The move to a system where landowners and growers receive help adopting conservation practices from someone other than the federal government is almost a sure bet, according to one state official.

“It's quite likely that one way or the other we're going to implement a third party vendor type of assistance program,” says NRCS State Conservationist Chuck Bell.

Bell, who spoke to growers and other landowners at a recent public hearing on the proposal of third party vendors in Davis, Calif., says, “I'm looking at it optimistically. I believe the third party vendor process can work.”

One thing is for certain, he says. With the 2002 farm law substantially increasing the available dollars for conservation programs, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is not likely to have enough staff available to respond to landowners in a timely manner.

What the folks at the USDA's conservation arm don't know is what the added focus on conservation programs means to the future of their agency.

“In order to maintain our credibility and our expertise we need to be in the field doing the work as well as doing the design, but we don't know funding-wise how that's going to work out in the future,” he says. “We don't now whether, in the future, the NRCS will become the keeper of the tech guide and the keeper of the standards, or will become more of an oversight agency.”

Plenty for NRCS

Bell says, “I believe NRCS is certainly going to move in the direction of a third party vendor system. I also think there's still plenty of room for NCRS employees to maintain their technical expertise and local contacts, and continue in the planning and application of conservation programs.”

However, he says, “We also know, no matter what business you're in, things are changing and they're not going to stop changing. We feel it's important as an agency to look within ourselves to look at our programs to determine what we can do to be ready to respond to our clients in a timely manner.

“If somebody comes in and asks for help re-engineering a project and we can't get to it for a year, something is wrong somewhere. It may be a question of not having the resources or the staff available, or maybe our own internal policies get in the way. We need to be looking within ourselves and within the department to try to find those answers,” he says.

No matter how a third party system is implemented in the end, Bell says his primary concern is that the specifics of the program be crafted locally.

“If you design these programs at the top level, and you make it pretty intricate or sophisticated, by the time it gets down to the field office it's very, very difficult to handle,” he says. “We need the interpretation of this program to be as simple and concise as possible in order to give us the flexibility needed to implement it at the local level. If there is going to be a manual or handbook that describes how to carry this thing out, it doesn't need to be 14 volumes. Let us make some of those decisions at the local level.”

e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com