who can help pinpoint specific conservation measures that would work best on the farm.

Lancaster says the ideal process would then proceed with program sign-up, from which point NRCS officials could determine a flat cost for the conservation measures and whether or not the steps taken meet the conservation needs of the farmer's area. A great deal of this process depends on the farmer's own input and transparency throughout.

"It's very much a two-way street. The big onus is on us, to show transparency and show what we need from the farmer," Lancaster says. "But, the burden of proving eligibility should be on the producer."

Critics of current conservation programs, Lancaster says, are quick to say they amount to the federal government rewarding farmers for implementing practices they likely would have already been putting into action regardless of government support. But, these conceptions typically center around the idea of preventing land degradation. Lancaster says stewardship programs, like the Conservation Reserve and Conservation Security programs, go beyond this basic level.

"We're rewarding people for doing things a step beyond land degradation. We're looking for enhancement," he says. "If you have had a problem with erosion or adding nutrients to the water, we're looking at what you've done not to stop that, but what you've done to actually create benefits."

Even though the level of support the next farm bill will provide for conservation programs like CRP and CSP remains unclear, Lancaster says the first step in solidifying such federal programs in the future is on its way. Officials are in the process of gathering information about the effects of stewardship programs to date, in terms of their benefit to the land.

Once these factors can be quantified and sufficient data can be compiled to show how the land has benefited from federal conservation programs -- a process that should be completed sometime in 2008 -- Lancaster says it will make conservation more prominent in future farm policy discussions.

"We want to be able to definitively say 'This is what these practices did, and if you took them away, this is where we'd be today,'" he says. "We are anxious to get this information about what we're doing out. We hope it makes the next farm bill process easier."

In the nearer future, Lancaster says he's heard support in the Bush administration for an expanded CSP that could be available for farmers in every watershed in the nation. The goal is to have 10% of all U.S. farmland involved in the program, one that is included in the administration's farm bill proposal.

"The goal is to usher it in to every watershed -- to make everyone able to apply for CSP," Lancaster says. "We want to make it transparent so that, if you didn't get in to the program, we can show you why you didn't and you can take care of your conservation needs and apply the next year."

Conservation and environmental stewardship programs, regardless of their value to the rural landscape, mean nothing if they're difficult to sign up for and manage, thereby keeping farmers from participating.

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