Traditionally, USDA employees have provided assistance with the design, layout and adoption of conservation practices. The new proposal would allow participating farmers to choose to receive technical assistance either from NRCS personnel or someone else certified by NRCS as a third party.

"We’re talking about using parties other than federal employees to provide the services that the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) now provides," Helen Flach, assistant state conservationist in Davis, Calif., told growers and landowners at a recent public hearing on the proposal in Redding, Calif.

"We are striving to design a program that will be farmer friendly. We want it to be easy to use. We want it to meet your needs. We want it to maintain the standards that you expect, and obviously we would like for it to be a cost-effective program," Flach says. "The details have yet to be worked out, but the third party vendor program will be a nationwide program, and it will apply to every state and every conservation program."

Over the last five years, the USDA's Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) has distributed approximately $101.2 million in cost-share funds to California landowners and farmers.

Most for wetlands

The lion's share of that money, or about $56.2 million, went to participants in the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP). Another $33.9 million in cost-share assistance was funneled to Californians through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) in the five-year period between 1998 and 2002.

The remaining funding was split between several programs including the Farmland Protection Program, the Forestry Incentives Program (FIP), the Emergency Forestry Incentives Program (EFIP), the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP), and flood plain easements.

Public hearings on using third party technical help were recently held in Redding, Davis, and Riverside, Calif., where landowners and growers were given the opportunity to voice their opinions about a third party vendor system.

At Redding, California producer and landowner Fred Wilson said the proposed third party vendor system should include the ability for a farmer or landowner to choose his or her own technical service provider.

"Any farmer that wants something done, wants it done the best way possible, and so it would be nice to have a list of recommended third party vendors to choose from," he says. "What you want is expertise and the ability to say no, I don't want this individual. I talked to Joe Blow next door, and he said he did a lousy job so I don't want him. If NRCS says, sorry, you take this guy or you don't get any help, I don't think that's the best way to operate."

It’s an issue of matching personalities, according to Sharon Gore of Durham, Calif. "Even though the quality of the work from two different people may be the same, one landowner may be able to work with one contractor better than an another one."

Approved vendors

Reece Cordi of Live Oak, Calif., says, "Maybe there is a need for approved vendors that do the planning and are paid by NRCS. In other words, you have a list of planners who can say these are the ones that are approved by us. You can go to either one you want or you can go to us."

"I see third party vendors as a way for NRCS to save money. The NRCS has a broad area and many land use issues to cover, whereas some people that have expertise in certain areas like engineering, could handle some of the work," says Skip Willmore of Clark Creek, Calif.

Darrell Wood of Susanville, Calif., says, "In our area there is a wealth of retired folks that have been with the conservation service over the years that are still able to contribute, and would be glad to if called upon. Utilizing these individuals, who now have private companies specializing in things like engineering or surveying, adds economic stability to the communities."

"I have partnered with Ducks Unlimited and the California Waterfowl Association on some conservation projects on my ranch and those partnerships have been extremely valuable and helpful. I certainly would like to see an emphasis put on continuing these partnerships in a third party vendor system," he says.

Another viable resource for third party vendors, says cattle rancher David Hoxsey of Alturas, Calif., are resource conservation district employees.

"The resource conservation district, at least in Tehama County, has grown tremendously in the last three years in getting grants, putting projects on the ground, and providing technical expertise to landowners and producers," says Anne Read of Red Bluff, Calif. "I feel that as the resource conservation districts and other water groups grow, that NCRS might not have the capacity to provide the technical assistance that will be needed, so that's an area where these third party vendors will be very much needed," she says.

Ranked by locals

Adds Hoxsey, who serves on the Central Modoc Resource Conservation District Board, "I think it should be a local committee of some sort that ranks third party vendors and eligible program participants, and determines where we set priorities. The program needs to be flexible enough to be done locally, with different rules for different areas."

Speaking for several meeting attendees, Chris Leininger of Vina, Calif., says she is concerned about making the local NRCS offices obsolete. "I don’t think anybody is questioning the political will to keep the Natural Resources Conservation Service in tact. I am asking whether it is going to be easier to farm the work they are currently doing out to private industry, and then as the budget years pass, decide we don’t need them after all."

"NRCS has some good technical expertise out there, and they have worked really hard in making sure their guidelines are consistent with good conservation practices and also being real thoughtful about farming practices. I think those practices need to be maintained," she says. "What is going to happen to our field offices if it goes more and more to third party vendors? I'm not a great proponent of federal control because I think the dollars get lost there. However, I think NCRS does a good job providing technical assistance, and they do have the opportunity to research and bring in some resources we wouldn't normally have.