Conservation Planning Training for Private Sector Agronomy Service and Local Conservation Agencies

Final Report for ENC05-086

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2005: $53,562.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
Tim Gieseke
Minnesota Project
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Project Information


The proposal, “Conservation Planning Training for Private Sector Agronomy Service and Local Conservation Agencies” objective was to provide professional development to individuals and entities that are closely associated with the production goals of farmers. The intention of the project was to provide the basis for an integration of production resource management with that of natural resource management. The goal was to hold the Conservation Planning course for two consecutive years and provide training to 50 agricultural professionals. The training would provide the ag professionals with the knowledge, skills and abilities to develop and apply the three major phases of conservation planning:

Phase I: Collection and Analysis
1. Identify Problems
2. Determine Objectives
3. Inventory Resources
4. Analyze Resource Data

Phase II: Decision Support
5. Formulate Alternatives
6. Evaluate Alternatives
7. Make Decisions

Phase III: Application and Evaluation
8. Implement the Plan
9. Evaluate the Plan

A revision to the project was approved to deliver a more succinct index-based resource assessment that had a higher probability to be accepted by agricultural professionals.

The initial conservation planning training was developed using a training format developed by University of Wisconsin Extension and the Minnesota Natural Resources Conservation Service and based upon the USDA National Planning Procedure Handbook Conservation Planning protocol, the traditional approach.

The second training was developed using a format that emerged from implementation of the first training and based upon the use of USDA and University-developed agricultural management indices. This format was eventually became know as the Farm Resource Assessment (FRA).

The traditional format was much more extensive in the assessment accounting, but none of the 32 participants that completed the Conservation Planning Training were compelled to incorporate this process into their existing work activities as it appeared far to cumbersome for both them and their clients.

The index-based FRA format was much more succinct in describing the level of resource management and the potential areas of concern. Although management indices are used by the USDA NRCS to provide assessment and guidance for agricultural producers, this process as a whole has not been developed and integrated within the Conservation Planning framework.

Of the two approaches, the FRA process was considered by six of the course participants to be a potential service for them to efficiently provide to their agricultural clients.

Project Objectives:

The short-term objective was to increase the involvement from the private sector in conservation planning services. This involvement would create an additional resource for farmers to begin to incorporate conservation services within their existing agronomic plans. The short-term objectives for the public sector was be to begin immediately filling the demand for conservation planning. Local conservation agencies generally have well skilled individuals to design and implement specific conservation practices; further developing their conservation planning skills will result in their conservation recommendations moving more toward whole farm systems and the CSP. We expected a total of 50 professionals to be trained and certified in this two year project.

Intermediate objective for this project was be to create of a critical mass of individuals, private and public, that can begin to provide the services that are required for enrollment in the Conservation Security Program, related conservation provisions of the current farm bill and the next Farm Bill in 2007. This critical mass of individuals will be able to provide the necessary support for the early adopters of conservation planning services and will provide a leadership constituency base for conservation programs. We expected each of the 50 certified conservation planners to work with 10 farmers a year on getting 500 farmers ready to enroll in CSP or other conservation programs.

Long-term objectives will be the incorporation of conservation planning services within agronomic businesses and an understanding of the market and farm bill components that may financially support these additional services and to provide the platform for agronomists become more conservation minded. Farmers who already tend to use professional advisors will be able to better integrate conservation with their business plans, both in terms of farm practices and income, and move toward much more sustainable farms. The public sector outcomes will be guided by the rate of adoption of conservation planning services within the private sector. If the private sector adopts conservation planning services as a routine service of their agronomic recommendations, the public sector may take on a program and technical advisory role for the private sector. In the end overall capacity for delivering conservation programs to farmers could be vastly expanded with no compromise made on environmental outcomes. It was anticipated that by 2010 the combination of private agronomists and SWCD staff could enable USDA to quadruple its conservation program delivery.

In early 2008, when the project was revised the outcomes and targets that were pursued were left intact. The revisions were based upon using different conservation planning tools for the private and public sectors to meet the outcomes and targets.


This project was initiated on the potential that the Conservation Security Program could revolutionize conservation on working lands, but only if conservation planning training for agronomic businesses and local conservation agencies is available to these sector to fill this vital niche. This project sought to provide the training and enable those businesses to expand their services and profitability, as they help farmers access conservation incentives and improved farm sustainability. The project focused on the priority area of Sustainable Agriculture and Community Development.

The project provided training to private and public sector entities associated with delivering agronomic and conservation services. The audience was private Certified Crop Advisors (CCAs) who deliver their service through farmer cooperatives, farm management and independent businesses, as well as soil and water conservation districts and extension staff.

