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Conservation Leaders Speak at Farm Bill Hearing
Oklahoma City, September 18, 2006 -- U.S. Congressman Frank Lucas, Oklahoma’s 3rd District, chaired a field hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture’s Subcommittee on Conservation, Credit, Rural Development and Research. Also representing the subcommittee were Congressmen Bob Goodlatte, Virginia, and Tim Holden, Pennsylvania. The hearing took place at the Redlands Community College Conference Center in El Reno. The purpose of the hearing was to review federal farm programs.
Scotty Herriman, a Nowata County Conservation District director and vice president of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts, represented OACD in presenting written and oral testimony. Trey Lam, a Garvin Conservation District director, OACD Area II director, and National Watershed Coalition represented NWC. Ken Rose, a Cimarron County Conservation District director, Oklahoma Grain Sorghum Producers Association president, and National Sorghum Producers Association member and past president, represented NSP. Congressman Lucas asked if the conservation district system for program delivery is still a viable system, Herriman answered in the positive. “Locally-led conservation districts are still the best system for local people to set priorities for local natural resource needs,” Herriman said. “And Darrel Dominick as NRCS state conservationist was invaluable in helping us serve a customer-base that has changed dramatically in even just the last ten years,” he added.
Scotty Herriman started his remarks by saying that the 2002 Farm Bill marked watershed for conservation in the United States and marked a new era in partnership among federal and state governments, local conservation districts and landowner cooperators in the locally-led, voluntary protection of soil, water, air, and wildlife habitats. “With the help of the assets provided in the last Farm Bill, we have made significant impact on the landscape and have addressed numerous natural resource issues,” Herriman said.
Herriman went on to cite some of those challenges, including invasive species like eastern redcedar and rehabilitation of the aging infrastructure of watershed flood control dams. He then named off many of the accomplishments and opportunities of Farm Bill Programs, but cited issues that prevent their full effectiveness. Technical assistance dollars were not keeping pace with the program funding dollars available. “Congress should ensure that adequate funding is provided to NRCS (USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service) to provide for the human resources to deliver the various Farm Bill Programs,” he said. Another example of limitations Herriman cited was the connection between the Conservation Reserve Program and the Wetlands Reserve Program. Oklahoma land, especially in the Panhandle, could be under WRP except for the fact the county already is at or over its CRP cap. Those caps need to be unconnected from each other, he stated.
Trey Lam stated that NWC believes the current Farm Bill offers an important opportunity to extend the benefits of the Watershed Program. He urged the Congressmen to not only authorize funding for watershed rehabilitation in the next Farm Bill, but then to work with the appropriators to ensure that authorized funding is fully appropriated. He pointed out that there are opportunities for the Watershed Program and the emerging Farm Bill conservation programs to compliment each other rather than to compete with each other. “For example, focusing Farm Bill land treatment programs on watershed boundaries designated by the USDA Watershed Program will not only yield the desired on-farm benefits but could also enhance and extend the public benefits derived from existing watershed projects,” Lam said. He added that while Oklahoma is a leader in the watershed program, it is a national concern. He went on to cite examples from Virginia, Texas, Arizona and Georgia as well as accomplishments in Oklahoma in the rehabilitation program.
Ken Rose stated that the National Sorghum Producers believes Congress and USDA need to emphasize water quantity, as part of water management in both current and future conservation programs. Sorghum is a lower water usage crop than other crops, but Rose, of Keyes in the Oklahoma Panhandle, stated that until August his area only had 6.5 inches of moisture in the previous 13 months – drier than any year of the Dust Bowl. The rain that came was too late to help a stunted sorghum crop although grasslands have recovered. While addressing the conservation title of the Farm Bill, he stated the sorghum industry is also interested in the energy title and is ready for energy production opportunities in the agriculture industry. Including sorghum in the energy title would expand the ethanol industry outside the traditional Corn Belt, as one bushel of sorghum produces the same amount of ethanol as one bushel of corn. Turning back to conservation, Rose said his only complaint about the Conservation Security Program is that it is limited to selected watersheds and should be open to everyone.
Steve Kouplen, president of the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, addressed a variety of issues related to the Farm Bill, from unpredictable weather and markets and increased input costs to uncertainties in international trade. He closed his remarks by discussing the recent demotion and subsequent early retirement of NRCS State Conservationist Darrel Dominick. “Darrel’s forced retirement was unwarranted,” Kouplen said. “Darrel’s character and commitment to working with partners in conservation was beyond reproach. Oklahoma producers and the conservation community deserve some accountability from the USDA on this issue,” Kouplen said.