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Weller is new NRCS chief

By Janet Kubat Willette
jkubat@agrinews.com

Date Modified: 08/21/2013 7:45 AM

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WASHINGTON — The new chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service has Minnesota connections.

Jason Weller, who officially became chief of the NRCS on July 25, earned his undergraduate degree at Carleton College in Northfield. Weller had been acting chief since Dave White retired in December.

He spoke to Agri News last week about a variety of issues.

Program delivery

In an era of declining financial support for conservation, the NRCS has moved to a targeted conservation approach. It's about getting the biggest bang for the buck, Weller said.

Several targeted approaches are underway. The Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative targets land in watersheds with the greatest risk of loss.

States participating in the initiative include: Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, South Dakota and Tennessee.

Through the Mississippi River Basin Initiative, NRCS and its partners use a conservation systems approach to help producers avoid, control and trap nutrients and sediment to address water quality concerns.

In Minnesota, the Rush-Pine Watershed in Winona, Fillmore and Houston counties is a targeted watershed. Producers in the watershed are given priority for conservation practices that address water quality concerns.

Examples of eligible conservation practices include cover crops, nutrient management plans, contour farming, grassed waterways, wetland restoration, water storage facilities, grade stabilization structures, water and sediment control basins and prescribed grazing.

In Minnesota, about $2 million, or 9 percent, of the state's Environmental Quality Incentive Program dollars are targeted to MRBI projects.

In total, about 22 percent of the state's EQIP allocation is targeted to special initiatives, which in addition to MRBI include the Minnesota Agriculture Water Quality Initiative Program, driftless, organic and energy.

Across the nation, several special initiatives are planned, Weller said. Some are water based, others are groundwater based or targeted to wildlife.

He doesn't want to cut off access to those who don't live in targeted areas, but he does want to be able to show measurable results.

Results

There isn't a satisfactory amount of data out there at this point, Weller said.

In Missouri, the state matched NRCS funding to do edge-of-field monitoring. The monitoring protects producer privacy, Weller said.

That said; NRCS is working toward more rigorous edge-of-field monitoring across the nation. It is also working with partners to do in-stream monitoring.

For about a decade, the agency has used the Conservation Effects Assessment Project model to determine impacts. The model takes into account soils and climate to give a pretty good idea of what's happening to the land and water.

Through the CEAP model, NRCS estimates that 215 million tons of sediment, 2.7 billion pounds of nitrogen and 523 million pounds of phosphorus have been prevented from leaving fields annually through voluntary conservation efforts.

These figures translate to a 55 percent, 34 percent and 46 percent reduction in sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus edge-of-field losses, respectively, compared to what would have been lost if no conservation practices were in place, the agency said.

Additionally, they say that conservation has resulted in an estimated 17 percent reduction in nitrogen and 12 percent reduction in phosphorus entering the Gulf of Mexico annually.

An additional reduction of 15 percent of nitrogen and 12 percent of phosphorus can be achieved by implementing or improving conservation systems on all cropland in the basin that has not adequately addressed nutrient loss.

Staffing

There are hundreds of vacancies across the nation. There are fewer boots on the ground, Weller said.

This impacts the amount of conservation work that can be done. Projects may take longer to complete or fewer may get done.

Producers are feeling the impact of a reduction in the NRCS budget. The agency's budget was cut by $250 million this year, Weller said.

It is also straining employees who want to get conservation on the land.

Farm bill

The farm bill is the platform for NRCS to provide assistance to producers, Weller said. It's an assurance for producers to know what type of programs will be in place.

It's also the way Congress directs the work of NRCS; the farm bill indicates the nation's conservation priorities, as determined by Congress.

Sunset dates

Most NRCS programs are authorized through fiscal year 2014, which ends Sept. 30. Some programs, however, do sunset on Sept. 30, 2013.

Commitment

The NRCS was born in the Dust Bowl and is 78 years old. It works with private landowners, the SWCD and other partners to put conservation on the land.

Some contracts are for up to 10 years. The Conservation Stewardship Program requires five-year agreements.

Conservation is a long-term partnership with producers that requires ongoing engagement and maintenance, Weller said.