The intentions of this project was to develop a core of certified conservation planners located in agronomy services businesses and local conservation staff, using the training regime developed by an interagency team. This core would expand the delivery of conservation services to farmers. Weaving conservation planning within agronomic decisions ensures greater adoption of conservation, resulting in a long term outcome of better care of the land, higher enrollment in conservation incentive programs, and more profitable farm service businesses.

The training program consisted of five conservation planning sessions lasting 1-2 days each over a year, delivered by experts from Wisconsin Extension, Minnesota state agencies, Minnesota Land Grant universities, SWCD, NRCS, and farmers.

Participants in the course received 40 educational credits sanctioned by the American Society of Agronomy.

The proposed training in 2007 was postponed as an evaluation of the program revealed that agricultural professionals were not able to adopt the conservation planning components as originally intended.

A revised training and professional development effort was held in 2008 that created much interest in the conservation, agriculture, government and environmental organizations. The project was then revised for the following reasons.

The project modification allowed professional development to occur at the on-the-ground level of resource management – with farmers and their advisor. It also provided professional development for those involved with assisting in resource management, such as resource management program support and training and in development of rules, regulations and policies to guide and influence resource management activities of agricultural producers.

The agricultural professionals were the primary audience members of this project. It developed skills to allow them to assess the level of resource management by using much of the data they currently gather and the activities they currently conduct while they are providing production advice for their farmer clients. Combining natural resource assessment with production resource assessment is the key to an effective resource management program. This, in turn, carries the sense of ownership by the farmers and their advisors. These new resource assessment skills include observing and collecting field data and using USDA and university-developed management indices that provide site specific outcomes.

This resource assessment component was shared with those that provide program support such as watershed districts, soil & water conservation districts, county water planners and state agencies with technical and financial assistance programs. Professional development for this level included evaluation and use of different indices and how the outcomes can identify potential concerns for local resources. Because a stand-alone resource assessment process and protocol do not exist in this context, this professional development component also consisted of developing awareness and initial discussion on how an index-based resource assessment component can assist in their efforts to target financial and technical assistance.

Professional development also occurred at higher level organizations such as the American Society of Agronomy, NRCS State Technical Committee, the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources and the University of Minnesota Water Resources Center. Involvement by the National Association of State Conservation Agencies and the use of their 2007 Report, “An Evaluation of the Nation’s Conservation Delivery System” examined the potential of an on-the-farm resource assessment activity to meet some of NASCA’s report recommendations. A recommendation that was reviewed was the potential for this assessment to reverse the trend of a program-driven conservation delivery system to a resource-driven conservation system, by “decoupling” the assessment activities from the governmental program goals.

When conservation delivery programs are ‘decoupled’ from the resource assessment process, it becomes more efficient for the production resource assessor to conduct the natural resource assessment. Because the first phase of a comprehensive conservation plan - resource inventory and assessment – involves an intimate understanding of the resources ag advisors appear well suited for this role.

This is due to the following factors:
- Ag advisors have a consistent on-the-ground presence via soil sampling, crop scouting, and yield monitoring
- Ag advisors understand the farmers production systems, management strategies and yield objectives
- Ag advisors have a general understanding of the financial aspects of the farm operation
- Ag advisors have existing skills and abilities [computer, communication, analysis] that are complimentary toward resource assessment processes.

Combining the production and natural resource management, an Integrated Resource Management processes emerged.. In its broader definition, it also describes how the governmental conservation delivery system and the agricultural production delivery system can co-exist to address the farmer’s operational plans and goals.

For Integrated Resource Management to function effectively, it must begin with the farm’s resource base and needs rather than governmental conservation programs. IRM must also recognize the broad-based financial and technical support that is provided by the governmental entities that co-exist within the 70-year old conservation delivery system.

By using a resource assessment-based conservation delivery system that incorporates the production system components with that of a resource assessment process provide the platform for an integrated process. This still includes the NRCS Technical Service Provider process and governmental programs to provide assistance for ag producers.

Using this information, conservation programs can best be aligned with the resource needs benefiting the farmer, the resources, the governmental agency and the ag advisor.

Education & Outreach Initiatives


Several publications were developed for some of the above events that included various levels of detail. The most thorough was a 10-page document prepared for the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources meeting on August 28, 2008.

