NRCS State Technical Committees and Local Working Groups: A Guide for Organic Farmers and Ranchers

This Guide will show how you can help shape federal Farm Bill conservation programs to better serve organic farmers and ranchers in your state by participating as a member of the State Technical Committee (STC) or a Local Working Group (LWG) for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

This guide was co-authored by OFRF, the Center for Rural Affairs, the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, and Farm Aid and funded by a generous grant from the Organic Valley Farmers Advocating for Organic Committee.

You can read individual sections of this guide by clicking on the section in the Table of Contents. You can also download a printable version of the entire guide.

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Introduction

This guide provides basic information on the role of NRCS State Technical Committees and Local Working Groups. It also has information on how you can join with other organic farmers and ranchers, as well as sustainable and organic farming organizations and conservation groups, to ensure that the Farm Bill’s conservation programs recognize and reward the benefits of organic farming and ranching systems in protecting natural resources.

The Guide is part of a larger collaborative project funded by Organic Valley’s Farmers Advocating for Organics committee, and a critical step in the long march for respect and integration of organic agriculture into USDA’s programs. We want to thank the members of Organic Valley and the Farmers Advocating for Organics Committee for supporting our work. Their help is greatly appreciated.

Our overall goal for this “Organic Integration” project is to build leaders in the organic community that will level the agricultural policy playing field for organic systems. We are starting with the federal Farm Bill conservation programs, as this is where we believe we can achieve the greatest impact for organic in the near term and also where we see the greatest need.

We have conducted workshops to inform organic farmers and ranchers on how to enroll in federal conservation programs and to encourage their participation. Some of our organizations have been involved in training NRCS staff on organic systems. But more is needed. Organic farmers and ranchers must participate on NRCS State Technical Committees and Local Working Groups to educate NRCS on an on-going basis about organic farming and ranching systems and to have a voice in shaping the implementation of the conservation programs in their state. We are currently conducting workshops for organic farmers and ranchers to delve into the workings of the STCs and LWGs and learn pro-active and positive ways to influence their outcomes.

We know organic farming and ranching systems protect natural resources. They provide economic opportunities for beginning, and small and mid-scale family farmers and ranchers. And they help build strong rural communities. Now it is time for these benefits to be fully reflected in our agricultural policy; this project is moving us in that direction.

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What are NRCS State Technical Committees?

NRCS State Technical Committees (STCs) are advisory committees for NRCS State Conservationists. In some states, this committee is called the State Technical Advisory Committee (STAC). Each state has an NRCS State Conservationist who is responsible for implementation of NRCS Farm Bill conservation programs at the state level. Many important decisions about conservation programs are made at the state level and the federal Farm Bill requires NRCS State Conservationists to consider the advice of their STCs in making those decisions. In fact, the National NRCS office is directing all State Conservationists to not only consider the advice of the STCs but that they should give “strong consideration to the STC’s recommendations on NRCS programs, initiatives and activities.”

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How do STCs (State Technical Committes) operate?

The NRCS State Conservationist is the chair of the STC and is required to ensure the following:

  • The State Technical Committee should meet at least twice a year at a time and place designated by the State Conservationist. Other meetings may be held at the discretion of the State Conservationist. Any USDA agency, however, can make a request of the State Conservationist for a meeting.
  • State Technical Committee and subcommittee meetings are open to the public.
  • The meetings are conducted as an open discussion among members, with discussion focused on USDA programs and activities.
  • The State Conservationist will inform the State Technical Committee as to the decisions made in response to all State Technical Committee recommendations within 90 days. This notification will be made in writing to all State Technical Committee members and posted to the NRCS State Web site.

STC Subcommittees

The State Conservationists form subcommittees, where members focus on a specific conservation program or issue and provide recommendations. For example, the subcommittee for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) focuses on that program and all its components and special initiatives (including the EQIP Organic Initiative, the Agriculture Water Enhancement Program and any state specific special initiatives).

