Saturday, March 13, 2010

NRCS Musings

Here's an audit report on NRCS.  Sustainable Ag has a post on the Senate Ag appropriations hearings, and Sec. Vilsack said:
In addition, Vilsack reminded Subcommittee members that the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which administers the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and EQIP, had been “under the cloud of an audit because it didn’t oversee and manage its resources effectively. We tried to do too much too soon, and now we have to be accountable to the taxpayers,” Vilsack said. “We don’t want people who aren’t qualified to get money under the program.”
Now I'm going to indulge in some dangerous speculation, dangerous because I really don't understand the audit nor do I know for sure that NRCS is in a worse situation than other parts of USDA, like FSA.  So the following is worth what you pay for it:

Historically Soil Conservation Service and then NRCS was an educational agency, teaching farmers how to conserve their land and water, developing and installing good conservation practices on the land.  I worked with them in the late 80's, as they were suffering from the shock of assuming some regulatory burdens by enforcing "conservation compliance".  That's the requirement that farmers not drain wetlands or cultivate highly erodible land without a conservation plan in effect.  Violation of the requirement was intended to make the farmer ineligible for USDA program benefits.  To oversimplify, the requirement has been watered down and, at least in the 90's, auditors were very dubious of how well NRCS and FSA were doing in implementing the requirement.

Through my time at agriculture, FSA would write the checks (actually CCC sight drafts) for conservation programs.  In recent years NRCS has been given responsibility for some programs, including responsibility for issuing payments.  My guess (here's the speculation) is that because NRCS didn't have the experience with the process, and perhaps because they had to rush to implement it, they didn't do it right the first time.  (Which is another instance of my rule: "you never do it right the first time".)  Hence the problematic audit.

From the OIG's Management Challenges report: "In 2002, the Secretary gave NRCS additional responsibilities to implement newly mandated conservation programs that deliver significantly more financial assistance to producers. NRCS has yet to establish the necessary management controls and processes to effectively administer and manage these new programs."

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