COVID-19’s impact on the Department of Natural Resources and conservation practices

The pandemic has impacted every sector of agriculture, including the Department of Natural Resources.

The benefits from conservation practices can save municipal budgets millions of dollars in the long-term.

“These practices ease the burden of local infrastructure, such as bridges and culverts, assisting local governments responsible for these structures,” Tim Palmer with the National Association of Conservation said. “It is clear to me that conservation has a crucial role to play, not only for benefits to the environment, but as an engine as we look to recover and rebuild our economy.”

He says that that engine is running low on fuel:

“NRCS staffing continues to be a challenge. Conservation delivery relies on adequate field staff. Demand for technical assistance has remained constant or increased, while staffing levels have declined.”

Palmer also wants Congress to streamline the process of hiring new employees.

“Any cut to district staff will have a direct effect on delivery of Farm Bill conservation programs,” he said.

University of Illinois Ag economics professor Johnathan Coppess breaks down the number on the farmer’s side of things.

According to Coppess, “In 2019 for Illinois, if we blend the corn and soybean budgets together to a 50/50 rotation, the farm would lose about $100 dollars per acre without any federal payments, but pulls just above the breakeven point around $5 dollars an acre with those payments... It should go without saying that losing money per acre makes for a rather difficult management situation. Now, try adding costs for conservation practices......Ultimately the challenge we have here is, you look at these policies on the farm program and support side these are very relevant to the farmer’s operation, but they raise questions about the return on the tax payer.”

He says that if a farmer is investing in conservation, they are unlikely to have room in the budget for top dollar land purchases, cash rents, or new equipment.

Steve Patterson with Southern States Cooperative says that collaboration is key. They are working on a project with the Virginia Department of Conservation to reduce nutrient runoff.

“Virginia’s goal of achieving 85 percent of the acreage in the Chesapeake Bay watershed to have a Nutrient Management Plan by 2025 is definitely doable, but only if private and public organizations work together,” Patterson notes. “We need continued cooperation from our partners at NRCS, Department of Conservation and Recreation in Virginia, the Soil and Water Conservation districts, and industry to achieve that goal.”

He adds this is especially needed during a pandemic when resources are limited.