The subcommittee level is where the State Conservationist and the NRCS state staff who are managing a program seek specific input from the State Technical Committee members. As a member of the full State Technical Committee, you have the option to participate on any of the subcommittees.

The STC Subcommittees are very important in making progress on integrating organic provisions into the conservation programs. Although the input subcommittees provide is presented to the full STC to see if there is agreement, usually the full STC does not add any new or additional ideas. In order to really influence the STC process and ultimately the program implementation, organic farmers and ranchers must participate in these subcommittees.

Committee meetings may be in person or by conference call. If you cannot be a member of a subcommittee, you can still provide input by communicating directly to the subcommittee chair.

Each state chooses priority issues and the practices that address these issues. If manure management is an issue, for example, promoting grazing practices and composting of manure can be added to the practices that are cost shared in the state in addition to the typical funding of large manure lagoons.

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How do you become a member of an STC?

Individuals or groups wanting to participate on an STC within a specific state may submit to the State Conservationist a request that explains their interest and outlines their credentials for becoming a member of the State Technical Committee. See the contact info for your state NRCS office to find out how to get in touch with your state office and State Conservationist.

The process works as follows:

  • The State Conservationist will respond to requests for State Technical Committee membership in writing within a reasonable period of time, not to exceed 60 days.
  • Decisions of the State Conservationist concerning membership on the committee are final and not appealable.
  • State Technical Committee membership will be posted on the NRCS State Web site.

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Suggestions for integrating organic agriculture practices into STC input

The following are important ways to integrate organic agriculture into STC recommendations:

  • Increase the ranking of conservation crop rotation and cover crops, especially in relation to conventional no-till practices.
  • Recommend practices that encourage grass-based operations, such as prescribed/rotational grazing, animal walkways, and forage management.
  • Encourage support for animal waste management practices consistent with grass-based systems; discourage practices that are part of large confinement operations, such as liquid manure lagoons. Encourage more composting operations by increased ranking of and education about manure composting.
  • Encourage recognition that organic farming practices, such as cover crops, provide more than one benefit, and rankings and payments should reflect the sum of contributions. For example, cover crops are used to control soil erosion, improve soil tilth and fertility, improve weed management, break disease and pest cycles and, in certain cases, provide the mulch for an organic no-till system.
  • Increase the ranking of field borders and conservation cover crops, which provide pollinator habitat. These plantings can be put in place in the organic farmers’ buffer zones and provide habitat for beneficial insects.
  • Expand the interpretation of the NRCS pest management practice standard to increase the ranking of enhancements such as predator (bats and birds) habitat and housing, trapping, pheromone disrupters, and other non-chemical practices common in organic systems. Currently, organic farmers do not gain many ranking points under this standard, since the standard is interpreted to provide dollars only to those farmers who are lessening their use of toxic substances.
  • Fund pastures per acre the same as row crops per acre, especially those that have been converted from row crops to permanent cover.
  • Review job working sheets that require the use of conventional fertilizers, synthetic herbicides or treated seeds to implement a specific practice (such as seeding a riparian area) and allow for the use of organically approved fertility inputs and activities as well as untreated seed.
  • Mandate that all NRCS district conservationists have organic training at least once per year.
  • Improve training for crop consultants, nutrient management planners, conservation planners, pest management planners and technical service providers, so they can work with existing organic farmers as well as provide the organic option to other farmers who both may be thinking of transitioning to organic, or may not know that organic is an option for them.

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What kind of recommendations do STCs provide?

