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Precise Conservation

We are misappropriating our limited resources

8.31 technology
Smart technology is needed to help conservationists be efficient-- but there is a cost involved.

The arguments to increase the number of publicly funded conservation employees has admittedly run its course. Therefore, the need to update technology in soil and water conservation is blatantly obvious. We know we all need to accomplish more with less. Let’s end the pretext for our lack of progress, and get on with improving technology. Before you respond and tell me why this is impossible, let me provide a response to the Top 5 arguments I hear for not improving technology.

#1: Soil and water conservation budgets are limited.  Resources are limited, and the funds to invest in technology are not available.

All businesses/organizations/agencies have limited resources.  Even tech companies, like Apple, will tell you they have limited resources.  How companies use limited resources however, is the critical factor. Improving soil and water conservation technology is more about the lack of collaborative resources than about the lack of financial resources. If 20 states would collaborate to invest the cost of just one employee per state, ($100,000/year including benefits) they would have an available operating budget of $2 million/year.  That $2 million/year could make a significant dent in a budget directed toward building a conservation technology platform.  Yes, for the cost of one employee each, 20 states could finance a partnership that could build-out a state-of-the-art technology platform to deliver soil and water conservation. 

#2: Soil and water conservationists are already using the best available technology.

The science of soil and water conservation far exceeds any technology available to conservationists.  For example, the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in Oxford, MS has developed the science required to model sediment delivery, from an entire field, to a water body.  Today, most technical conservationists can only calculate the level of erosion that is occurring in one point in a field.  Better technology, that incorporates current science, would allow conservationist to show how different practices affect the amount of sediment leaving each part of the field and the total amount delivered to a stream. That piece of information would fundamentally change how we interact with farmers.

#3: New technology will only make the implementation of soil and water conservation more complicated.

No one wants technology that makes life more complicated.   The real value of technology is taking complicated science and making life better, but also easier. The technology to make our smart phones work, is just one example.  The processes running in the background of a smart phone are really, really complicated; well beyond what I can comprehend.  But tech companies have used complicated computer science and built an easy-to-use device.  When was the last time you read the owner’s manual before you used your smart phone? Technology to plan and design soil and water practices can be just as user-friendly.

#4: Conservationists could never trust software that is developed by a third party

When providing publicly funded recommendations to farmers, both conservationists and taxpayers need assurances these recommendations will reasonably meets USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) standards and specifications. This does not mean the software must be developed by government. However it does mean the inputs, methodology, and outcomes must be transparent, so a reviewer can evaluate the science and processes behind the technology and have confidence in the results. 

#5: Technology will put conservationists out of work.

Conservationists have more work than they can possibly do.  Even if their efficiency quadrupled, conservationists would still have too much to do.  Before bringing on more conservationists to help with the work, we need to identify how best to equip them to improve efficiency. I believe more employees can’t make a dent in the work, without smart technology.  But then there’s the question of cost.

For convenience, let’s say a state hired 2 new conservationists. One state agency person told me they budget $100,000/year/employee (benefits included). In most Midwestern states, there are approximately 80 counties. Two full-time employees, serving the entire state could only contribute the equivalent time of 6 days/county/year (see math below.) Those 6 additional days of employee time in each county seem rather insignificant when there is an average of 800 farmers/county.  We cannot afford the staff necessary to accomplish our soil and water conservation goals if we keep doing what we have always done.

But what if we spent that $200,000/year on upgrading technology?  If 10 states would collaborate, it would provide a technology budget of $2,000,000/year.  If spent wisely, this could provide a lot of smart technology. 

Do the math: 

2 employees/state x $100,000/employee = $200,000/state
2 employees X 240 staff days/year ÷ 80 counties = 6 days/county/year of additional staffing

If I have missed any arguments, please take the time to send them my way.  I am yet to hear an argument, for staffing over technology, that is worth considering.  If we are going to be serious about meeting our soil and water quality goals, we need to get serious about technology.  Let’s quit stalling and get on with building, buying, and/or licensing technology that is going to make us all more efficient. 

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