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National Agricultural Landscapes Forum in Review

April 11, 2011

On Thursday and Friday, April 7-8, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), along with the Farm Foundation and American Farmland Trust, presented a two-day forum on landscape integrity and water security in the 21st century.

As outlined in an earlier blog post, the National Agricultural Landscapes Forum followed a series five public meetings to gather input on 1) the status of natural resources, 2) resource conservation and degradation trends, 3) emerging conservation challenges and opportunities, and 4) long-term impacts of policies on natural resources, and, in turn, food, fuel, and fiber production.

The meetings, along with the national forum, will feed into an appraisal, required by the Soil and Water Resources Conservation Act (RCA), of the status of the country’s natural resources and the effectiveness of current conservation policies and programs.  Following its assessment, USDA must develop a national conservation plan in response to its findings.  USDA is expected to deliver the appraisal to Congress in the very near future and the national conservation plan at the beginning of 2012.  Both are intended to feed into the process of writing the next Farm Bill.

Forum session topics included water security, landscape integrity, innovation and technology, jurisdictional issues, and envisioning a 21st century conservation agenda.

NRCS Chief Dave White opened the Forum with a discussion of five broad themes that emerged from the public meetings mentioned above:

  • Need for institutional innovation
  • Need for balance between regulatory, voluntary, and incentive-based programs
  • Need for greater program efficiency
  • Need for better technology, research, and development
  • Need to think seriously about climate change

Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan spoke early on the first day of the Forum, outlining the successes of USDA conservation programs and posing five questions to attendees:

  • What approaches are needed to protect soil and water resources?
  • Which approaches will be most efficient?
  • What is the best way to deliver conservation technical assistance?
  • How do we balance voluntary programs and regulation?
  • How do we maintain agricultural productivity?

In response to a question about whether or not USDA would submit a 2012 Farm Bill proposal to Congress, Merrigan highlighted two goals: first, to expand the notion of the farm safety net to focus more holistically on rural America, and second, to create 100,000 new farmers.  “As for delivering an actual proposal,” Merrigan said, “to be determined.”

A few themes seemed to run through multiple panel presentations on both days of the Forum.  One of the most popular topics was the need for better, more accessible, and more shareable information.  Many attendees pointed out that without better conservation outcome data, it would be difficult to make the case for conservation in the next farm bill.  Some discussed the importance of gathering and using real-time farm and landscape-level data rather than emphasizing models and hypothetical scenarios.  Others pointed to the importance of delivering meaningful information — such as the cost of nutrient loss — to producers.

Other major themes included the need to balance voluntary conservation and regulation, and the need to prioritize conservation spending with increasingly limited funds.

Quite a few panelists and attendees brought up the idea of targeting conservation dollars to specific landscapes (watersheds, for example) or to high-performance producers.

Another major theme across panels was the importance of intra-agency, inter-agency, and public-private partnerships in maximizing program effectiveness.

Other important takeaways include:

  • the need for more diversified crop rotations
  • the fact that some USDA functions, such as extension and block grant programs, do not work for Native American tribes because of legal and jurisdictional issues
  • the need to increase support and funding for NRCS Conservation Technical Assistance, upon which conservation program efficacy depends
  • in order to do comprehensive monitoring of field- or watershed-level program implementation and outcomes, NRCS would need to partner with extension, land grant universities, or other entities

Finally, numerous panelists and attendees argued for greater focus on and funding for research, making specific mention of USDA’s Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP) and the RCA appraisal process as well as National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) funding for research and development.  At least one panelist noted that recent cuts to NIFA program funding are dangerous and increase the difficulty of maintaining productivity and sustainability concurrently.

Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers, Budget and Appropriations, Conservation, Energy & Environment, Farm Bill, Research, Education & Extension

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