Typical STC recommendations sought by State Conservationists include but are not limited to the following:

  • Priority natural resource concerns (air quality, energy, plants, soil erosion, soil quality, water quality, water quantity). the State Conservationist, with advice from the State Technical Committee, identifies their state’s priority natural resource concerns, which are used to help guide which applicants are awarded assistance through conservation programs. Identification of priority resource concerns significantly impacts the direction of both EQIP and the CSP.
  • Criteria for priority watersheds for program focus. Some programs call for identification of priority watersheds in order to better target results. The State Conservationist will seek input from the STC on how those watersheds should be selected. The Cooperative Conservation Partnerships Initiative, for example, is a watershed scale program.
  • Mixing programs and practices intended to address resource concerns can provide for creative ways to combine federal conservation resources with state programs and other local programs or initiatives. In Nebraska, for example, the STC provided input on how to target EQIP and the WHIP program to support the Nebraska Natural Legacy Project – a special project designed to conserve Nebraska's flora, fauna and natural habitats – and coordinated this effort with a state program for additional dollars in high priority areas.
  • Payment schedules are a list of all eligible practice and/or activity payment rates for a defined geographical area. Usually states only have one payment schedule for each program, except where compelling economic differences among regions within a State justify the development of separate payment schedules. States are supposed to coordinate across state boundaries in order to ensure “reasonably consistent” cost data and payment rates within similar geographic areas. STCs review and provide important input on payment schedules.
  • Cost-share rates are the percentages of the conservation practices costs that NRCS pays farmers to implement these practices. The STC provides input on cost-share rates for certain practices.
  • Criteria for ranking program applications. STCs identify and provide input on the criteria for ranking applications for programs, including the type of farming systems and/or practices that are funded. See the example ranking sheet in the back of this guide.
  • Conservation practice standards are the descriptions and specifications of the conservation practices approved by NRCS, for which farmers receive cost-share assistance to implement on their farms. NRCS Headquarters has a comprehensive list of practice standards. States, with input from STCs, determine which practice standards are available for specific programs in their states, and may also add criteria and requirements to the practice standards.
  • Innovative conservation practices and approaches. STCs can recommend alternative practices to those NRCS typically funds that better reflect the diversity inherent in organic systems, or allow for a greater number of smaller contracts rather than a few very large contracts. For example, rather than funding large manure storage facilities through conservation programs, STCs can recommend funding composting operations or manure digesters shared by several farms.
  • Outreach to historically underserved populations. Historically underserved populations are those that have not traditionally accessed or been served by NRCS Conservation programs. This includes but is not limited to organic, minority, small-scale, women, immigrant, and limited resource producers. STCs can make recommendations about which populations in their state are historically underserved and provide suggestions on how to reach out to these groups.

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What kinds of issues do STCs address?

NRCS STCs meet regularly to provide information, analysis, and recommendations to the NRCS State Conservationist. The STCs have no implementation or enforcement authority but NRCS is directed to give strong consideration to the STC recommendations when administering the programs.

The STC provides input on the following federal conservation programs:

  • The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which includes certain special projects or state selected set-asides that operate under EQIP.
  • Environmental Quality Incentives Program Organic Initiative (EQIP OI)
  • Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)
  • Cooperative Conservation Partnerships Initiative (CCPI)
  • Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)
  • Wetland Reserve Program (WRP)
  • Farm and Ranchland Protection Program (FRPP)
  • Grassland Reserve Program (GRP)
  • Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG)
  • Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP)
  • Technical Service Providers (TSPs)

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Who is eligible to participate on STCs?

The following groups and individuals are eligible for participation on STCs:

  • USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) staff
  • USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) staff
  • Members of the Farm Service Agency State Committee
  • U.S. Forest Service Staff
  • USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture staff (research)
  • Representatives of each of the federally recognized American Indian Tribal governments and Alaskan Native Corporations encompassing 100,000 acres or more in the State
  • Representatives of the Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts in the State
  • State departments and agencies within the State, including the:
  • Agricultural Agency
  • Fish and Wildlife Agency
  • Forestry Agency
  • Soil and Water Conservation Agency
  • Water Resources Agency
  • Agricultural producers representing the variety of crops and livestock or poultry raised within the State
  • Owners of nonindustrial private forest land
  • Nonprofit organizations with demonstrable conservation expertise and experience working with agricultural producers in the State (such as Trout Unlimited, Pheasants Unlimited, Nature Conservancy)
  • Agribusiness
  • Other federal agencies and persons knowledgeable about economic and environmental impacts of conservation techniques and programs to participate, as needed and invited by the NRCS State Conservationist

Conventional farming organizations and agribusinesses with a stake in selling agricultural inputs to conventional farmers have been participating on STCs for years. Before the 2008 Farm Bill was enacted, organic farmers and ranchers got involved with NRCS in only a few keys states. Their work in getting recognition and resources from the 2002 Farm Bill laid the groundwork for getting specific resources for organic systems in the 2008 Farm Bill.

