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

2006 Annual 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

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


A conservation training course curriculum was developed for ag professionals and local agency staff to become NRCS-certified conservation planners. The 9-day course was attended by 25 crop advisors and seven local government staff. The curriculum was presented by a host of professionals from NRCS, university staff, state and local government staff, extension personnel and farmers. The course was applicable to continuing education credits. The 35 class participants are in the process of developing their three conservation plans receive certification. and enable those businesses to expand their services and profitability, as they help farmers access conservation incentives and improved farm sustainability.

The project will provide training to private and public sector entities associated with delivering agronomic and conservation services. The audience will be 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 immediate outcome will be a core of certified conservation planners located in agronomy services businesses and local conservation staff, using the training regime developed by an interagency team. The intermediate outcome will be an expansion in 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 consists of five conservation planning sessions lasting 2-3 days each over a year, delivered by experts from WI and MN Land Grant universities, SWCD, NRCS, and farmers. Participants will receive up to 40 educational credits sanctioned by the American Society of Agronomy.

Objectives/Performance Targets

A short-term outcome will be an increased involvement from the private sector in conservation planning services. This involvement will create an additional resource for farmers to begin to incorporate conservation services within their existing agronomic plans. The short-term outcomes for the public sector will 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 expect a total of 50 professionals to be trained and certified in this two year project.

Intermediate outcomes for this project will be the creation 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 might expect 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 outcomes 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 – even to the extent that 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. In another five years the combination of private agronomists and SWCD staff could enable USDA to quadruple its conservation program delivery. Undoubtedly, there will be variations of these complementary services depending on the conservation delivery capacity of the private and public sectors. Outcomes will be trained individuals to deliver conservation planning services to their farming clients to create more sustainable farming operations and to increase Conservation Security Program enrollment rates and CSP contract competitiveness.


Course Curriculum Accomplishment

The 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 25 CEU were awarded. In future courses, a higher level of coordination will be given to on align the course content to the CEU requirements to increase the potential credits.

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.

Course Curriculum Milestone
This is 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.

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 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.

Course Enrollment Milestones
Upon sending out the course announcement, there were approximately 50 serious respondents interested in attending the course. This interest far exceeded the estimate of what the interest may be by the course organizer as well as by all advisors and supporting agencies. The total of 35 enrollees again exceeded the estimated interest in the course and established an understanding amongst many conservation and environmental agency staff that agricultural organizations and businesses have a high level of interest in participating in the management of natural resources as well as their traditional role of production resource management.

Certification Process Accomplishments
Class participants are currently in the process to become NRCS-certified conservation planners, although none to date have reached that milestone. It was not anticipated that course attendees would complete their required three conservation plans for certification early in 2007. It is expected that certification requirements be completed with in one year of completing the course. Conservation planning workshops will be held to assist the agricultural advisors in writing their conservation plans.

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.

Conservation Deliver System Milestones
Resource assessments and the subsequent conservation recommendations from an agricultural advisor role were demonstrated in October, 2006 for the request for proposals for the Minnesota Clean Water Legacy legislative funds. The conservation planning course participants were asked to submit requests for conservation practice funds that met the criteria for the Lower Minnesota River Total Maximum Daily Load Plan which included reducing phosphorus losses from agricultural lands. The pre-certified conservation planners assessed their farmer clients’ resource concerns and jointly submitted requests totaling $3.5 million dollars focused on specific phosphorus-reducing practices on specific farms. This milestone activity demonstrated that agricultural advisors with the knowledge, skills, and abilities to assess resources can act as conservation ‘retailers’ and allowing local and state agency conservation staff to potentially act as conservation ‘wholesalers’. This would allow agency staff to focus on program needs as it related to local, state and federal goals. No funding was provided to further demonstrate this enhanced system, but adding the component of agricultural advisors as resource assessors and planners was the key niche that was unoccupied.
A milestone more specific to a participant's perspective was revealed when one of the attendees mentioned that when they were taking soil tests from the fields last fall [2006] that they had a whole new view point on what could be addressed from a natural resource perspective.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

As a flexible, comprehensive, and environmental outcome-based program, the Conservation Security Program has numerous goals and contains many options on how producers can most effectively achieve them while earning financial rewards. In brief summary, the CSP requires a detailed conservation farming business operational plan with adequate documentation. The CSP, unlike other conservation provisions of the farm bill, rewards farmers that meet soil, water, air, plants and animal conservation on working lands. To be eligible for the CSP, farmers, at a minimum, must have a 2-year documentation showing implementation of an approved nutrient management plan, a pest management plan and a soil conditioning index that demonstrates an improvement in soil organic matter. A NRCS-certified conservation planner would be able to fulfill these program needs for farmers.

