Rachel Owen, PhD – Senior Advisor, SWCS
This summer, I joined the Soil and Water Conservation Society (SWCS) to enhance the voice of our members when policy decisions are being made in Washington DC and beyond. I bring with me a background in agronomic and soil science advocacy and formal training as a soil scientist. From my first days on the Iowa State soil judging team, I knew I would dedicate my career to promoting our science and profession.
Conservation professionals are the heart of SWCS. Our community of more than 2,000 conservation leaders represents nearly every academic discipline and many different public, private, and nonprofit institutions around the world. Our skilled members include researchers, administrators, planners, policymakers, technical advisors, teachers, students, farmers, and ranchers, all of whom share the common goal of building a more sustainable future.
Our 2021 Conservation Practitioner Poll Report found that interaction with a conservation professional over time is a consistent predictor of farmers’ adoption of conservation practices. Despite the critical role that conservation practitioners play in helping farmers protect the nation's natural resources, the voice of conservation practitioners is largely absent from policy discussions. Without a direct feedback mechanism from conservation practitioners, policymakers are at a disadvantage as they develop policies and programs that guide conservation implementation across the nation.
As Congress and USDA invest more resources in conservation and climate-smart agriculture, SWCS members must have a seat at the table.
Historic conservation investments were made by the U.S. government in 2022. First, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced a $3.1 billion investment into the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program. Through the program, USDA has financed partnerships to support the production and marketing of climate-smart commodities via a set of pilot projects. The program is aligned with a department-wide commitment to addressing climate change in agriculture and promoting carbon sequestration.
At the same time, Congress committed nearly $20 billion to USDA conservation efforts through the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). The IRA increases funding for four historically oversubscribed conservation programs administered through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
- Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) - $8.45 billion
- Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) - $1.4 billion
- Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) - $3.25 billion
- Regional Conservation Partnerships Program (RCPP) - $4.95 billion
The IRA investments also allocated $1 billion for Conservation Technical Assistance and $300 million to measure, evaluate, and quantify carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas emission reductions from conservation investments.
These investments have made the role of conservation professionals more important than ever. As farmers navigate new financial incentives and enrollment opportunities, they will rely on trusted conservation professionals for technical assistance. Input from soil and water conservation researchers will also be critical as USDA works to quantify greenhouse gas emissions and soil carbon sequestration associated with the conservation investments.
While the funding influx for conservation program financial assistance has been celebrated across the conservation community, these investments have brought to light the critical shortage of conservation professionals to provide technical assistance. NRCS will need to hire 3,000 to 4,000 individuals over the next two years to deliver the funding and provide the technical assistance producers need to be successful, according to NRCS Chief Terry Cosby.
This seems like great news for the conservation community – more jobs! However, Chief Cosby and other NRCS officials have cited a key challenge to filling these jobs is a lack of qualified individuals. As job opportunities for conservation professionals waned in the last two decades, students left this discipline to pursue other career paths, and we now face a shortage of people able to fill the roles of conservationists and soil scientists.
The workforce shortage will not be an easy problem to fix. As Congress develops the 2023 Farm Bill, they are considering several proposals to provide short- and long-term solutions to support conservation professionals and conservation technical assistance. Here are some of the bills being considered:
- Increased TSP Access Act (H.R.3036/S.1400): This bill aims to leverage the expertise of conservation professionals employed outside of USDA by streamlining the application process for the Technical Service Providers (TSP) program.
- Conservation and Innovation Climate Partnership Act (H.R.2719/S.900): This bill would support public land grant extension agents and researchers to engage with farmers to provide conservation technical assistance.
- Farmer to Farmer Education Act (S.2614): This bill aims to facilitate peer learning among farmers to promote conservation adoption and learning best practices.
The 2018 Farm Bill is set to expire at the end of September, and Congress will likely pass an extension to give themselves more time to finish the 2023 Farm Bill. As we learn more about which proposals are incorporated into the House and Senate versions of the Farm Bill, we will keep SWCS members up-to-date! In the meantime, don’t hesitate to reach out with questions, feedback, or ideas – I can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I look forward to working with you to promote soil and water conservation during this historic period of federal investments. Happy Conservation Professionals Week!