A massive reorganization of the U.S. Department of Agriculture will mean the closing of more than 150 agricultural field offices in the Bay states, but will also encourage the department's state and local offices to find innovative ways to protect unique ecosystems such as the Chesapeake Bay.
As part of the reorganization, the department announced in December that it would close 1,274 field offices nationwide. Some people worry that could inconvenience some farmers and discourage them from participating in the department's conservation programs that benefit the Bay.
At the same time, the reorganization has transformed the old USDA agency, the Soil Conservation Service -- a longtime participant in the Bay Program -- into a new Natural Resources Conservation Service that not only has additional responsibilities, but is charged with tailoring its programs to specific "eco-regions."
Each year, SCS provides technical assistance to about 47,000 landowners in the Bay watershed. That assistance includes such things as the installation of sediment control conservation practices, livestock manure disposal systems, approving farm conservation plans, conducting resource inventories, and other water quality projects.
Under the reorganization, the new NRCS was given several additional programs, including the Wetlands Reserve Program, the Water Bank Program, the Forestry Incentives Program, and the Farmers for the Future Program.
The NRCS is also being decentralized to emphasize decisionmaking at the regional and state level, something officials say will help gear their existing -- and their new -- programs to unique resource issues.
"It's to benefit programs such as the Chesapeake Bay Program that this reorganization has been built," said Jeri Berc, who heads the NRCS's Maryland office and is a member of the Bay Program's Implementation Committee. "It's to be more responsive to the specific regional resource needs."
For example, she said, the state offices in the Bay watershed may opt to use various easement programs and the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to keep environmentally sensitive land idle, to promote stream bank restoration -- some thing that has become a high priority in the Bay Program. "We want to align what we're doing in the field with the goals of the Chesapeake Bay Program," Berc said.
The new state and regional emphasis, she said, will help bridge gaps between agricultural and environmental concerns by promoting "creative and innovative technologies." Field staff, she said, will be encouraged to develop new "site specific" solutions to problems. "We don't have all the solutions," Berc said. "We're looking at very complex ecosystems. We need to stimulate that development rather than impose a standard set of conservation practices across the board."
Those efforts will gain valuable expertise because the agency's four technical centers are being closed and their staffs are being divided among the states. The idea is to put the technical expertise "closer to the field" where they can help devi se innovative solutions to conservation issues.
The NRCS national headquarters staff is being decreased by more than half; many of those responsibilities will be given to the six new Regional Offices. All three Bay States are in the agency's East Region which includes all states from Virginia north. Each region will be headed by a "regional conservationist" who will be charged with regionwide strategic planning, and will allocate money among the state offices.
Although the NRCS national headquarters and administrative staffs are being cut by the changes, the field staff is expected to grow by about 1 percent.
Overall, the USDA's reorganization is intended to cut costs by $3.6 billion over the next five years, reduce staff by up to 11,000, and eliminate 15 agencies within the department.
Part of that savings is to come from the consolidation of different agency field offices, such as those of the old Soil Conservation Service, Farmers Home Administration, and the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service.
In Virginia, 57 of 111 offices will be closed. Pennsylvania will lose 22 of 72 offices, while Maryland will lose two of 25. In states located partly in the Bay watershed, Delaware will lose three of its six offices; New York will lose 25 of 71, and West Virginia 24 of 57.
The offices will be consolidated into "one stop" centers where farmers can receive the variety of assistance provided by the department, ranging from loans to conservation planning. Before, farmers sometimes had to go to as many as four offices to get help from all the programs run by the department.
The consolidation should help eliminate repetitive office staffs while making more people available to help farmers, according to USDA.
But in some cases, the change will mean that farmers will have to travel further to get assistance.
"There's a cost of doing business with the federal government and those costs have been going up in the farm programs," said John Johnson, assistant director of the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. "The farm program benefits have been declining while the paperwork, red tape and requirements to participate have been going up. At some point those two lines cross on the graph and a farmer makes the decision that it's just not worthwhile to participate anymore. I'm not trying to say that these offic e closings are going do that, but in some areas that may be the final straw."
The closing of the field offices follows nearly a decade of staff cuts which have already hurt effectiveness, some note.
"We could very easily see an impact on the Bay Program," said Kurt Leitholf, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Conservation Districts. "In some counties, farmers are going to have to travel farther to get their technical assistance."
To some extent, he said, state- and county-funded conservation districts, which generally work cooperatively with the federal field staff, will be able to continue providing technical support. "But the reality is, it does take funding to maintain , let alone increase, our staff out there," Leitholf said. "It's harder and harder for the state, let alone the local governments, to come up with the money."