The Minnesota Project has been conducting CSP outreach and educational activities focused toward local governmental staff, agricultural professionals and farmers for several years. Our focus has not just been in the selected CSP watersheds (six in MN at this time), but also in watersheds that have yet to be announced. Responses from the farmers has been a high level of interest in obtaining assistance to determine their current CSP eligibility as well as to seek advice on how they can increase their conservation to become eligible for CSP and to increase their performance to make their potential CSP contract more competitive and profitable. Our advice to farmers was to ensure that the agronomic recommendations that they were receiving – particularly for nutrients, tillage and pest management -- would not jeopardize their CSP eligibility. Farmers, in turn, requested this information from their agronomy service providers, who, in turn, sought out training opportunities to provide this service. Such training currently does not exist. It should be noted that the farmers who were interested in determining their CSP status and conservation needs also recognized they might pay for the value of this service.

From these experiences we have concluded that one of the services that must be readily available to farmers is professional guidance on the options to address the various resource concerns of the outcome-based CSP. We have also concluded that obtaining this conservation advice from the professionals that provide planting, weed and pest control, tillage and harvesting advice would ensure an increase in conservation adoption and significantly reduce the burden for farmers to integrate conservation into their agronomic plan.

This expansion of local farm businesses has the potential to grow both the business itself as it increases income by offering new services to farmers, and to grow the farmer’s income as they enroll in CSP and earn conservation incentives. Both forms of economic growth will be retained right in the rural communities where they originate. Because USDA and Congress are committed to using the private sector to help deliver federal conservation programs, they have begun certifying and paying Technical Service Providers (TSPs) to reduce the NRCS workload at a time when conservation programs are dramatically increasing. This will likely accelerate after the 2007 farm bill, widely expected to reduce reliance on production subsidies and increase availability of conservation investments, known as green payments. Kevin Erb stated that some regions, NRCS has a backlog of 18 months for requests from farmers to obtain a conservation plan.

In addition to the private sector, a significant portion of farmers seek conservation advice through local government agencies, and in particular to Minnesota, soil and water conservation districts as well as NRCS district conservationists. Due to the nature of previous conservation programs that focused on individual practices that were implemented on a site-specific basis, many SWCD staff have not obtained certification for conservation planning. The SWCD staff would be a second primary audience for the training opportunities we will offer. There is about 200 soil and water conservation technical staff in Minnesota who may consider becoming certified conservation planners. Brian Williams, Minnesota Department of Agriculture has close relationships with farmer cooperative professionals and has provided support and insight in the development of this proposal. Jed Kaurich, Faribault SWCD and Ron Feigum of the Stevens SWCD in Minnesota are attending this year’s Conservation Planning Training session in Wisconsin and have agreed to work with the Minnesota Project and LeAnn Buck, Executive Director, Minnesota Association of Soil & Water Conservation Districts to promote a parallel training program in Minnesota.

Tim Gieseke will be attending the National Association of State Conservation Agency Conference (NASCA) on Conservation Delivery System Evaluation and Recommendation Session on June 8 & 9 in Columbus Ohio. NASCA is hosting two evaluation and recommendation sessions seeking input to aid in an evaluation of the nation's conservation delivery system. This project is being undertaken by NASCA via a contribution agreement with the USDA and NRCS. This proposal contains many of the characteristics of a successful conservation delivery service.

Developing a diverse public and private conservation planning service is necessary because NRCS’s ability to provide this service is limited under the 15% Technical and Administration spending cap on CSP funds. This compares to 25% in other programs such as EQIP. The 2002 Farm Bill and USDA have established a clear policy of encouraging outside certified conservation technical assistance, under the guidance of NRCS.


The inputs will include the Conservation Planning Training curriculum developed by an interagency/TSP team consisting of conservation district, NRCS, extension staff and representatives from the private agricultural service business and implemented under the guidance of Kevin Erb, University of Wisconsin Extension. The course content will be similar to curriculum listed below and adjustments will be made on application to Minnesota’s resource concerns, agricultural characteristics and scheduling needs.

Core Conservation Training for agency staff with less than 2 years experience

Conservation Core 1
The focus on this three-day orientation session is to teach new SWCD employees the basis for conservation planning – how to interact with both traditional and non-traditional producers, understanding components of livestock and cash grain production systems and the basics of tillage equipment

Conservation Core 2 – The three-day session focuses on the electronic tools necessary for conservation planning including RUSLE2, GIS applications, basic agronomy of Minnesota crops and an introduction to alternative agricultural enterprises.

Conservation Core 3 – The final core session focuses on best management practices available, how they fit with ag and non-ag systems, and protecting cultural resources when modifying the landscape.

