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USDA looking to 3rd party vendors

Traditionally, assistance with the design, layout and adoption of conservation practices has been provided USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service employees.

The new proposal would allow participating farmers to choose to receive technical assistance either from NRCS personnel or someone else certified by NRCS as a third party vendor, says Homer Wilkes, Mississippi state conservationist.

“As a landowner, you’ll be able to choose between the two. With the conservation dollars that are being proposed, there will be a lot of work out there and a lot of things we’ll need help on,” said Wilkes at a recent public hearing on the proposal held in Greenwood, Miss.

“We’re already stretched thin, so we’re going to need help implementing any increase in conservation programs,” says Delmer Stamps, state resource conservationist. “We still must meet the legislative mandates while also meeting the needs of our clients. There will be rigorous requirements for certification to become a third party vendor.”

It was a given there would be more money for conservation in the new farm bill, says Marc Curtis, president of Mississippi Conservation Districts, as well as a farmer and landowner in Leland, Miss.

“I don’t know of a single commodity group or farm organization that has gone to Washington and gone to Congress to ask for more money for conservation. It has been the wildlife groups, the conservation groups and the environmental groups that have put this money in the farm bill, and they’re expecting something out of it,” says Curtis

These groups, he adds, will be watching closely to see how these new funds are spent. “A number of them have made public statements to the effect that if this gets messed up by NRCS, they will do everything in their power to make sure that NRCS becomes part of FSA.

“Consequently, it’s important that NRCS and farmers insure that this work gets done efficiently and promptly,” he noted. “It can’t be done by the current staff of NRCS. That’s the why Congress had the foresight to put third party vendors in the legislation. NRCS needs to embrace the third party vendor system.”

The third party vendor system program, says Curtis, needs to be constructed so that any reasonably intelligent, educated individual can be trained by the NRCS and become successfully qualified to do the work. “This system must be open to everyone, and you’ve got to compensate your third party vendors adequately so you can attract these people into the program and get them to help you.

“If you don’t get enough third party vendors in the program, the program is going to fail, the whole larger conservation program is going to fail, and we are all going to be worse off for it. We need to make sure that the program is constructed so that we’re putting conservation on the ground. We don’t need to have a program just to make paperwork,” says Curtis.

Tom Gary, presenting a resolution from Delta Council, Delta FARM and Delta Wildlife, says those agencies acknowledge the need for a third party vendor system to help administer and implement federal conservation programs.

“However, all certified vendors must be trained thoroughly and adhere to rigid standards in order to insure the highest possible level of cost efficiency, continuity, and conservation,” he says.

The idea of third-party vendors isn’t a new one, says crop consultant Phil McKibben of Mathiston, Miss., “In fact, the NRCS working with private groups and staff in order to certify crop advisors is not new. The idea and the concept is a good one. Another benefit is that third party vendors working directly with farmers encourages private involvement,” he says.

“This is a healthy idea and a movement in the right direction,” says Sam Newsome, certified crop advisor, chemical company representative and chairman of the Delta Conservation Demonstration Center in Washington County, Miss. “We have an opportunity to bring the private sector and the federal sector together through NRCS.”

Newsome suggested that the Delta Conservation Demonstration Center in Washington County near Greenville, Miss., be used as a training facility for third party vendors, and its employees considered as possible vendors. “This farm implements all of the conservation practices that we have been talking about for a number of years. We think there is great potential, and we want to offer our services, and to be considered, as a training center for third party vendors.

“We fully believe the success of this program, to a large degree, will hinge on the quality and the training of those people who are certified as third party vendors,” he says.

Bob Cato, chairman of both the Yazoo County and the Delta Water Conservation Districts, doesn’t believe allowing soil and water conservation district employees to serve as third party vendors would be a conflict of interest.

“We have to remember that the local farmer has been a conservationist for many years before that term became popular. I’m concerned that in our training, even for the administration of the programs, everything will be weighted towards taking care of ducks and trees, and we’re going to lose the emphasis of keeping the soil in the proper place. I hope we don’t over-emphasize keeping the game and the ducks on the land,” says Cato.

Will Long, a Greenwood, Miss., landowner and self-titled farmer emeritus says he is not volunteering to be a third party vendor. “The environmental imperatives that are being justly demanded by the American public are going to be vastly increased in the years to come, and I think that’s good. The idea of third party vendors to shop out the design and the training involved in these things may or may not be a good idea. I can’t say yet, but the devil is going to be in the details,” he says.

Agriculture in this Delta has come a long way, says Long. “Some may look at it as a static thing, but it definitely is not. The imperatives that are coming down the pike demanding that we take more account of the environment are good. We have a group of people who have been excellent in the delivery system of technology and quality assurance, and I can’t imagine this process continuing without them,” he says.

Clarence Smith, retired farmer and Bolivar County, Miss., landowner says he considers money the driving force for most programs, with implementation being the second factor. However, he sees a flaw in these programs.

“We talk about putting money into conservation and that’s great ﷓ I believe in conservation. Some sort of way, though, it would seem to me that we’ve got to get some money in the pockets of those who are still farming, and who want to continue farming,” he says. “I don’t see where these conservation programs ﷓ that I’m strongly supportive of ﷓ are getting any money into farmer’s pockets. They’re all asking you, as farmers, to provide your cost-share. That takes a lot of money and it’s coming from your operating budgets.

“I haven’t heard anybody say where the money is coming from to pay these third party vendors. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that farmers are pretty good conservationists already. Every farmer is a conservationist, you’ve been conserving all of your life, and you’ve spent your own hard earned dollars doing it,” says Smith.


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