Outcomes and impacts:

Short-term outcomes
1. Certified crop advisors (25) engaged in and learned the NRCS conservation planning process and developed skills to begin to provide advice and direction to their farmer clients
2. Eight of the CCAs did register as TSP in the NRCS TechReg for at least one category of delivering conservation practice and programs.
3. Six private sector agronomist became skilled in the index-based resource assessment process.
4. Governmental staffs at the local, state and federal level were introduced and some accepted the role of CCAs as resource assessors.
5. The American Society of Agronomy has significant interest in cooperating and further developing a resource assessment process for CCAs.
6. Farmers understood the assessment process and how this could assist them in meeting resource management goals and also how to communicate these outcomes to governmental agencies and society.

Intermediate Outcomes
1. Farmers began to understand how this process could provide a sense of ownership of their conservation assessment and plan.
2. The index-based resource assessment has created discussion amongst state legislators in Minnesota and federal legislators on conservation planning policy options.
3. Non-profit organizations that typically do not collaborate on resource issues have been brought to the table to discuss the potential of the index-based resource assessment to meet their common goals.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Course Curriculum Accomplishments
The initial course framework was adopted from the University of Wisconsin and adjusted to meet the resource conservation needs of southern Minnesota. An advisory committee was formed with representatives from the University of Minnesota, University of Minnesota Extension, state agency. soil and water conservation districts and private sector and cooperative agronomic service centers. This advisory committee reviewed curriculum and provided input on additional course needs, course locations and trainer suggestions. Curriculum was also evaluated for the potential of continuing education units credits. The following is the list of sessions that were developed. A total of 40 CEU were awarded.

Session 1 - RUSLE2 Training - February 27, 2006
This one-half day session explained the fundamental aspects of RUSLE2, a software program that is used to determine how cropping systems affect the soil properties, mainly soil loss and soil carbon content.

Session 2 - TSP/CCA Orientation to Conservation Planning - March 14-15, 2006
This two-day session will orientate the private sector consultants (TSP’s/CCA’s) to the Conservation Planning process, training program and certification requirements.

Session 3 - Conservation Cropping Systems – June 27-28, 2006
This two-day session will provide training in conservation systems and conservation practices for corn-soybean rotations, small grains and perennial systems, certified organic systems, and longer crop rotations

Session 4 - On-Farm Resource and Energy Assessment – July 27 and August 9, 2006
Participant will learn in this two-day session on how to assess the on-farm resources such as soils, nutrient sources and quantities, water quality, energy and wildlife habitats.

Session 5 - Conservation Planning Development – September 12-13, 2006
Participants will learn in this two-day session about the official policies and references for conservation planning and the form and format of a conservation plan, as well as cultural resource concerns.

The FRA curriculum was based primarily on assessing the production and natural resources of the farm operation using the following management indices:

1. Crop Equivalency Ratings (University of Minnesota) is an index that reflects the net economic return per acre of soil when managed for cultivated crops, permanent pasture or forest, whichever provides the highest net return.
2. The Soil Conditioning Index (USDA) predicts the consequences of cropping systems and tillage practices on soil organic matter in a field.
3. Soil Tillage Intensity Rating (USDA) is intended to function as a stand-alone rating to evaluate tillage and/or planting systems on parameters other than the traditional ground cover and surface disturbance parameters.
4. Water Quality Score (USDA) is an approach adopted to account for multiple management activities that protect and enhance water quality on the farm.
5. Minnesota Phosphorus Index (University of Minnesota) is a management tool to estimate the relative risk that phosphorus is being lost from an agricultural field and delivered to a nearby ditch, stream, or lake. It allows the user to evaluate management options that can reduce the risk.
6. Habitat Suitability Index (USDA) using multiple checklist spreadsheets to identify what habitat components are in existence. The evaluation will result in a quality rating or habitat suitability index that will consider the type, amount, and distribution of habitat elements required.

The result of conducting index assessments is a numerical rating that describes if the resource is managed at a ‘acceptable’ level. Index values that are lower than desired, lend themselves to directing the farmer and the advisor toward conservation practices and activities that may improve the rating. This becomes the basis of the conservation plan.

Course Curriculum Milestones:
- The traditional conservation planning training course was the first course developed for the private sector agronomy professionals to become NRCS-certified conservation planners in the state of Minnesota. The effort and process to develop the course established the needs and logistics of implementing the course.

- The FRA curriculum was the first course developed in the nation that compiled site-specific management indices for the purpose of assessing the resources and providing a foundation for a conservation plan.

