Last month, I attended a conference where the topic of “more regulations in agriculture” was a reoccurring theme. Sitting in the audience, I began to notice my hands were getting sweaty and I started to feel anxious. It took me awhile to realize I was having a flashback to events that occurred years ago. I was recalling those days when I was responsible for enforcing “Conservation Compliance”.
For those of you who think the front line of environmental enforcement is a cakewalk, think again! Certainly, a few of my colleagues reveled in the power, but I (and the other 95% of NRCS field office employees) hated being “the policeman”. Even though I fully supported the principles of Conservation Compliance, being a regulator was one of the hardest, most unrewarding things I have ever done.
I am not writing this to discourage more regulation. I am not writing this to make you feel sorry for NRCS employees. I am not writing this to justify NRCS’s handling of “Conservation Compliance”. I am writing this to let you know that, if you have never done this before, being the conservation cop in your local community is very challenging.
Back to my story…The first two years (1990 and 1991) of Conservation Compliance were the easy years. NRCS management made it clear that no farmer, regardless of the situation, would be found “out of compliance”. But in 1992, NRCS management decided the grace period was over. We were directed to start enforcing the rules. If, while doing a spot check, we found a farmer not following his conservation plan, we were to take action. In other words, we needed to call the farmer “out of compliance”. To most farmers, being called “out of compliance” was financially devastating.
I called the first farmer “out of compliance” in 1992. I remember everything about this case. I remember the farm. I remember the farmer; he was a really nice guy. He was honest and he was hard working. Most importantly, I remember the farmer was doing the exact same things that 75% of farmers in Carroll County were doing. His downfall? He was one of the 5% selected for a random spot check.
My memory is not entirely clear, but I believe between 1992 and 1996 I called multiple farmers out of compliance each and every year. My supervisor once told me that I had called more farmers out of compliance than any other District Conservationist in the area. I don’t know if that was true or if he just wanted to let me know I was being too aggressive. Even though I didn’t like doing it, I took conservation compliance seriously.
I was never apologetic for taking action against a farmer, but regardless of the egregiousness of the infraction, being the enforcer sucked. From 1992 – 1996, and even for some years later, I found myself avoiding local restaurants, staying home from community events, and circumventing farmers in social situations. It was no secret that the farmers disliked me. Several times, I feared for my safety. At one point, I called the local police for advice. There were so many stories worse than mine.
There was not just one reason why I left NRCS, but Conservation Compliance sure made the decision easier.
Whether you think regulation is good or bad, remember that someone has to enforce the rules. If serious enforcement is expected, then agencies need to figure out how to provide better support for those who are required to be the conservation cops.
As a former NRCS employee, I can SO identify with you Tom. Every time a farmer was found out-of-compliance they would give me a list of other farmers that they perceived as being worse violators than were. One particular farmer who farmed a significant number of acres in the county complained about ALL the farmers across the state line in Iowa. I had to tell him that most of the farmers in his own county complained about him. He was quite taken back by that comment… but it put it all in perspective.
Peggie, it is good to hear from you and get you thoughts on this subject. I agree, it was very common for farmers who were determined “out of compliance” to rattle off names of 5 of their neighbors who were doing the very same things. Of course these farmers were mad that they got caught while other farms were ignored. In most cases it came down to whether they were identified on a spot check.
There were, and still are, a lot of farmers NOT following their conservation plan. Lets face it, as NRCS employees we did NOT go out of our way to find people out of compliance. We did the minimum that was required of us because it was so painful. At any one time, every DC could (and still can) drive their county and list 20 farmers that are “out of compliance”. Yet we sat (and sit) on our hands while just doing our minimum 5% spot check. It is no wonder most farmers have little respect for conservation compliance. It is a difficult problem with no easy answer.
Now I realize how Anayd feels having determined my out of compliance issue. If I would have told him I hauled a load of manure on this particular farm and then disc it in, it would have never even been an issue. So much for being honest. As of late, the issue is now in the hands of the State NRCS office. Hope Anayd’s hands aren’t sweating for me.
Dwight, your situation is definitely a frustrating case. Clearly, NRCS needs to consider this situation in its totality instead of looking as a single issue. Please stay in touch.
You have described a scenario where land-operators have a history of believing that it is OK to break the rules by which they have legally agreed to operate – and then get upset if they are caught. Enforcement is arbitrary, assigned to a few and does not involve the community at large. Iowa’s water quality program has to fundamentally change that philosophy and make being caught a certainty. The alternative is a set of mandatory regulations imposed by EPA/USDA.
