“CONVENTIONAL” NRCS Soil and Water Conservation Programs
Summary by Mrill Ingram and Karl Hakanson
Wisconsin’s rules to control polluted runoff from farms went into effect October 1, 2002. The state Legislature passed rules to help protect Wisconsin's lakes, streams and groundwater. DNR rule NR 151 (http://www.dnr.state.wi.us/org/water/wm/nps/admrules.htm) sets performance standards and prohibitions for farms and sets out the requirements for nutrient management plans.
Standards for crop farmers:
Standards for livestock farmers:
Nutrient Management Plans: To meet the new nutrient management standards, farmers may hire an agronomist or prepare their own nutrient management plans if they complete a DATCP-approved training course or otherwise demonstrate that they are qualified. These plans must:
In 1933, the Soil Erosion Service, predecessor to the Soil Conservation Service and NRCS, began working with farmers in the Coon Creek watershed of southwestern Wisconsin to transform the square, eroding fields into what one sees today—a conservation showplace of contouring, stripcropping, terracing, and wise land use that benefits the soil, air, water, as well as the plant, animal, and human life of the whole watershed. The Soil Conservation Service (SCS), predecessor to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), was created on April 27, 1935, by Public Law 46 (Seventy-fourth Congress), which declared that soil erosion was a menace to the national welfare and authorized broad powers to the new agency to attack the problem. (As part of the Department of Agriculture Reorganization Act of 1994, the name was changed to the Natural Resources Conservation Service on 20 October 1994.) The demonstration projects were important to the history of the conservation movement. During the depths of the depression, many farmers were receptive to the help. Owing to the availability of labor and equipment, the young service was able to transform farms into models of conservation. Moreover, by concentrating work on the selected watersheds, the service could demonstrate the cumulative effects of work on individual farms and its value to the whole watershed.
Still, some people questioned whether demonstration projects were the best method for spreading conservation from this promising beginning. One criticism was that farmers should take a more active part in planning and installing the work. M. L. Wilson, Under Secretary of Agriculture, devoted considerable thought to spreading conservation from the scattered demonstration projects to the rest of the country. In order to develop the legal framework for the new mechanisms, he enlisted the aid of Philip Glick, a young lawyer in the USDA. Together they drew on the strengths and flexibility of federalism to develop a new unit of government, the conservation district. The district would be organized under state, not federal, law. Most of each district's directors, or supervisors, would be elected by the people living within the district's boundaries.
The nearly three thousand districts, their state associations, and the National Association of Conservation Districts became the grass-roots support for federal conservation programs and helped sustain SCS and conservation funding through difficult times. In states and counties where districts had funds, they added personnel to work alongside SCS employees and thus sped the conservation work. The SCS field office in many states might have a mixture of federal and district employees working alongside one another.
The agency's title highlighted soil, but the scope of the agency's work encompassed the interaction of soil and water. A hallmark of the SCS has been its emphasis on treating the whole watershed--not just the in-stream and floodplain conditions, but also the upland areas of the watershed. Before, or in conjunction with installing flood control, streambank erosion control, or other structures, the SCS worked with landowners to use conservation measures that would increase infiltration, reduce runoff, and prevent sediments from moving to the stream. Some of the early demonstration projects combined flood control structures and water supply structures with conservation measures on the watershed lands. The Flood Control Act of 1936 authorized the SCS to study measures regarding soil erosion control, runoff, and water flow retardation in selected watersheds. The Flood Control Act of 1944 approved eleven of these plans for operation.
The primary method of operation of the renamed NRCS continues to be working directly with farmers in cooperation with conservation districts. In its ongoing mission to conserve, maintain, and enhance the quality of resources, it has had to adapt and tailor its services to changing agricultural conditions, congressional mandates, and public concerns. In addition to working with individuals, the NRCS and the districts may work with groups and units of government at all levels.
During the mid-1960s there was great emphasis on using soil survey data and other information to help communities and local governments in their planning and development efforts. Over the next twenty years the Service undertook river basin surveying and planning activities at scales large and small in order to identify needed conservation work. Public concerns about water pollution have been addressed in a series of amendments to the Clean Water Act. While the original focus was on municipal and industrial sources of pollution, agricultural sources, sometimes referred to as nonpoint sources, became an area of concern in the 1970s. The NRCS works with farmers to reduce these sources of sediments and other pollutants from cropland and pasture. The NRCS works with livestock and poultry farmers on waste management systems as well as composting, manure storage facilities, and other practices that lessen and control water runoff.
Wisconsin's Farmland Preservation Act (http://www.wi.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/fpp.html) was signed into law in 1977 to assist governments in preserving farmland. The farmland preservation program gives farmers who participate in the farmland preservation program a state income tax credit, based on household income, to off-set local property taxes. In exchange for the tax relief, farmers must adhere to soil and water conservation standards of the county (and WI NR 151). In 2003, 22,000 Wisconsin farmers received Farmland Preservation Program tax credits equaling $17.8 million. In 2004, about 19,500 farmland owners received tax credits totaling $14.4 million. 1.05 million acres have been entered into 7,336 individual farmland preservation agreements. Critics of the State Farmland Preservation Program say that the program, as currently administered, has not significantly reduced the conversion of farmland to other uses. According to a recent legislative report, the number of cropland acres in the state has declined by about 12 percent in the past 20 years. One of the problems with the state program is there is no real penalty when farmland is removed from the program. The future of the program is uncertain in part due to the fact that in 1995 the Wisconsin Legislature passed "Use Value Assessment" for cropland and pasture, to replace the existing method of assessing farmland for property taxes. Currently, under a five year investigation called the Working Lands Initiative, the state legislature is considering alternative methods to negotiate multiple pressures on land use and to preserve farmland.
Paulson, Jerry. 1997. “Dane County, Wisconsin: Plats versus Plows.” American Farmland Trust Center for Agriculture in the Environment. DeKalb, Illinois. CAE/WP97-13. 17 pp. November 1997.