10/4/2013 at 12:02 p.m.
Recently, Jason Weller, chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), made a three-day visit to Arkansas. While in the state, Weller, who became head of NRCS in Dec. 2012, toured several NRCS projects and met with Arkansas farmers involved with the Discovery Farm Program and Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative.
Chief, Natural Resources Conservation Service
Following his visit, Weller spoke with Arkansas Farm Bureau about the NRCS’s mission, its priorities and ways NRCS works with farmers, ranchers and forest managers to meet production and resource stewardship goals.
Question: What is your view of the NRCS’ role in production agriculture?
NRCS is here to serve America’s farmers, ranchers and forestland managers. We have some of the world’s best soil and range conservationists, agronomists, foresters, biologists, engineers and other experts who are passionate about helping producers meet their production and resource stewardship goals. And helping producers meet their goals is vital because U.S. agriculture feeds the world. With the world population estimated to grow by over a third or an additional 2.3 billion people in the next 40 years, as a society we are going to be significantly pressed to provide food, fiber and fuel while also protecting our natural resource base and quality of life. I believe that, in partnership with farmers, ranchers and forestland managers, we can meet these challenges while also maintaining productive working lands, supporting vibrant rural economies and providing for a healthy environment.
: What is your program priority?
Ensuring that NRCS is able to provide the best available conservation technical advice and approaches to our customers is my priority. We need to keep abreast of the rapid changes and innovations in agriculture, such as with precision agriculture and enhanced nutrient management, so that we can provide sound and effective assistance to producers. And, in an era of leaner budgets, NRCS has to be innovative with how it leverages its capabilities and financial resources so we can maintain or even improve our level of service to farmers and ranchers.
Q: What programs do you believe NRCS offers that most benefit farmers and ranchers?
There is not any single conservation program that offers the most benefit. At the beginning and end of the day, it is the technical assistance that we and our conservation partners can offer farmers and ranchers that is most valuable. Technical assistance — assessing natural resource conditions on a farm, working with a producer to identify his or her management objectives and planning conservation approaches that will help address the resource concerns while also meeting the farmer’s objectives — is the foundation on which all of our other assistance is built. And this assistance empowers farmers and ranchers to make informed decisions on how to manage their operations so they can be successful not just this year but for decades to come.
Q: What changes do you believe are needed within the agency and its programs to better serve production agriculture?
: It is clear we need to streamline and improve our business so programs and assistance are more available, accessible and applicable to the natural resource opportunities and challenges facing agriculture today. We also need to do everything we can to remove the administrative overhead from our field offices so our conservation professionals can get in the field and do what they’re trained and love to do — help producers plan and apply conservation. NRCS is working to streamline our conservation delivery, and it is my expectation that both customers and our employees will begin to see improvements next year.
Q: What is your view of EQIP funds being split 60%-40% between livestock and row crop farmers?
The farm bill establishes these statutory requirements for how the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) dollars are allocated between livestock and crop operations. While operation types differ, they often face similar natural resource objectives, such as water or air quality concerns. Irrespective of operation type, EQIP has and continues to be an essential component of the conservation toolbox to help operators achieve environmental objectives in balance with agricultural production.
: How can Arkansas farmers, landowners and ranchers best use MRBI and/or NWQI data to address resource concerns in their area?
: Arkansas farmers, ranchers and landowners are leading the nation in addressing their natural resource objectives through the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative (MRBI) and the National Water Quality Initiative (NWQI) and making enormous contributions to the region. These stewards already know the value of information and data to inform conservation and production decisions and are in the best position to encourage other producers to participate. Wider participation and adoption of key conservation approaches will make these initiatives even more effective in delivering positive results. And beyond getting the word out to fellow producers, Arkansas’ farmers and ranchers can also use these data to make the case for the value of conservation investments – working farms, ranches, and forests can provide food and fiber as well as clean water and valuable wildlife habitat.
: Arkansas is one of the few states with a Discovery Farms program that monitors water quality on farms. How does the Discovery Farms program fit with MRBI and NWQI in regards to funding and the data collected?
: Arkansas’ Discovery Farms program is a model for innovation and demonstration of approaches that work for agriculture and water quality. This is a natural fit with the work NRCS and its partners are delivering through MRBI and NWQI to address water quality concerns. Arkansas Discovery Farms, in their partnership with the University of Arkansas, are well positioned to demonstrate the effectiveness of both tried-and-true conservation practices as well as new and innovative approaches to maintain productive agriculture while also benefitting water quality. The farms will also be helpful with extending the reach of this conservation work through additional research and extension activities.
Q: How is Arkansas’ successful implementation effort in these initiatives being shared?
It is no secret that Arkansas’ farmers and ranchers have taken advantage of the opportunities provided by these initiatives to make conservation improvements on their operations, and I really credit the strong conservation partnership in Arkansas that has helped to get producers interested in our programs. Partners such as the Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts and the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission have been keys to our shared success. Arkansas has done an outstanding job of getting the word out. We are connecting folks from other regions of the country with the Arkansas partnership to share ways they are communicating and coordinating so that, in turn, they too can help get the word out.
Q: How can farmers, landowners and ranchers be proactive in an effort to obtain more or continued funding for these initiatives?
Communication. Farmers, ranchers and forest owners can continue to communicate the importance of conservation assistance and the positive impacts it has on their operations and for their communities. It is important for people who are not necessarily familiar with agriculture or natural resource management to understand that conservation benefits them in many ways, including providing for safe and abundant food and fiber production as well as helping ensure healthy water, air and wildlife populations.
Q: What would be your charge to Arkansas farmers and ranchers in their conservation efforts and in documenting the steps they’re taking to protect water quality?
First, I want to extend my congratulations to Arkansas farmers and ranchers. You've done impressive work and have demonstrated a strong commitment to protect and improve water quality.
If there’s one thing I have learned on this job, however, it’s that there’s always an opportunity to do more. From our work both in Arkansas and nationally, we have learned that agriculture can reap big production and conservation benefits in three ways. One, there are opportunities to improve management of nutrients, and, at NRCS, we are helping producers apply the “4 Rs” of nutrient management: applying fertilizer with the right source, at the right rate, at the right time and in the right place. Two, while individual conservation practices are good, conservation practices that are designed to work in concert with each other as a system are better at protecting water quality. Three, NRCS can partner with farmers to improve the health of their soils so that in turn the soils will help their operations be more resilient to drought, improve yields and be more efficient with fertilizers. Please visit your local NRCS field office and ask how we can help.
Q: The popularity of EQIP in the Illinois River watershed in Arkansas is causing an application backlog to fund these water quality protection practices in this important watershed. Are there any plans to expedite the application and approval process?
Through our close partnerships with producers and conservation organizations, NRCS is focusing additional resources to help farmers address water quality concerns in the Illinois River region. The backlog for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funding in the Illinois River area is a testament to the value that producers place on conservation assistance. The impressive response from producers in the area shows that a collaborative, voluntary approach to conservation in a region can make a difference, not only for individual farming operations, but also for the communities in which they live by helping to protect and enhance the quality of natural resources.
Nationally, there is also a backlog of requests for EQIP assistance from producers. NRCS is taking steps to streamline program operations to simplify the application and ranking process so that producers can get the assistance they need when they need it.