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Recognize and Support a Three Pronged Approach to Accelerate Conservation

A three pronged approach is needed to accelerate adoption of conservation practices within the agricultural community: education and outreach; technical assistance; and enforcement.

Participants acknowledged that education and outreach, technical assistance, and enforcement are all important and complimentary and must be deployed to accelerate conservation implementation to the levels necessary to meet water quality goals.

Even in the age of digital communication and distance learning, many participants placed a high value on traditional, face-to-face learning opportunities which bring together agriculture and conservation educators and farmers. Farmers attend winter meetings, field days and workshops where they can learn from field experts and their peers. Resources should continue to be prioritized for these efforts.

Cooperative efforts among sectors of farmers in key regions were also suggested as ways of maximizing education and outreach efforts. Extension could serve as a catalyst for these efforts. A successful cooperative of Adams County fruit growers was cited as an example.

The importance of education was brought up by one participant in the context of where the needs really exist. “Some farms just need basic management training, not technical assistance. We need to distinguish between these two and deliver each where needed.”

Participants recognized that challenges in meeting technical assistance demands are real and must be overcome. Yet the extent of those challenges varies regionally. There are some portions of the Commonwealth where few farms lack conservation plans and planning assistance needs are generally met. Others have multi-year backlogs for district plan writing assistance. Given these regional differences, one idea shared was developing and deploying in locations of priority need conservation tiger teams: a group of technically skilled and experience planners who can work together synergistically to meet that need expeditiously. Perhaps, one participant suggested, these teams could be employed in circuit rider fashion to regions with the highest technical assistance demands.

A potential negative consequence of this approach was also raised, however. If technical assistance is targeted in the short term to areas where planning needs are great, will those newly written plans lead to implementation, particularly if they were written for farmers who have not previously shown a willingness to adopt conservation practices?

To this end, many participants pointed out that developing the requisite plans is only a precursor to conservation. Conservation does not get done and water quality improvements are not realized unless those plans are followed and practices are implemented. Technical assistance too does not stop with plan writing; farmers often need conservation professionals to help work with producers to identify, design and implement solutions to complex resource concerns.

To provide this level of support requires highly trained technicians. They need education and training in soil science, hydrology, botany, agroecological systems, and engineering. “They are landscape doctors,” said one participant. And you often need a landscape doctor to diagnose and treat a complex landscape problem.

Many participants also recognized that there is a place for farmer “self-help” tools where simpler technical assistance needs exist, such as developing manure management plans. Tools like PAOneStop and the Manure Management Manual are helpful resources. Incorporating farmer mentoring, retired professionals, agronomy students, and Future Farmers of America (FFA) into farmer outreach and training were suggested as ways of enhancing their use and helping to close the technical assistance gap. Since many of these tools are computer based, suggestions were made to bring tech-savvy youth into the technical assistance process. Because of the simplicity of the manure management planning process, workshops work well to accomplish plan writing with farmers, though some conservation districts have struggled to get farmers to attend.

It was noted that opportunities to enhance, improve or streamline conservation training to feed the technical assistance pipeline should be pursued. Yet it was also suggested that any such opportunities should not jeopardize the existing conservation training and certification process for conservation planning, which involves a strong partnership involving NRCS, DEP, State Conservation Commission, conservation districts and Extension. This process insures a high level professionalism and rigor in training conservation technicians. Another important point is that, in order to take advantage of NRCS funding, NRCS conservation plans are a prerequisite. Accordingly, NRCS certified conservation planners must write conservation plans for any farmers who seek NRCS funds to implement practices. While streamlining the training process should be explored, “we shouldn’t lessen the process to streamline the process,” noted one participant. “Let’s strengthen the process instead of replacing it.”

Another opportunity exists to train the conservation professionals of tomorrow. Conservation training should also be built into youth education and college and technical school curriculums. Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences in particular has faculty and Extension expertise to provide coursework and mentoring for students interested in becoming technical service providers.

One model that has been developed allows students to work with experienced faculty advisors to attend courses and workshops toward becoming certified nutrient management planners or certified crop advisors.  Similar career pathways, certificates or minors could be created for conservation planning, thus making graduating students more attractive to potential employers. Associate degree or certificate programs at other institutions of higher learning, including community colleges and technical schools, could also be pursued.

The third prong for accelerating conservation is reserved for those farmers who are not addressing resource concerns on their operations. Participants expressed support across stakeholder groups for a compliance strategy involving enforcement.

Much discussion was had on what will make a compliance strategy most effective in achieving conservation goals. Several of the work sessions discussed two critical aspects. First, it should be selective in who is targeted. Second, it should be meaningful in that enforcement actions are carried through when necessary.   

Many participants were supportive of a compliance strategy that targeted “bad actors.” In some instances this includes support from fellow farmers. “The ones who are doing the right thing, they want you to go after a bad actor,” said one participant. Selective enforcement directed to bad actors may not only resolve water quality problems on the offending farm, but could have a great deterrent effect leading more farmers to correct their own problems. An effective strategy should “pick out the worst one and make an example of them,” suggested one participant. Noted another, “fence row talk spreads quickly.”

Another important aspect of an effective compliance strategy, several participants noted, is actual follow through when the threat of enforcement is made. One participant shared that failure to follow through creates frustration for farmers in the community who are in compliance and practicing good conservation and creates complacency among bad actors who do not believe threats are credible.  In addition, momentum and “buzz” is created when enforcement efforts are taken, but it can quickly be lost if there is no follow through. Participants noted some regional differences across the Commonwealth in the degree of enforcement.

Discussion also centered on innovative compliance strategies that may not take the traditional inspection and enforcement route. Ideas shared by participants include using local farmer leaders to communicate compliance messages, encourage youth participation in farmer meetings, requiring conservation and nutrient management plans to receive local government approvals such as building permits, building the value of conservation into market prices for farm products, and strategic use and/or withholding of funding to incentivize compliance.

In working with farmers, the value and need for all three of these elements—education/outreach, technical assistance, and enforcement—was recognized by many participants. There was acknowledgment that many conservation professionals work in the realm where lines blur between these elements, and there was acceptance of that reality. Yet some participants expressed that the approach will work best if clear roles are defined and maintained, based on respective expertise and existing relationships.

Extension and farmer-led initiatives and organizations—such as the Pennsylvania No Till Alliance—are natural choices to lead education and outreach efforts. Conservation districts, NRCS and private sector consultants have the training and experience to provide technical assistance. Regulatory agencies would be the logical lead for compliance and enforcement initiatives. DEP, Fish and Boat Commission and EPA (particularly in a “backup role” to DEP) were mentioned by several participants as the agencies with regulatory powers.

Some participants expressed concern that trust would be hindered between farmers and conservation districts if districts begin to take on a compliance role. This trust is critical to working with farmers and influencing them to modify behavior and management strategies to achieve water quality goals over both the short and long term. Others pointed out that this viewpoint is not reflective of past practices of conservation districts in the Commonwealth, which have engaged in multiple outreach, technical assistance and regulatory roles for over three decades.