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Highlights: House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture- Budget Hearing, NRCS Chief

On Friday, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture held a budget hearing and heard testimony from USDA- Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Chief Jason Weller.

In his opening statement at Friday’s hearing, Subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt (R., Ala.) indicated that, “We convene today to review NRCS’s fiscal year 2016 budget request. NRCS requests a total of $1.031 billion in discretionary funding for its salaries, expenses, programs, and activities. In addition, about $3.2 billion will be available through the farm bill’s mandatory conservation programs to farmers, ranchers, and private forest landowners to help them preserve, protect, and enhance their land.”

During the discussion portion of the hearing, Rep. Sanford Bishop (D., Ga.) brought up the issue of NRCS using drones in its remote sensing work– here is the exchange with Chief Well on this issue.

Rep. Sanford Bishop: Can you tell us if you have any plans to utilize drones to assist in the collection of information, because you do a lot of photography, put a lot of contracts out to take pictures, and there’s a tremendous amount of interest in the use of drones in agriculture, particularly in assisting the optimal design and layout of fields for water assessments and other related issues.

“Have you looked at this issue? Are there any current interagency discussions with FAA or other agencies concerning the growth in the use of drones? Obviously there are some security issues involved, but there’s also a great deal of interest for commercializing that practice and using it in agriculture.”

Mr. Jason Weller: “Absolutely. It’s a new technology, but we also have to be careful because folks do have privacy concerns. The FAA also had safety concerns. So in part NRCS, we sort of said full stop, let’s wait for FAA to actually come out with a rule.

Now that the rule has been issued, we’re trying to figure out how the NRCS can work within that to do remote sensing, but in a way that protects privacy, assure landowners who are not there there’s a regulatory component, because I know folks have some concerns when the federal government starts flying drones over their property. So we just need to make sure NRCS is doing this technology in a way that’s appropriate, that’s sensitive to landowners’ concerns, but also then helps us do a better job of managing resources.”

Also at the hearing, Rep. David Young (R., Iowa) wanted more information about NRCS wetland determinations and the farmer’s ability to appeal these decisions.

Rep. David Young: “Last year the NRCS proposed updating the way it conducts wetlands determinations in the prairie pothole states, you know, Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota. How will the wetland determination proposal affect producers, and when there is a review, will there be an ability for folks to have a second request for review and a second opinion if they disagree with the determination you make?”

Mr. Weller: “Yes. So first starting with what a producer hopefully will experience with us. What we’re proposing is bringing a modern, up-to-date, scientifically driven approach to doing what we’re calling off site determinations. This is a practice we’ve had at NRCS for decades. But what we didn’t have in the prairie pothole region is a consistent approach across all four states. So depending on where your property was, you had a different approach that we needed to update.

“So what this means, though, is actually, at the end of the day, when we implement this—because we were just seeking comments on this approach so far—is better service for a producer. So right now, as you know, there’s been a backlog, particularly in North and South Dakota, but Iowa as well. And in a lot of cases it’s because it’s on site determinations. It takes staff time. When you do an off site determination, you’re using remote sensing technology, you know, photography, LIDAR coverage, other techniques to really do equivalent, if not a more accurate determination approach.

The bottom line is time savings. So the average number of times it takes to do an off site determination is six hours. The average number of hours it takes to do on site is at least 14 hours. Many of them are 40 hours. And that doesn’t count all the driving time. When you break that down in dollars and cents, if you just say, take—you assume 30 bucks an hour for like a field technician to go out and do it, that equates to about 170 bucks to do an off site determination. When you do on site it’s like over $400 a determination, on average.

But when you multiply that over like South Dakota, where they have 2,500 determinations in the backlog, that’s the difference between $300,000 over a million dollars. And when it comes down to that kind of expenditure, when you add that up across four states, you’re talking real money. And that’s money I’d rather employ back in the field to provide, you know, technical assistance to producers as opposed to investing it in a way that we can be more efficient.

“So to your question about what happens for the producer, the first approach would be the off site determinations, which will be much more efficient. They’ll get determinations made quicker. It’s a preliminary determination. If they don’t like the determination, they can then appeal it and they can then request an on site determination.

“If they don’t like the on site determination from the field staff, they can then appeal that to the state office. If they don’t like the state office determination, they can then appeal that to the national appeals division. So there’s absolutely all these protections for a producer. We’re not changing any of that, how that works. We’re actually just trying to streamline it and get the determinations made faster and cheaper.”

And a third key issue discussed at Friday’s Appropriations Committee hearing was on the Regional Conservation Partnership Program.

Chief Weller noted that, “It’s the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which is a new authority in the 2014 Farm Bill. The basic idea here is you actually invite local partners to devise their own projects. You ask them what do they want to do. So what we’re finding is that more often than not you go into places like the Salinas Valley or the [Pajaro] Valley, in your district, for example, and there’s a lot of people doing a lot of really good things, but more often than not we’re not coordinated. We’re putting a lot of money in the ground, but in a way we’re like ships passing in the night.

“So what we did at the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, it’s sort of like pulling a sock inside out. Instead of the federal government saying this is what we’re going to do in your community, instead we asked the community what do you want to do, and then we’re here to support you. So we opened it up to competition, and we got applications, 600 applications from every state in the country, from all over the country, and folks were really excited about this.

“And what it does is it catalyzes that locally led approach where you get like the Santa Cruz RCD. They then talk to Driscoll’s Berries, they talk to the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency, they talk to Santa Cruz extension, they talk to the marine sanctuary, and they leverage the resources upfront, and then they come to us and they say NRCS, this is what we would like to do with the EQIP program in the Pajaro Valley to save water, but also to increase ground water recharge.

“And so one of the projects we funded then in the Pajaro Valley this year through our first round was $800,000 of NRCS money matched by $900,000 of the partners, so a total project over one and a half million dollars that they estimate is going to save over 400 acre feet of withdrawal from the aquifer, but also add additional recharge aquifer of 600 acre feet. That is a lot of water savings in a water scarce area.

“But you’re getting industry involved, Driscoll’s Berries; you’re getting extension to provide really good outreach and education; you’re engaging RCD, so it’s a locally led approach; and the federal government then is just a co-investor, we’re a true partner in this. So this is one example. Nationally we have 115 of these projects that they’re just showing this is an approach we really absolutely have to pursue.”

Keith Good