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Agricultural News

Conservation Partnership in Oklahoma Benefits Producers in Troublesome Times

Tue, 21 Apr 2020 12:29:30 CDT

Conservation Partnership in Oklahoma Benefits Producers in Troublesome Times The definition of normal is currently being re-written amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

However, the definition of quick, caring, courteous service, is as solid as ever when it comes to USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) staff and partners serving producers.

Cambra Fields is a Resource Conservationist with Team 15 in the Vinita, Oklahoma, Field Office. The Coronavirus has somewhat changed how Fields and co-workers can approach their jobs, but it has not impacted how they strive daily to meet the needs of Oklahoma's farmers and ranchers, otherwise known as their neighbors such as Kelli Mitchell.

Mitchell is a Craig County producer whose husband Cole died in a car accident in September 2019. She has two children; one is 4 years old and the other is not quite 1 ½ years old. She has an off-farm job and a cow herd and a ranch to take care of, as well.

"Cambra and Zach (Simpson, Range Conservationist) have been incredible on guidance and getting things organized between multiple agencies," Mitchell said. "They've been so incredibly kind, in a million ways. Most recently they set up a state cost share plan for a burn for my place for some of my pastures. They were so kind in giving guidance to know when and where that burn should happen."

Fields, said, "The Farm Bill Wildlife Biologist with Quail Forever, Elizabeth Elliott, wrote an all-inclusive burn plan that covers every single detail that the landowner needs to know and how to get prepared for a burn. The Indian Territory Burn Association, which is within the Oklahoma Prescribed Burn Association, came out and gave her assistance the day of the burn. Having these associations gives landowners like Kelli, who are unfamiliar with burning and who don't have enough help to burn, the chance to have assistance the day of the burn, on the ground training, provides extra equipment that each landowner may not own and allows neighbors to help each other out by assisting others in burning their own pastures through the local Prescribed Burn Association. Even when schedules allow, these associations have built up a relationship with local fire departments to allow them to be onsite for the burn as well."

The prescribed burn was through the State Cost-Share Program with special money for the Soil Health Initiative. This particular example was a partnership effort between NRCS and the Craig County Conservation District.

Jo Callison with the Craig County Conservation District said of the State Cost-Share Program, "The farmers really look forward to when we are going to have a new sign-up because they know they need a pond and can't afford it, but with the Cost-Share, it becomes a reality."

"The Oklahoma State Cost-Share Program is another great source of technical and financial assistance for Oklahoma producers," said Gary O'Neill, Oklahoma NRCS State Conservationist. "The Oklahoma NRCS and Conservation District staff deliver this program seamlessly to ensure farmers and ranchers receive the assistance in a timely manner. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how we work directly with farmers and ranchers; however, it hasn't changed our goal to assist producers with their conservation needs. This is still our highest priority."

That's the norm NRCS continues to operate under, walking along side producers when they need it the very most.

"Our number 1 goal, especially this year with cattle prices being tanked, dairies losing money and farmers' crops not worth anything, is producers need our financial assistance, now more than ever," Fields said. "We are doing everything we can to find a way to help these hard-working producers. They're the butter to our bread and we must have them to survive in our jobs."

Fields is a conservation planner who provides conservation assistance to landowners in Craig County in northeastern Oklahoma. This office is a good example of the commitment to safely carry on with service amid very unfamiliar and challenging circumstances. Fields and Simpson, Range Management Specialist, and Chism Horton, Range Management Specialist, have been providing technical assistance to landowners for prescribed burning through the State Cost-Share Soil Health Program. James Dixon, Resource Conservationist, has been developing conservation plans relating to this program, and Kyle Johnson, Soil Conservationist Technician, and Hannah Spitler, Agricultural Engineer, along with David Jordan, Civil Engineering Technician, have been making field visits for the current State Cost-Share Program in which the producer wants to put in a watering system, terraces or waterway practices. Also, Fields and Simpson have been going out looking at spraying and grass planting applications.

Because of the varying practices, they will get to know producers rather well.

For instance, Fields said of Mitchell, "She has a current year State Cost-Share application for a pond and this year in EQIP we have a spraying application."

Under the previous definition of normal, the process would start with a producer coming into the office to fill out a State Cost-Share application. However, along came the spring of 2020.

Still, USDA is certainly open for business. Just the approach is different as USDA's Service Centers are open in Oklahoma by phone appointment only.

"So, the producer will call, and we will fill out the application for them and the district has agreed to let them come by at a later date to actually sign their State Cost-Share application," Fields said. "They will then explain to us what they are looking for Cost-Share assistance on and where they are proposing the project to be located."

Amid the new conditions with the pandemic, instead of meeting with the producer and having them ride along, the producer takes his or her own four-wheeler and the NRCS employees will follow them around to look at their areas of concern. A conservation plan is written and either emailed or mailed to the producer for their signature.

"We will be waiting until further notice until the conservation board is able to meet to fund applications," Fields said.

All the while during this process, NRCS employees are wearing masks and practicing social distancing.

While you may not see the all familiar handshake between employee and producer, the continued presence and dedication of NRCS serves in itself as a well-appreciated non-verbal handshake.

"Producers are very thankful for what we are continuing to do for them during this pandemic," Fields said.

The State Cost-Share Program, administered by the Oklahoma Conservation Commission (OCC), provides financial assistance to landowners to apply soil and water conservation practices. The basic purpose of the program is to help improve water quality and control soil erosion in the state.

The USDA NRCS provides free technical assistance for the conservation practices to landowners.

Trey Lam, Executive Director of OCC, said, "NRCS staff provide critical technical assistance to each Conservation District in delivering the locally led State Cost-Share Program. Installing conservation practices on the land could not happen without the local partnership of NRCS, Conservation District Boards and District Employees. During these difficult times NRCS folks have stepped up to lend a hand even more. Whether it's planning for prescribed burning of pasture, construction of a pond or planting native pastures, timing is critical for success. The essential work must go on. All Oklahomans owe a big thank you to the professionals at NRCS and the local Conservation Districts for showing how a conservation partnership is protecting our soil and water while always meeting the Oklahoma Standard."

USDA is open for business. USDA's Service Centers are open in Oklahoma by phone appointment only. This includes NRCS, FSA and Rural Development. Our team is continuing to provide the best customer service we can while also prioritizing the health of our employees, the health of our customers, and the health of our partners. While our program delivery staff will continue to come into to the office, they will be working with our customers by phone, by email, and using other online tools whenever possible.

To learn more about USDA programs and the Department's response to the Coronavirus visit farmers.gov/coronavirus.



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