"This is the next golden age of conservation," Bruce I. Knight, head of the USDA-NRCS, said at the 2003 Beltwide Cotton Conferences in Nashville, Tenn. In the 1985 farm bill, the conservation focus was on idling land. "Now we’re entering an era where we can strategically use conservation programs on idled land as well as working land."

Under the 2002 farm bill, some $18 billion was allocated for conservation programs, the largest amount of funding in the history of farm bills. Much of the funding comes in the form of incentives, ranging from grasslands reserve, wetlands reserve, wildlife habitat and conservation security.

Knight, himself a South Dakota farmer and rancher who became head of the NRCS last year, says the title contains "innovative approaches to conservation," which encourage conservation practices for farmers who have not historically participated.

"These programs give farmers a great deal of flexibility to maintain industry profit," while meeting and expanding conservation guidelines at the local level, Knight says. "The new farm bill increased funding for farmers who are already doing conservation practices and opened up more opportunities.

The flagship program is the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQUIP).

Applications backlog

Knight told the cotton group that rules for EQUIP were to be out later in January. Already, there’s a backlog of farmer applications at the local NRCS offices. By the end of the last fiscal year, the program has generated applications that will cost $1.4 billion. The program was funded at $700 million. "We’ll be able to say yes to about half of the requests. The good news is it’s more money for equipment."

The NRCS chief says the goal is to "get the word out, so farmers will have reasonable expectations, make sure the applications meet local and national priorities and get as much conservation done as we can. Organizations like the National Cotton Council can help spread the word.

"The farm bill is designed to extend opportunity to every farmer — we have to reach out to everyone," Knight says.

In this new era, the focus will be more on conservation goals and less on programs, Knight says. "Having a lot of applications on file may be a good feeling, but our strategy at NRCS is to get as much conservation on the ground that we can." Under the bill, all information is confidential.

The process involves local as well as national priorities. "The key is to keep those decisions at the local level," Knight says. "The rules are simple. In the case of EQUIP, the rule will be one-third less in volume.

Incentives program

"The foundation of our effort is to offer incentives to farmers to practice conservation that would not normally do conservation," Knight told the group. "Our strategy should be to use these programs properly and not treat them as entitlements. Look beyond the narrow confines of the program. You’re in this business because you love the land."

He said the 75 percent cost share of the conservation programs "may become the rarity rather than the norm. We need to tailor conservation programs one-on-one to the individual farms and also look at the delivery costs. Organizations like the National Cotton Council can help by developing partnerships, the more partnerships we have, the more we can do.

"We cannot award all of the contracts to larger operations," Knight says. "We’re also looking to gain participation in underserved areas."

In a separate interview, Knight encouraged farmers to start talking with their local NRCS office, discussing objectives and challenges that they face on their farms.

"The key thing to remember is conservation takes planning," Knight says. "The measure of our success will be how we help farmers and communities meet their goals."

e-mail: cyancy@primediabusiness.com