The National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is getting into the pest management business.

That's right. The USDA division known for dealing with dirt now wants to help farmers deal with insect pests, weeds and diseases.

Mack Gray, deputy assistant secretary of agriculture, told the California Association of Pest Control Advisers (CAPCA) in Reno that there is a big pot of money — almost $1 billion nationally available in 2004 — NRCS wants to award to growers who can prove what they are doing to control pests improves the quality of the environment.

“We have never been involved in pest management before,” said Gray, who was in Reno to forage an alliance between CAPCA and NRCS to meet the need for technical expertise in the agency's new front.

Funding cuts are reducing pest management resources within Cooperative Extension and Gray said licensed California pest control advisers and other licensed consultants like Certified Crop Advisors can fill the void with USDA funding.

This money is available through the NRCS' Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and Gray said state conservationist Chuck Bell is looking for business.

Money available

“There is more money available than we ever dreamed about,” said Gray.

The 2002 Farm Bill authorized $6 billion for EQIP for the life of the bill. Farmers may receive cost-share payments for up to 75 percent of conservation practices. In fiscal year 2002, 800 contracts were funded in California for $17 million. Eligible farmers can receive up to $450,000 for all contracts approved during the current farm bill period. Last year California participants in EQIP programs received $42 million, and there were twice as many requests for help as money to oblige.

No where in the USDA literature about the greatly expanded Farm Bill conservation title does it say “pest management.”

However, farmland nutrient management is mentioned and this is where CCAs come in as consultants. EQIP is called a “voluntary conservation program that promotes agricultural production and environmental quality as compatible goals.”

Mack said NRCS' past conservation reserve program has idled almost 30 million acres in the Great Plains in providing producers guaranteed cash flow. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman is more interested in bringing environmental stewardship into working the lands to produce food and fibers, said Gray.

Help obtain money

Gray encouraged California pest control advisers to become “technical service providers” in working with farmers to obtain EQIP money.

Gray said NRCS is “working very hard” in developing this third party, technical service provider alliance because the agency does not have the staff to provide the services need to utilize the added funding from the last farm bill.

Gray said NRCS must certify outside providers. However, he added if there is already a certification process in place like that for California's PCAs, NRCS will accept that.

Gray admitted that the agency continues to grapple with how to effectively utilize the money authorized by the farm bill.

“We do not have all the answers,” said Gray.

He also admitted that there reluctance within NRCS to accept third party technical service providers for fear of agency personnel who now work in the field will become little more than “paper pushers.

“I can understand that, but we are not going to get the staff nor the technical capacity to provide services you as pest control advisers can provide,” Gray said.

He urged PCAs to contact local resource conservation districts and to work with state and local NRCS technical committees to develop programs that would quality for EQIP funding.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com