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Reader Question: How Can the NRCS Serve You Better?

By   /  September 25, 2017  /  10 Comments

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Do you have a question you’d like the On Pasture Community to weigh in on? Send us an email!

Folks have asked us to share your thoughts on what could make the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service better for you. The reason? The new Farm Bill is being written right now and it will include changes to the NRCS.

Those changes will dictate funding for NRCS services that provide farmers and ranchers with financial support for critical projects, and for valuable technical support. The On Pasture Community is being asked, “What do you need to be successful?” The folks building the Farm Bill have some ideas, and we may not like all of them. So now’s our chance to tell them. They are listening right now.

Here are some things we are watching:

• There’s a proposal for farmers and ranchers to be required to register with the government for SAM and DUNS.
SAM stands for “System for Award Management,” and DUNS is the “DATA Universal Numbering System.” We know from personal experience that registering for SAM is difficult and very time consuming and you have to renew every year. We’re concerned that this will place an undue burden on farmers and ranchers and might even mean that many will stop working with NRCS and other agencies that help them a lot.

• Boots-on-the-ground are being limited.
What we have seen and heard is that NRCS is plagued by not enough local staff and too much paperwork. The budget for on-site technical assistance is a fraction of what it was and it’s getting cut further. The success of the relationship between farmers and ranchers and NRCS is having that one knowledgeable person to work with, walking the land side by side with the farmers and ranchers, and helping figure out the best route to success for the land and the producers.

We’ve all seen USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service do really great work, and as with all organizations, there are times that things don’t go so well. We want to hear your stories of working with the NRCS, good or bad, along with your constructive criticism of what went well and what could be done better. We want to hear what you need and what would help you be more successful and productive.

We’ll bundle your stories and get them to the right people. Your voice can work wonders to make sure the services you need are there for you and for all farmers and ranchers.

Thanks!

Kathy and Rachel

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About the author

Rachel and Kathy are co-editors of On Pasture. They often collaborate on articles so that you get the best they have to offer.

10 Comments

  1. Doug says:

    I think the NRCS would be much more useful to the general public without the financial assistance for any programs. Anytime money is on the table, someone will find a way to abuse the system. I believe there are many talented and knowledgeable people working for the NRCS, but they are very limited as to people they are allowed to help. It always seems like the biggest and most established farmers are the people who benefit the most. I think it becomes a competition to win the money, most of the practices I’ve seen in the past were not used or maintained after they were put in.
    I’m am very passionate about soil health and I have been a livestock producer for over thirty five years. I have found the NRCS grazing lands people to be very helpful and knowledgeable. As a small farmer though I have never been able to participate in any financial aid. Most farmers who work off the farm don’t have the time to spend waiting in offices to compete with people with more free time.
    It is my personal belief that farming and ranching shouldn’t need all the welfare programs. I think it looks bad to taxpayers and agriculture has become dependent on it. I think if we develop good sustainable systems it should also be economically sustainable.

  2. Doug says:

    An effective firebreak can be created without a dozer at much less cost. EQIP stipulations should make allowance for less costly and less damaging fireguard construction techniques.

    On the same note, alternative land management practices which accomplish the same end goal should be rewarded. For example, why would we want to plant rangeland seed types when critical disturbances ( planned grazing and Rx fire) promote those species return on degraded land. Should be reward for specie promotion as well as specie introduction.

    Need better access to more qualified field staff for the routine monitoring outlined on some job sheets. A rancher or farmer can spend too much time having to monitor and not make much progress in the critical areas….HMI specialists warn of this. For example, Mr XXX, we are here today to do such and such monitoring for your xx jobsheet. Maybe these folks are regional/state specialists?

    Never hurts to see new/innovative CSP jobsheets with each new farm bill. These programs should grow and wane with the ebb and flow of technology/alternative thought.

    Overall, very well pleased with local NRCS support in accomplishing our management goals. Many things would not have been completed without their assistance.

    Not sure if FSA involvement in the paper trail and funding is necessarily a good thing. FSA documents tend to be more confusing than NRCS docs….local staff normally aids in document prep.

    Generally, by Oct 15 of each year each local NRCS will know the funds they have available and the priority of those allocations. You may want to check with them before planning funding on big projects. Priority of funding changes along with the amount. May not be the same this year as last year.

  3. Gary L.Kilgore says:

    NRCS is a direct line in USDA. Typical governmental problems. Speed is not known in the system. NRCS must work closely with County Extension Service. They are based on Research at Land Grant University. NRCS practices are based on what the Manuel says. And is often very different from Extension. County Agents do get out on the land and make recommendations based on Research and farmers ability to make a change. No paperwork and straight forward recs. NRCS and Extension must tell the same story and not bad mouth Research. I’ll bet this NEVER hapoens.

  4. Gene Schriefer says:

    1. Boots on the ground with folks with more ag backgrounds, farm kids/ag degrees, nothing wrong with environment degrees, just like more balance at all levels, seems like environmental emphasis are the ones moving up the ranks and get in charge.
    2. Reduce practice of only getting promoted by moving to different locations, see comment 1.
    3. End the politics. Trust local staff, they truly believe in conservation if you allow them yet one politically connected farmer can make staff a living hell. So there’s a tendency to keep their heads down and look the other way because state/national level does not have their backs. The higher folks rise in the organization the more they want to protect their own hide at the expense of soil and water.
    4. Can’t get additional help with practices if you’re already doing the “right things” because of less resource concern, this acts as a disincentive. There’s always room to improve.
    5. NRCS loves engineering solutions treating symptoms. Soil erosion is symptom of god awful water infiltration plain and
    simple. More emphasis on soil health.
    6. Independent third party verification for conservation review, “Trust . . . but verify” County level verification is hardly random, staff check those who they know are in compliance, and compliance rates and practice adoption is sent up the chain and compiled. It’s a false number the chiefs report.

  5. Curt Gesch says:

    I agree that regular “boots-on-the-ground” (or on the horse as second best, quad third, and truck last) is perhaps the most important thing to work towards. Sometimes drones can help, but these need to be followed-up with a walking tour.

  6. Faster payment of approved projects would be nice. I footed a 25K bill to put fence and watering systems on my property with the advice from my NRCS agent that “it may take up to a year for payment, but your project has been approved.” It’s been 2.5 years now… still waiting on that money.

    • DWK says:

      Sounds almost like my experience. I was told I had approval and then when the work was finished, they asked if I had approval in writing. Thankfully the guy that approved it went to our church and ended up being a man of his word. I was lucky.

  7. Bruce Howlett says:

    Note that SAM and DUNS registration is currently required for business entities receiving financial assistance from NRCS. The proposed change (supported by several farm lobby groups) is to eliminate this requirement.

    There seem to be ideas to merge elements of NRCS with the Farm Service Agency. I would guess that FSA will handle the eligibility paperwork and payment processing (things they already do for other programs) while NRCS will be more of a technical agency. It could be a great streamlining of functions, or not, depending on details. Also, this idea has been raised before but didn’t go anywhere.

    Bruce Howlett
    USDA-NRCS field staffer

  8. DWK says:

    In the past I was fortunate to work with NRCS and their EQIP program. The program allowed us to remove mesquite and cedar from our pastures. It was a success, I’ve got grasses in places I never had before. It requires work on our part to keep the pastures clear of new trees, but the investment is well worth it.

    I have two negatives, it does require a substantial amount of paperwork, and it favors the larger ranches/farms. It can take years before you are approved to use the program.

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