CCA/TSP Training

CCA/TSP Training for private sector consultants takes the essentials from the core courses and provides TSP/CCA’s a solid basis to integrate their existing knowledge with the basic field/technical skills required of conservation planners. CCAs/TSPs that complete the 1 ½ days can then join agency staff for the Conservation Planning Sessions.

Understanding RUSLE2 – A half-day hands-on class introduces the RUSLE 2 soil loss model, how it works, and the data necessary to run the program.

Introduction to Conservation Planning for TSPs/CCA’s – A full-day, field session that introduces private sector consultants to determining ground slopes, residue management, conservation options, understanding agency technical standards and cultural/heritage resources.

Conservation Planning Training for agency staff with 3-5 years experience and CCAs/TSPs who have completed Part B is a four-session series providing a research-based approach to whole-farm conservation planning. By focusing on the entire ecosystem scale, this training series provides a hands-on approach to conservation plan development, evaluation and landowner education.

Conservation Planning 1 – The 2-day module focuses on sheet/rill/ephemeral erosion, upland and lowland resource concern identification, forestry and modeling tools used to quantify resource concerns

Conservation Planning 2 – The 2 ½-day module focuses on soil quality, ecological principals in agricultural production, grazing, organic and alternative agricultural operations.

Conservation Planning 3 – The 2 ½-day module focuses on drainage issues, livestock and the conservation plan, vegetable crops and farmstead evaluation.

Conservation Planning 4 – The 2 ½-day module pulls the plan together and focuses on issues in irrigated vegetable production, wind erosion, and ground water issues.

Course training will be provided by a combination of experts provided by the U of Minnesota Extension, Board of Water & Soil Resources, Minnesota Departments of Agricultural, Natural Resources and Health and the NRCS. Les Everett, University of Minnesota indicated that several local and regional extension educators would be qualified to deliver these training components. Tim Gieseke, Minnesota Project staff will provide training support that ties conservation planning to the Conservation Security Program eligibility requirements. NRCS would ensure that the trainers and their materials meet their specifications for conservation planning certification.

Training costs are extremely reasonable and will be paid for by participating certified crop advisors and governmental staff (most likely paid by their employers.) Costs associated with current program are $50/day, plus travel and lodging for participants. Additional trainers will be covered by the fees paid by the training participants. Meals will be provided through training costs.

An Advisory Committee may consist of, but not limited to representatives from a Farmer Cooperative staff, Certified Crop Advisors, MASWCD, NRCS, University of Minnesota Extension, University of Wisconsin Extension, Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Board of Water & Soil Resources and Minnesota Project staff will be formed to ensure conservation planning training meets the NRCS requirements, meets the American Society of Agronomy’s criteria for Continuing Education Credits, addresses Minnesota’s resource concerns and that the training outcomes are practical and applicable for the private sector agronomist and the local conservation governmental staff. The Advisory Committee will meet at the onset of the project to review the University of Wisconsin’s Conservation Planning Training course, alter it to meet Minnesota’s requirements and support the approved training curriculum. Communications via email and teleconferencing will occur throughout the training schedule and a second in-person conference would be expected to be held halfway through the training period, approximately July, 2006. A post-training meeting will again be held to discuss progress and develop a conservation planning training report. This report will be used as guidance for the training course in 2007. This report will also be made available to other state’s private and public entities that have a need to incorporate conservation planning into their agronomic industry. Another review will also be completed for the 2007 course.

The Minnesota Project staff will recruit trainers through close collaboration with University of Minnesota Extension staff and through networking with the Advisory Committee.

The Minnesota Project will recruit participants for the conservation planning training. This recruitment will be based on much of the cooperative efforts that were established during the designing of the project application and gathering initial support through discussions with the MASWCD, Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Minnesota Independent Crop Consultants, and other educational entities focused on agricultural training.

A CSP guide sheet, based on each of the training course sessions, that describes which conservation planning tools and practices can directly impact the competitiveness and eligibility of a farmer’s CSP contract.

The Minnesota Project staff will, with cooperation and insight from advisory committee and NRCS, trainers and participants, locate sites and times for classroom and field session’s requirements. Training for the 2006 sessions is tentatively scheduled to be located in south-central Minnesota and in 2007 trainings are tentatively scheduled for central Minnesota in the Stearns County area.

The outputs from this training program will include:
-Refinement of training curriculum for Minnesota agricultural and conservation issues
-More intimate involvement in conservation issues by the private agronomy sector
-An increase in local conservation agency staff capacity to deliver conservation
-Partnerships between private agronomy sector and local conservation agencies
-Twenty-five participants in each of the two training schedules
-Review and evaluation of CSP requirements in comparison to Conservation Planning training curriculum.
-A cadre of public and private sector professionals that will be able to provide conservation planning service and CSP-related advice to farmers for future farm bills.
-Agronomy and conservation staff as NRCS-certified conservation planners