Sequestration pushes conservation agency toward 'breaking point'

Posted: May 2, 2013

Written by

Amanda Peterka, Greenwire
Farm conservation

Sequestration has affected the federal government's ability to put in place conservation measures on farmland, according to several organizations that work closely with the Agriculture Department.

The effects of the across-the-board spending cuts on farmland conservation programs, which have already taken large cuts in the last several budget cycles, have been lost amid all the talk about furloughs to meat inspectors and reductions in farmers' subsidies, they say.

The groups worry that the next round of budget cuts could bring the programs, which include the popular Conservation Stewardship Program and the Conservation Reserve Program, past their breaking point.

"These farmers and landowners need to have those conservation tools," said Jim Inglis, government affairs representative at Pheasants Forever, a habitat conservation group. "If they're not there, if they're not going to continue, there will be no incentive to continue the practices. We need to recognize that they need that financial and technical assistance."

The Agriculture Department operates a suite of 23 conservation programs that are periodically renewed with the passage of the farm bill. The initiatives work in several ways, from providing farmers with cost-share money to install manure storage systems to helping restore wetlands and set land away in easements. The Conservation Stewardship Program, the largest of the group, awards farmers for stewardship measures on a tiered basis.

Some programs work to create habitat for wildlife, while others work to stem the runoff of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus into local waterways. Many are part of landscape-scale initiatives that the department has put in place over the last few years.

USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service has a staff of on-the-ground technicians who work closely with farmers and ranchers to navigate the complex alphabet soup of programs. They come with backgrounds in areas such as soil science and hydrology and provide the expertise needed to help develop conservation plans and management strategies for individual farms.

The approximately 11,000-employee NRCS, which often shares office space with local conservation districts and county officials, saw its yearly discretionary budget to help farmers with conservation cut by 5 percent through sequestration. A month later, its budget was cut again in the stopgap measure passed by Congress that funds the government through Sept. 30.

In all, technical operations at the NRCS have been cut $60 million, leaving it with an operations budget of $768 million for fiscal 2013. In fiscal 2012, the agency had about $828 million for the same job.

"It's their boots on the ground and their ability to work with farmers to determine what the resource needs are," said Jeremy Peters, director of federal policy at American Farmland Trust. "Without that discretionary funding, it really puts the agency at a disadvantage in terms of being able to fully meet the need that exists and their work with the farmers."

Even less in the public eye than the cuts on the discretionary side are the reductions to conservation programs' mandatory funding, said Ferd Hoefner, policy director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. USDA has not released much information about how sequestration has affected mandatory spending, but farm bill conservations programs took a $2.5 billion hit there.

It's unclear how much of that cut affects NRCS's ability to help farmers on the ground. Although most of the mandatory conservation funding goes toward awards for farmers, a proportion of each program's mandatory funding also goes into the pot for technical assistance.

The NRCS did not make the department's conservation chief available for an interview. The bottom line, though, is clear: Even as USDA is touting conservation measures to ease concerns about the drought and climate change, the agency charged with helping farmers put the measures in place has been chiseled away by congressional budget cutters.

"Certainly they have some very talented people that are able to provide those sorts of services, but it's simply a challenge when their operating budget is cut so deeply," Peters said.

'Stretched across the board'

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack acknowledged the cuts, as well as planning hiring freezes and reductions in travel costs, in a letter to Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) before sequestration went into effect.

"This will impact NRCS' ability to ensure timely, complete conservation planning activities and delivery of financial assistance, which would affect program accomplishments and service to farmers and ranchers nationwide," Vilsack wrote. "This would result in longer timeframes to address these challenges, continuing to put at risk the business operations of the agency."

The demand for farmland conservation programs has only increased over the past several years. Program enrollment periods are continuously oversubscribed, in some cases up to three times the available resources. According to Earl Garber, president of the National Association of Conservation Districts, the service's operating budget is 20 percent below where it should be based on 2005 levels, taking into account inflation.

Garber and others in the agricultural community credit the NRCS for taking steps on its own to reduce spending over the past several years.

The service has, for example, instituted a programwide streamlining initiative meant to simplify the array of conservation programs whose acronyms can be overwhelming even for those familiar with the farm bill. Anticipating sequestration over the last year, the service has also not backfilled positions, said Garber, whose group works closely with the NRCS to put in place conservation measures.

After the steps the NRCS has taken, the sequestration and other continual budget cuts send "exactly the wrong message," Hoefner warned.

"If you proactively try to get your costs down and try to get your delivery system better, instead of getting rewarded for doing that, you're going to get cut across the board like everyone else," he said.

In response to the cuts to technical operations, the NRCS has had to lean more heavily on private and nonprofit partners to put in place conservation measures, said Inglis, whose group Pheasants Forever operates a team of 108 "farm bill biologists" in 18 states who are trained to work with the NRCS and farmers. Other organizations left filling the gaps include conservation districts, and state fish and wildlife agencies.

According to a recent survey, Inglis said, there are 240 partnership positions within various outside organizations whose job is to help the NRCS work with farmers.

If the NRCS operating budget gets cut much more, organizations worry they may not be able to field enough of their own staff members to fulfill farmer demand.

"The districts are trying to work with NRCS. Even with our manpower, we're being stretched across the board," Garber said. "You have some matching money on the table out there that if we can't get the federal dollars, then those state dollars will also be lost. We can end up with state and federal dollars lost. We can't necessarily fill all the needs."

Part of the problem is the lack of certainty that a five-year farm bill would bring, Inglis said.

Most of its current partnerships are in "pretty good shape" right now, but Pheasants Forever is in a holding pattern when it comes to making new arrangements. The organization is waiting to see what sort of policies and funding levels are set up with the farm bill, which Senate and House agriculture committees plan to start working on this spring. The agricultural community is operating under a partial extension of the 2008 farm bill after lawmakers last year failed to send a final version to the president's desk.

"We need to know what we're going to be working with. We need to put that bill in place," Inglis said. "We need to know where those reductions are going to be so we can try to find other ways to address it."

Streamlining offers relief

In a sense, the farm bill could give the NRCS a boost. Both the Senate and the House last year proposed a massive restructuring of the conservation title that would group programs within "buckets" and reduce the number of individual programs from 23 to 13.

Such streamlining could give the agency a little relief by cutting out some of the administrative expenses, organizations said.

But the consolidation would have to come with a price: Both bills would have also cut about $6 billion more from conservation programs as a whole. Money is tighter for the farm bill overall this year.

"We really feel like that's basically 10 percent, and that's a significant cut," Garber said. "There are proposals on the House side [this year] of up to $18 billion. When you reach those kinds of cutting levels, you will have to do away with some programs."

This year, in its fiscal 2014 budget request, the Obama administration would provide the NRCS with $808 million for conservation operations. But it has also proposed permanent cuts of more than $800 million in mandatory funding needed to enroll farmers into conservation programs.

The administration has proposed to charge producers fees for conservation plans, but such a proposal hasn't gained traction in Congress.

The organizations working with the NRCS asserted that the agency has still been able to deliver programs. Recent studies done by USDA have found that conservation activities have decreased the amount of nutrient runoff into waterways and have been successful in expanding wildlife habitat.

But the organizations say they wonder how much longer that will last. The agency could get to a point where it has to cut back on office space so much, for example, that the cost savings are outweighed by increased travel expenses. Or waiting lists for conservation programs can get so long that farmers start to walk out the door.

"We all acknowledge that there will be a breaking point as to whether or not they could get delivered. NRCS has good management skills, all programs continue to be delivered at this point," Garber said. "Eventually, we're going to find that breaking point."

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