DES MOINES, Iowa (DTN) -- As USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service looks to add more climate-smart and conservation practices on farms in the coming years, the agency will likely find itself relying more on services provided by agricultural retailers.
The increasing role of private agronomists and crop advisers in helping farmers with conservation practices and tapping into USDA programs was highlighted this week at the Soil and Water Conservation Society (SWCS) meeting in Des Moines.
Roger Wolf, director of conservation for the Iowa Soybean Association, said the private sector is going to have to take on a greater role in providing farmers with technical assistance for conservation practices.
"We're not getting the job done on conservation and environmental management," said Wolf, who is also a board member for SWCS.
NRCS NEEDS SUPPORT
Carrie Lindig, NRCS acting regional conservationist, spoke at SWCS about the $19.5 billion in funding for USDA conservation programs provided last year in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). Lindig highlighted the bill requires USDA to spend all that conservation money by Sept. 30, 2031.
"No big deal, right? Like, oh my gosh, how are we going to do this?" Lindig said. She added, "We have all of these opportunities, but we can't do it with the existing staff that we have."
To carry out those program goals, NRCS would need to hire and retain about 7,400 more employees. Lindig said that right now, NRCS is seeking to hire about 4,400 new federal employees by 2031. NRCS is essentially issuing notices every 90 days, trying to fill positions.
"To get to that number, we have to keep trying and keep hiring on a regular basis," she said.
Hiring new staff at NRCS is not easy. The Iowa State NRCS office, for instance, has been trying to hire a state agronomist for roughly two years. A lot of entry-level jobs at the agency have been a challenge to fill.
As far as the other 3,000 or so positions needed to fill those IRA obligations, Lindig stressed the need to rely on partners and their employees. NRCS already has several cooperative agreements with groups, but that is likely to increase over time.
"We know we can't do this alone, and we know that we need to lean into our partners," Lindig said. "We need to reach out to new groups and organizations that we haven't talked to in the past and share the opportunities with them."
Lindig also said NRCS is trying to find ways to streamline their programs and make them faster to implement. Talking about the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), Lindig noted it can take nine months to get a survey done on land boundaries. So, other tweaks such as changing the sequence of events can help accelerate enrollment, she said.
The SWCS meeting had two separate panel discussions about conservation agronomists as well as using certified crop advisers (CCAs) to help implement climate-smart practices on farms. In a list of recommendations on the farm bill last year, agronomy groups called on Congress to make it easier for CCAs to become NRCS technical service providers and include CCAs more in NRCS and Ag Extension conservation training programs.
A NEW AREA FOR RETAILERS
Thomas Fawcett, director of environmental services at Heartland Co-op in Ankeny, Iowa, said the cooperative began looking at offering more environmental services in the past couple of years. He noted the idea of agricultural retailers involved in conservation can "create a lot of conflict." At least some people in the conservation community see problems having agricultural retailers also consult with farmers over farming practices that could incentivize farmers to buy fewer chemical inputs.
"We have gotten a fair amount of resistance as we have entered into this space," Fawcett said.
NRCS staff at the conference told DTN there are situations where conservation agronomists working for ag retailers or seed companies make recommendations to farmers that can contradict NRCS recommendations or guidelines.
Yet, agricultural retailers often also have long-standing relationships with farmers. Those same farmers might not have close ties to USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, or their local watershed or county conservation districts. And at least some farmers do not want to sign up for a government conservation program.
"Almost every single farmer has a relationship with an ag retailer," Fawcett said. "There are a lot of farms that ag retailers can touch."
Fawcett added, "We do sales for a living. We are always selling to farmers solutions to problems on their farms. We need to think about conservation the same way we think about other sales."
Fawcett said his team of three people has had more than 900 phone calls and more than 300 face-to-face talks with farmers in the past year. They have helped farmers add cover crops on nearly 56,000 acres as well as helped farmers with edge-of-field practices.
Iowa Soybean Association has its own small team of conservation agronomists working with individual retailers in parts of the state. One staff member works with at least three ag retailers in a west-central Iowa watershed, focusing on reducing nutrient pollution.
"Frankly, I think we need every one of these people to scale up across all ag retailers," Wolf said.
A MINNESOTA WATERSHED
Efforts around cooperatives and other private companies selling conservation practices to farmers is a more aggressive approach than in the past when NRCS or local soil and water offices waited for farmers to come into their offices.
In Stearns County, Minnesota, the local Soil and Water Conservation District received a $2 million donation to help reduce nitrogen and phosphorus runoff in a 30,000-acre area of the Sauk River Watershed.
Nate Hylla, a former staffer with Stearns County S&W District, founded Kanati Land Management to work with farmers on conservation programs and related projects. Hylla pointed out some of the issues trying to talk to farmers. Hylla, whose background is more in engineering, said it can be hard trying to approach farmers and landowners.
"This is what we got. We got yelled at, we got hung up on. It's a door-to-door approach in a small watershed, which is unique," Hylla said. "They said, 'We're not interested, not interested at all.' One guy said, 'You have 15 minutes.' Three hours later, we finally left the farm."
Part of Hylla's point is that a lot of the background it takes to become a conservation professional doesn't necessarily include marketing or sales. And those skills are needed to convince a broader group of farmers to adopt new practices.
"None of the discussion involved a 20% reduction of phosphorus. We talked about what's happening on the farm," Hylla said. He added, "Instead of sell what you have, sell what they need. You say, 'How can we build a program that makes sense for your farm?'"
Dennis Fuchs, administrator for the Stearns County SWCD, said it's a change for an ag retailer to provide a service versus a product, such as providing technical assistance on a cover crop or reducing tillage, for instance.
"Right now, that's outside of their normal business to offer more services rather than a product to sell," Fuchs said.
Fuchs added NRCS is expanding its list of technical service providers that will get more ag retailers and CCAs to assist with soil health practices. He sees that more as a positive than a competition for services.
"It's definitely going to help a lot," Fuchs said.
COSTS AND REVENUE FOR RETAILERS
Centra Sota, based in Buffalo, Minnesota, is one of those cooperatives investing in this new model. Centra Sota got involved in the Stearns County project, and that led to efforts among management to focus more attention on conservation agronomy. The ag retailer also put numbers to what it cost to put conservation agreements on the ground in its territory to sell more conservation practices. That included buying roughly $500,000 in equipment, such as vertical tillage units, cover-crop planters and drones to apply cover crops. Then it takes roughly the same amount of money to add staff.
"So, how do we evolve into a service-based co-op is what it's coming down to," said Amy Robak-Bruce, lead environmental specialist with Centra Sota. She added, "So because of this project, it really helped Centra Sota nail down over the next four years what we're going to do as a co-op and how we progress at it as well.
Fawcett, Wolf and others added that ag retailers are aligning their interests with farmers long term by better protecting the soil. Still, ag retailers will need to look at ways to cash flow their conservation programs. There will need to be partnerships that also help generate revenue. Fawcett pointed to the potential of working with large food companies that are looking to reduce their carbon footprints.
"We have to find better ways to create revenue for ag retailers in this space," Fawcett said.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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