District conservationist Curt Donohue (right) and Jasper County farmer Gene Kaldenberg discuss cover crop plan
PROVIDING ANSWERS: District conservationist Curt Donohue (right) and Jasper County farmer Gene Kaldenberg discuss cover crop plans. “We’re busier than ever answering questions and helping farmers and landowners plan and carryout conservation practices,” Donohue says.

Conservation effort needs some help

Soil and water conservation districts in Iowa are running short on staff, as budget constraints limit hiring.

To protect and improve water quality, more cost-share dollars are becoming available to encourage Iowa farmers to put cover crops and conservation practices on the land. However, there are fewer technicians and support staff in local soil and water conservation district offices to help get the job done and get it done right.

This situation is becoming common across Iowa, as employees in county SWCD offices retire or leave their jobs and aren’t replaced due to budget constraints. The state of Iowa has a hiring freeze on state workers, in effect since 2010. Compounding this problem, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service recently announced federal workers in the county SWCD offices are no longer being replaced. Soil and water conservation district commissioners are voicing concern about the lack of staffing.

Staff cuts at county level continue
The Jasper County SWCD in central Iowa is an example of the dilemma. This fall the office at Newton employed five people, full time and part time. Curt Donohue is the NRCS district conservationist; Doug Gibson is the NRCS technician. Gibson is retiring in January. Jessi Rutter, a district employee, was a full-time administrative assistant before leaving in mid-November. Among her many tasks, she helped handle the paperwork involved with conservation programs. The office now shares an assistant with Marion County, who works in the Jasper County office one or two days a week. A temporary federal employee helps with NRCS administrative work.

STAFF CUTS: More dollars are available for cost-sharing for cover crops and other water quality protection practices. But there are fewer NRCS technicians and other employees of local soil and water conservation districts to help farmers in Iowa put the practices on the land.

The Jasper County office will soon have only three employees: one full-time NRCS district conservationist, one temporary NRCS office assistant and one part-time state of Iowa administrative assistant. Donohue will be the only technician in Jasper County to help farmers put conservation on the land.

Help needed to put practices in place
Meanwhile, the workload keeps increasing. “Jasper County is one of Iowa’s larger counties, has a lot of rolling land and a big demand for conservation practices,” notes Jim Johnston, a farmer and chairman of Jasper SWCD. He’s one of five commissioners who meets monthly with the staff to discuss and oversee how state and federal soil and water conservation programs are being carried out in the county.

Other SWCD offices in Iowa have also gone for years without a secretary or technician because of early retirement offered by the state. Districts were told that their employees who took early retirement would be replaced by newer, lower-paid employees within a year, but that hasn’t happened in most cases. “It’s been seven years since Jasper County has had a full-time secretary in the office,” Johnston says.

With staff cuts in SWCD field offices continuing, “This is a real concern statewide,” he adds. “There’s demand for more government funding to be made available to increase the amount of cost-share and other financial incentives to help farmers and landowners pay for putting more cover crops and conservation practices on the land. But more county offices have limited staff and ability to manage these programs.”

Help needed to provide information
Whether the money comes from state or federal government or both, more cost-share dollars are needed to encourage farmers and landowners to install and use water quality practices — cover crops, saturated buffers, bioreactors, wetlands, grass waterways, terraces, etc. What’s also needed is enough staff and technicians in county SWCD offices to get the paperwork done and plans drawn up, plus getting out and supervising the work to make sure the practices are properly installed and carried out.

“That’s the key,” says Gordon Wassenaar, another Jasper County farmer and SWCD commissioner. “You don’t always know what’s going on with these projects when you don’t have enough staff to follow up and check them.” After helping plan and design it, the SWCD staff needs to check construction and use of the practice in the field. They need to certify it was built and installed properly. When the project is finished, the district staff should make sure the land is being managed properly for the long term.

Districts play key role to ensure success
Cover crops are a good example, says Randy Stewart, a Jasper SWCD commissioner. The district distributing the cost-share funds has to approve the right cover crop for the farmer, and help the farmer plan and develop goals. What do you want to accomplish with a cover crop? Will it meet your goals? There’s plenty of paperwork involved to get cost-share payments approved, and the office staff has to make sure the SWCD has the correct documentation.

Some districts are getting complaints that their reduced staff can’t help farmers and landowners fast enough. Or the staff works fast, but the quality of the work isn’t as good. The staff needs to follow up with farmers who ask for help and provide information to manage conservation practices. “What worries me most is if a farmer tries a new conservation practice and it doesn’t work, it kills the idea for a long time for that farmer,” says Wassenaar. “You can make some real mistakes with cover crops. For example, not getting it terminated in time, especially if corn is planted afterward. If you get decreased corn yield, you won’t forget it.”

Watching over the cost-share money
The Iowa Legislature is being asked to provide more cost-share funding. Legislators are telling the state’s conservation districts: “You can use cost-share to get people started growing cover crops, but you have to watch over that money; make sure the cost-share investment provides results. That is, successfully getting more people started with cover crops so they’ll keep planting more acres in the years ahead.”

To accomplish that goal, there’s a need for the state of Iowa to provide funding to hire more staff to work in the SWCD county offices that are short-handed. “We have a positive here, not a negative,” Stewart says. “Let’s be positive about this. There is a way out. We don’t want to complain. We want to get the conservation job done, and get it done right.”

Must use cost-share funds effectively
Stewart adds, “We are excited to hopefully get more money from the state for cost share for cover crops and other soil-saving and water quality protection practices. But we need to make sure we can use those cost-share funds effectively and efficiently for putting conservation on the land.”

Officials crafting the state conservation budget in recent years haven’t been asking for additional dollars for administrative work and to provide more workers in county offices where needed. Most lawmakers also are OK with cost-share money to help pay for practices to put on the land, but they generally don’t want to pay for hiring a new SWCD employee: Someone to make sure the conservation practice is implemented correctly. That thinking needs to change. It takes people, along with cost-share dollars, to successfully put more conservation on the land.

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