The Associated Press is reporting the government has plans to close more than one-fourth of the nation's Farm Service Agency offices. USDA officials claim the closures are an effort to modernize and consolidate services. But critics of the plan say it will lead to more inconvenience and fewer services.
Farmers depend on the county FSA offices as important links for government aid and advice. But assistance to farmers can take many forms. Some is economic, some is agronomic, and some is informational. Then there's the case of some Nebraska farmers who got a little incentive in all three of those areas ... and pursued some fundamental changes in the way they operate.
Bill Kelley explains.
It can be tough for anyone to change a firmly held belief, and Duane Choutka (HOOT-key) thinks that's especially true for farmers.
Duane Choutka, Lindsey, NE: I can tell you that if you're Catholic you wouldn't think about being a Lutheran. If you drive John Deere you have trouble driving an International. And if you till you'll have trouble no-tilling!"
On that last item, Choutka did change. He, and a lot of other farmers in northeast Nebraska won't bother tilling their fields before planting beans into last season's corn rows.
Duane Choutka, Lindsey, NE: "The first year I planted into standing corn stalks I said, 'Oh boy, don't look back. Just do it and pray for the best.' Well, I'll never go back."
That's an attitude encouraged with education and cash by the Lower Elkhorn Natural Resource District.
Dan Gillespie, Natural Resources Conservation Service: "The original program was 10 dollars an acre, up to 160 acres, for five years, and that was to go to continuous no-till. We have some guidelines on what is and is not "no-till. So the original program was five years up to $8000 if you did the max."
Dan Gillespie speaks both as a farmer and the area's leading no-till advocate, by way of his job at the local office of the USDA Natural Resource and Conservation Service. By paying producers to give no-till a chance on a few acres over a few years, the Resource District hoped to reduce soil erosion that too often was clogging drainage canals and reservoirs with silt. Since the local incentive program started in 1999, over 230 growers have signed up. They needed a little incentive.
Dan Gillespie, Natural Resources Conservation Service: "One of my favorite sayings is 'Change is good. You go first.' We had to find someone to go first. We felt that was the key. The incentive program did that."
Duane Choutka, Lindsey, NE: "I probably am a skeptic. I like to be sure of what I'm doing. It was a new venture for me and having weeds in the field when I went with the planter, that didn't used to happen. We'd disc and cultivate until there wasn't a weed and then we went to the planter. It's not changing religion, but it takes another mindset."
Duane Choutka is right in the middle of the program. Here's how it works. He set aside 160 acres, most of it highly erodible land, that he agreed he would not till before planting. Choutka's required to attend a couple of classes that outline the most effective no-till techniques. The original five year obligation has been expanded. He can add a sixth year now that federal dollars have been added. He wouldn't even need the cash incentive now to keep on going.
Duane Choutka, Lindsey, NE: "I'm not raising higher yields. I don't think I am because I don't have any tilled ground to compare it to, but I'm not taking a hit on yield and the longer I no-till the bigger the yields are coming."
With around $300,000 worth of incentives paid out, not only did most of the participating producers stick to no-till, many of them expanded the practice. The program's records showed they added six more no-till acres for every one they had originally been paid to practice on.
Dan Gillespie, Natural Resources Conservation Service: "Time saving; that's more time for family, for fishing, for business, for grandkids. Moisture saving; that just means more crop in a year when you fall short of rainfall. Soil saving; this is your medium that you raise your crop in. Sticking with this system gives you better profitability in the long run."
Duane Choutka, Lindsey, Nebraska: "There are a lot of farmers that just like 200-horsepower and still like to tear up the land. I don't have 200-horsepower and I don't have the time and I don't have the money."
For the members of the Resource District, the investment of property tax dollars, supplemented with federal aid, has been a benefit to both the farmers and the surrounding community.
Rod Zessin, Lower Elkhorn Natural Resource District: "I think it's good for urban and rural sectors that we make your water cleaner; that we make our farms better, our land better by no tilling them. So, yes, it is a good use of tax dollars, into something that makes the entire environment that we're in better."
Dan Gillespie claims the research and examples he's collected over the years backs up every one of his claims. He's most convincing when he shows his own 700 acres to visitors. Not too long ago neighbors would have said it was a mess -- all those leftover stalks and cobs. There is little erosion.
Dan Gillespie, Natural Resources Conservation Service: "So when the energy is dissipated from the raindrop, the soil structure changes that result from no-till. That is not tilling, but letting Mother Nature freeze/thaw over a period of years. It gives you a vertical soil structure and then you can let the water soak in."
Controlling soil erosion was the top answer farmers gave when the NRD surveyed the no-tillers. Saving time came in in second -- that was even more important than the money they saved.
Dan Gillespie, Natural Resources Conservation Service: "The sweetest part of it is to see them walk in the door the next spring and say, 'Man I can't believe how my land held, how my ground didn't wash.'"
If there is a reason the North Loup stops giving the incentives to growers sometime soon, it will be because they've run out of farmers who need a few dollars an acre to convince them that there are benefits to planting a crop without breaking the soil.
For Market to Market, I'm Bill Kelly.