Curriculum Trainers Accomplishments:
- Trainers were recruited through the course organizer’s effort and the advisory committee recommendations. Approximately one-third of the course trainers were state level NRCS staff. The remaining trainers were from Extension, local conservation agencies, University of Minnesota and state conservation and environmental agencies. These include the Department of Transportation, Natural Resources, Health, Agriculture and the Board of Water & Soil Resources, and the Pollution Control Agency.

Curriculum Trainer Milestones:
- The commitment by the state agencies, university and extension personnel demonstrated the need to connect to agricultural professionals to achieve the agencies resource concerns. There was an in depth understanding by the trainers that reaching this agricultural advisor audience is and may be a key avenue in communicating the goals of the agencies.

Course Enrollment Accomplishments:
- The Conservation Planning course was attended by 35 participants of whom 13 were cooperative staff, 12 were agronomic firm staff, nine were local government staff and one was a university student. These attendees represented eight cooperatives, ten agronomic firms and eight local governments. Most of the agricultural professionals were certified crop advisors or were soon to be certified. The organizations that were represented assisted farmers with the management of approximately 1.5 million acres.

- The FRA training was attended by six agricultural professionals representing both agronomic and cooperative centers.

Conservation Delivery System Enhancement Accomplishments:
- The cooperative effort to develop and implement the conservation planning course has created an increase in awareness and opportunities as it pertains to enhancing the existing conservation delivery system. Private sector technical service providers that are certified by NRCS have increased their role in assisting with aspects of the farm operation such a pest management, nutrient and manure management and other singular practice opportunities. By incorporating the knowledge, skills and abilities of resource assessment and natural resource management into the current skill base of agricultural advisors, it allows another dimension or level to enter into the existing conservation delivery system. An agricultural advisor that assesses the production and natural resources of the farm operation can provide the knowledge platform by which the farmer and conservation agency staff begin a comprehensive approach to conservation technical and financial needs.

- The FRA effort also provided an increased awareness to a audiences from a variety of disciplines and perspectives. In addition to the On-Farm EZ Assessment (now called the FRA) Training held on February 29, 2008 the following professional development activities were held to provide education and awareness as it pertained to the FRA and it potentials:

- Mach 5: The Minnesota Department of Agriculture and the Minnesota Milk Producers Association met to discuss various options in assisting the diary producers in Minnesota to achieve a higher level of resource management. The FRA process was introduced and it was discussed how this approach might compliment their existing Livestock Environmental Quality Assurance Program. Three staff representing each entity attended the discussion.

- March 13-14: Great Lakes Regional Water Quality Team held a workgroup session in Zion, Illinois. The audience consisted of university and extension staff; federal, state and local conservation agency staff, non-profit organizations, and a few private sector entities. The FRA process was presented via PowerPoint to this audience of 75 participants.

- March 24: The Minnesota Technical Service Provider Interagency Group consisting of university and extension staff, Minnesota state agencies of the Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Department of Health, the Minnesota Conservation District Employees Association, the Minnesota Association of Soil & Water Conservation Districts, the Minnesota Crop Production Retailers, the Minnesota Natural Resources Conservation Service. The FRA process was presented to this audience of 18 participants.

- April 3: A community event in New Ulm, Minnesota called the Ag Sweepstakes Celebration consists of several cooperative and agronomic businesses celebrating the agricultural community. At this event each year they have a speaker address a timely topic. The FRA process was presented and discussion followed on how individual farmers and their advisors could use this tool to provide resource management guidance and assurance. This event was attended by 85 participants. A follow-up radio was conducted

- April 15: An interview Tom Rothman, Minnesota Farm Network was conducted as a follow-up to the Ag Sweepstakes Celebration presentation. The interview on farm resource assessments was distributed and aired on it 33 affiliates through southern, central and western Minnesota several times on each station.

- May 20: A small, local chapter of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership held its Legislative Update Session in St. Peter, Minnesota. Discussion on how farm resource assessments can meet some of MEP’s goals was discussed amongst the five attendees.

- June 17: A presentation and handout to at the Midwest Ag Energy Network meeting was provided for discussion on the use of the FRA as a means to develop production and harvest standards as it pertains to biomass and bio-energy production. The participants include state agencies, non-profits and private businesses throughout the upper Midwest. Fifteen (15) participants attended the event.

- June 19: The American Society of Agronomy, based in Madison, WI inquired about how the FRA could meet the needs of their nearly 13,000 certified crop advisors to get more involved in natural resource management and also how they can encourage the Natural Resources Conservation Service to adopt a management index process. Luther Smith, Director of Certification Programs and two lead staff participated in daylong discussion.