With this new attention to organic in the 2008 Farm Bill it is imperative to educate NRCS about organic farming systems and their benefit to natural resources protection. In addition, participation on STCs will enable organic farmers and ranchers to get to know others in their states who need to learn more about the benefits of organic farming, including key people in state and federal agencies and non-profit sustainable agriculture and conservation organizations. Some of these agencies and groups have additional resources available for organic farmers and ranchers or they can be strong partners and allies in promoting organic agriculture in their state. For example, in Nebraska the Department of Environmental Quality also participates on the STC. They understand the environmental benefits of organic farming systems and funded an education and outreach effort to provide additional support for the EQIP Organic Initiative.

On the flip side, many conservation groups do not necessarily understand organic agriculture and have established relationships with main-stream, conventional agriculture groups over the years. Through these relationships they have worked to establish ways to support conservation in a manner that largely maintains the status quo. Therefore, it is critical that organic farmers and ranchers participate and work to establish these relationships as well. Some of these key conservation groups are just not awareof the alternative ways of production, like organic, that offer significant conservation benefits.

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Why should organic farmers and ranchers participate on STCs?

  1. To ensure full implementation of conservation program measures in the 2008 Farm Bill intended to provide organic farmers and ranchers with cost-share funding and conservation technical assistance for organic systems. Sustainable and organic farming organizations worked diligently for a 2008 Farm Bill that significantly increased the attention and resources for organic farmers and ranchers in NRCS conservation programs. Key measures include a new Organic Initiative in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and a requirement in the Conservation Stewardship Program to provide a crosswalk between the conservation plan for the program and the organic systems plan. In addition, NRCS has developed a Conservation Activity Plan for Organic Agriculture with recommended conservation practice standards and other administrative materials. NRCS will need advice from organic farmers and ranchers to ensure that these important provisions and measures for organic systems are implemented properly.
  2. To ensure that organic farmers and ranchers receive a fair share of Farm Bill conservation program funding and assistance that reflects the benefits of organic systems to environmental and natural resource protection. Organic farmers and ranchers are also eligible for the more general Farm Bill program funding that is available to all farmers and ranchers. Ranking of applications in many of the Farm Bill programs depends on NRCS recognition of the environmental benefits from different types of farming systems and practices. Organic farmers and ranchers must gain a voice on the STCs to help educate NRCS about the environmental benefits of organic systems so that these systems can be appropriately ranked.
  3. To increase the voice for organic agriculture within NRCS and other federal and state agencies and organizations.The 2008 Farm Bill revised the statutory provision for the State Technical Committees to require that NRCS includes agricultural producers representing the variety of crops and livestock or poultry raised within the State. NRCS recognizes that this representation is meant to cover different types of production systems including organic systems. It is critical that organic farmers and ranchers accept this invitation to participate on STCs.

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NRCS State Technical Committees or Local Working Groups?

This Guide starts first with information on participating on NRCS State Technical Committees (STCs), which are the state-level Advisory Committees to NRCS State Conservationists. It then discusses participating on NRCS Local Working Groups (LWGs), which are subcommittees of the STCs that provide advice about implementation of Farm Bill conservation programs at the local level. Some farmers and ranchers participate on both an LWG and the STC – others decide about participating on either an STC or a LWG based on the time commitment, amount of travel required, specific issues addressed, and so forth. This Guide will discuss some of the differences between serving on an STC and a LWG. Increased participation by organic farmers and ranchers on both STCs and LWGs is critical.

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