In the overall scheme of Western irrigated agriculture, the old USDA Soil Conservation Service, now known as the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), has been little more than a blip.

That radar screen blip could soon turn into a gaggle of programs almost tailored to California agriculture that will likely spill over into the rest of American agriculture.

The coming change is a result of the 2002 Farm Bill, which contains one of the most ambitious conservation titles ever included in federal farm legislation.

There is even a program that will financially reward farmers like the tree and vine producers in California for already practicing good stewardship, according to Charles Bell, NCRS state conservationist for California.

Bell was one of a bevy of USDA administrators and bureaucrats who descended on the California State University, Fresno campus for one of four regional farm bill briefing meetings. However, these meetings are being held not to attract rank and file farmers to hear about commodity programs, but rather to detail programs like NRCS and services for minorities. In fact, the sessions are in response to a discrimination lawsuit settlement filed by minority farmers who claimed they have been discriminated against by USDA.

Showcase NRCS

However, a major focus in Fresno was on NRCS programs, which deputy USDA undersecretary Mack Gray said have not been utilized as much in California as elsewhere.

But, he expects that to change just as the role of NRCS will change from an agency focusing on soil conservation, wildlife habitat conservation and farmland and wetlands preservation and restoration to rapidly emerging environmental challenges to every-day farming.

Those traditional programs will not disappear, but with a huge influx of new funds Gray expects NRCS to play a bigger role in the emerging challenges facing agriculture of air and water quality and endangered species.

These are not new issues to California farmers and ranchers, but they are looming bigger each day for Golden State agriculturists.

California is the pacesetter in many things from fashion to music and unfortunately for farmers outside of California, Gray said California has once again emerged as the bellwether for what the future will hold for them in meeting air, water and endangered species regulations.

One NRCS program, Environmental Quality Incentive (EQUIP) is already stepping up to help California farmers, especially those in the eight-county non-attainment San Joaquin Valley to meet stringent new air quality regulations. It provides cost-sharing funds up to 75 percent of the cost for purchasing new, cleaner burning diesel irrigation pump engines.

EQUIP funding grows

Bell said California has been receiving about $7 million annually for EQUIP projects, but last year received $17 million. Under the new farm bill it could reach $21 million, according to Bell.

These funds will be used not only for diesel pump replacement, but to help farmers meet tougher air and water quality standards by putting in place practices to reduce soil erosion and off-farm water movement and dust emission.

The new Conservation Security Program in the latest federal farm bill, Bell said, is “perfectly tailored” for California's so-called “minor crops” like vineyards and orchards. It was set up to “reward stewardship and provide an incentive for addressing additional resource concerns on working agricultural lands.

“This is for all producers, not just those producing the so-called program crops. This will be a huge benefit to California producers,” he said.

As with many elements of the greatly expanded conservation title of the farm bill, details are sketchy. However, Bell said the conservation security program will provide payments for producers who historically have practiced good stewardship on agricultural lands and incentives for those who want to do more.

$3.7 billion

“We have just received notice that the program has been funded for $3.7 billion nationwide. What we don't know yet is whether the money will be used in pilot programs or used to fund incentive programs nationwide.”

Tons of new monies are being tossed into conservation begging for new an innovating conservation farming practices. One idea being bantered around is compensating farmers for using transgenic crops that reduce tillage and pesticide use.

When asked if NRCS would pay technology fees for using herbicide-resistant corn or cotton varieties that reduce tillage, Bell said if they are components of a conservation tillage program, they could be eligible.

Typically when government expands a program, it also funds additional staffing. Not for NRCS and the new conservation funds.

Bell said his office is turning more than ever to private consultants and farmers to develop and seek reimbursement funds.

“Our tasks have been multiplied under the new farm bill with no additional staff,” he said.

“However, we have long relied on outside experts to develop projects,” said Bell. As an example, he said his office relies on professional irrigation system designers to develop projects eligible for cost-share funding.

Bell said his office will be looking to increasingly find more certified professionals to develop programs for farmers and ranchers. While Certified Crop Advisors have been listed as one of the professions certified to develop programs under the new farm bill, Bell said he does not expect it to stop at CCAs.

Utilize advisers

“I would think licensed California pest control advisers could be utilized by farmers to develop and submit conservation programs for cost sharing. There are other specialists like those involved in ag waste management who could be utilized as well,” he said.

Bell finds it ironic that the focus is now on California in conservation.

“California farmers have been using things like laser leveling and drip irrigation to conserve water and reduce erosion since the mid-1970s.”

However, since California agriculture is dominated by what the federal government calls “minor crops,” those advances have been largely ignored in the overall scheme of national conservation farming that focuses on the Midwest and program crops.

“It has always been interesting to me to listen to people in the Midwest and other parts of the country discover some of the things we have been using in California for years,” said Bell.

However, California is no longer ignored for it will be from California that solutions to air, water and endangered species challenges will likely come for the rest of the nation.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com