- July 14: The Minnesota State Cattleman’s Association hosted a summer tour. The RFWRA was presented at the trade show and discussion was held on its merits for cattle producers. Approximately 45 trade show attendees visited the booth to hear further information. An interview with Agri-News followed and the article was printed in early August. The Agri-News, located in Rochester, Minnesota has a significant readership in the ag community.

- July 29: A meeting with a McKnight Foundation staff was held for educational purposes and to bring awareness to this effort and to provide them with the opportunity to fund further work in the future.

- August 5: Booth space was purchased at the Farmfest Agriprenuer Tent at the Farmfest, a widely attended farm show in Minnesota. Approximately 60 interested attendees visited the booth to discuss resource management issues.

- August 6: The Sauk River Water Quality Trading Meeting was attended to discuss the use of the FRA process as a potential water quality trading tool. The 22 participants consisted of federal, state and local agencies, non-profits and private sector agronomists.

- August 13: The Sustainable Agriculture Coalition Annual Meeting and 20th Anniversary celebration was attended to gain feedback and insight on the desire of the SAC to further their efforts in using resource indices as a eligibility tools and valuation tool in conservation programs. Ferd Hoefner and five other leaders in the organization were provided information and to get feedback on the FRA.

- August 21: A Resource Assessment Meeting was held to bring together the agricultural interests in deciding if the FRA can meet their needs. Participants (14) that represented the Mn Ag Water Resource Coalition, Mn Crop Production Retailers, Mn Milk Producers Association, Mn State Cattlemen Association, Mn Certified Crop Advisors Board, and private sector agronomists attended. It was informally agreed upon that the FRA is a process that can be conducted by CCAs and other ag professionals and that is may meet the resource assessment needs.

- August 28: A presentation and handout were provided at the Board of Water and Soil Resources meeting in Olivia, Minnesota. The BWSR consists of members from each state agency, a representative from county, township, watershed district, conservation district and citizens at-large. The BWSR acts as the state liaison to local governments and provides technical and financial assistance to local units of government. A total of 15 board members and an additional 22 members of the audience received the handout and heard the presentation.

- September 8: The BioEconomy Conference held in Ames, Iowa was attended and at a meeting with 22 participants, the Midwest Ag Energy Network discussed the FRA. This discussion lead to further evaluated the RWFERA as a biomass production guide. An invitation to present this to the Wisconsin Department of Ag Trade and Consumer Protection and the University of WI Madison in November was also extended (an eventually held)

- September 18: At the Minnesota Project Board Meeting, Dave Frederickson, staff of Senator Klobuchar attended and participated in the Farm Bill discussion and how the FRA could provide support and efficiency to the Conservation Stewardship Program. Eleven board, staff and guest participated in the presentation and discussion.

- September 17: The Minnesota Farm and Food Coalition, an organization representing 12 agricultural organizations hosted meeting to discuss how agriculture can take a leadership role in resource management. A FRA handout was offered to the 30 participants with more formal discussion taking place with the leadership.

- September 23: The Lake Pepin TMDL Conference was attended and small group discussions were held to determine how the agricultural groups could get more involved in resource management. A handout was provided on the FRA. Twenty-five participants provided discussion and feedback on this process.

The summary of this outreach effort included presentations at 18 events. Of those 18 events:
- 176 technically orientated people received direct information
- 85 policy orientated people received direct information
- 195 general audience received direct information

Earned news coverage of two of these events consisted of the Minnesota Farm Network and its 33 affiliates broadcasting the information and the Agri-News covering the effort and related environmental assessment processes in it weekly.


Potential Contributions

This production and natural resource management assessment template has the potential to become the framework to build a practical and verifiable system of providing payment and assurance for ecoservices.

In addition, it also has the potential to become the basis for an ecological index system as it has the characteristic to be able to scale up from the field to farm to watershed to basin to nation.

Future Recommendations

To further evaluate the Farm resource assessment:
- As a succinct, efficient resource assessment for farmers and advisors
- As a template to determine eligibility for the Conservation Stewardship Program
- As an assurance tool for farmers to ensure they are meeting TMDL requirements
- As a method to stack values for resource management trading
- As a policy foundation for governments to provide a land stewardship tax incentive
- As a benefits tool for non-profits such as Pheasants Forever and Duck Unlimited to encourage habitat improvements
- As a template for agricultural organizations and industry to develop management standards
- As a method for the USDA to update its conservation compliance methods
- To use the FRA as a companion on-the-ground assessment with the NRCS Rapid Watershed Assessment.
- To use as a method to scale up resource assessments and targets from the field level to farm, watershed, basin and nation.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.