Not a big deal if one creates a voluntary management program with a transparent monitoring program. So let’s assume that to maintain eligibility to participate in government subsidies, land-owners/land-operators must adhere to a basic set of “good management practices”.
For the nitrate problem, a prudent approach for managing nitrogen in corn fields might be adherence to the following requirements:
1) No nitrogen application in the Fall (except for manure or chemical fertilizer which has nitrogen as an integral but secondary part of its chemical structure).
2) At least two nitrogen applications per crop year of which one must be a side-dress application of more than 50% of the total crop need.
3) Utilization of the PSNT (Pre-sidedress Soil Nitrate Test) to determine application rates.
Land-operators are required to provide legal quality data documenting their adherence to these requirements. This is no different than certifying crop yields .The documentation process is simple, inexpensive and both objective and verifiable.
Unfortunately, some land-operators will try to scam the system in the belief that they won’t get caught so a transparent water quality monitoring system must also be created. Peer and public pressure will encourage land-operators to reject any concept to bend the rules but a few will persist.
Encouragement minimizing the need for enforcement comes from bankers and land-owners/rental agents. For bankers, the financial risk associated with most borrowers excluded from participation in federal programs is substantial; as it is for land-owners renting to third-parties.
The first line of enforcement is neighbors who find that they have to collectively bring their HUC-12 (or 14/16) watershed into compliance. A micro-scale hydrology model will tell them where the problems is and what their options are. For example they could install edge-of-field or additional in-field nitrogen management practices to account for their neighbors intentional actions or seek other solutions.
A similar approach can be used for other nutrients, bacteria, etc.
Tom – I feel the sweat ! I agree there is a real need for improved mechanisms to deliver effective conservation. I don’t see Lon’s proposed method fitting into the existing NRCS or various voluntary compliance models. The simple outcome would be non-participation if the penalties exceed the financial rewards. The devil is in the details and the cost of delivery of the BMP’s rapidly increases with each check box required. Until the regulatory crackdown arrives, the track you have taken with using new delivery models does provide a real change from the status-quo. Your posts continue to challenge me to think long and hard of what can I do different to achieve the environmental goals before us.
Good article Tom. As a land improvement contractor I can relate to it well.
Heard many lectures by NRCS conservationist to landowner concerning disturbing wet land areas. I was never involved in any compliance situations. Always told landowner if you are going to get NRCS funds you best stay out of the wetland area.
It did put the district conservationist in a precarious position.
Tom, I greatly appreciated your post. It has brought back many memories when I was a Chesapeake bay technician for the Lancaster Co. Conservation District. I was sent out to respond to Ag complaints in the mid 90’s. It was a very hard thing to do but was very rewarding most times. I have learned the most from these uncomfortable meetings. The Ag community for the most part want to do what is right and reasonable. It was an opportunity to do problem solving and take ownership to provide options to resolve issues and secure resources to make it happen. Nobody wants to wear the black hat but someone needs to confront at some point . Being a cop was not the job but protecting the resource and provide a manageable solution. Tell me who do you think is the best organization to take on these violations and the best way of doing this?
Travis, excellent question. I have thought a lot about who should be responsible for the to enforce conservation compliance and it is still not clear. However as much as it may be about the who as the how. There were a lot of policy decisions that made it hard for local people to be the enforcers. Maybe I should consider the blog post on this subject in the near future.
I’ll blow on the embers a bit…
WOTUS is implemented.
EPA reacts to a complaint of sediment washing into a stream from a farm field.
The first place they go will be to check on compliance with the farm plan.
Guess who becomes the de facto enforcement arm of EPA.
Tom et al,
I can totally relate to the image of the “conservation cop” although it makes me chuckle a bit to think of it that way. For the past two years, I have been the NRCS Arizona, State Environmental Coordinator, who is responsible for conservation compliance and review. Formerly, I was a DC and Soil Conservationist in three states. Nothing makes a DC hide faster than the EC contacting them about a HELC or Wetland Compliance Review. Furthermore, USDA, (2014 Farm Bill) financial assistance programs (FSA, RMA and NRCS) require compliance for eligibility. NRCS employees have always been the bridge and facilitators between regulatory agencies and getting conservation on the land with agricultural producers. It is challenging for me to maintain a good cooperative working relationship with anyone when I am put in this position. Conservation Cop or not, policy has to be followed so I try to keep our staff informed and offer training on current conservation compliance issues. I can totally relate to the plight of the field, since I am also a Certified NRCS Conservation Planner.