Perdue USDA reorganization would shift conservation program

Source: Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, May 12, 2017

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said today that he intends to create a new undersecretary position at the Department of Agriculture and put conservation programs under it.

The move, which the USDA announced ahead of a speech Perdue was due to give in Cincinnati, is part of a broader reorganization that would also establish an undersecretary for trade.

Perdue would assign the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Farm Service Agency and the Risk Management Agency to the new position, called undersecretary for farm programs and conservation. In a letter to Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), Perdue said the move is aimed at improving customer service at USDA.

Perdue also said he was directing the NRCS and the FSA to look at ways of combining services, including co-locating offices in farm country.

“This realignment will reorient our approach to serving producers and improve our responsiveness to the needs of producers,” Perdue said. “It makes no sense that producers have to visit multiple USDA offices, often located within minutes of each other, to access our programs.”

Conservation and farm groups had a mixed reaction, saying the effort could put programs that are related to each other under one roof, figuratively and, in some cases, literally.

But they said they would have to study the implications more closely, and one farm group representative said his organization is initially “a bit torn” on what the change would mean for farmers, both from customer service and environmental perspectives.

By taking the NRCS away from the department’s undersecretary for natural resources, Perdue may be signaling an intention to focus its mission more toward farmers’ interests and less on environmental protection, said Callie Eideberg, senior policy manager for the ecosystems program at the Environmental Defense Fund.

“They have to be equal priorities,” Eideberg said.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition said the success or failure of combining the three agencies depends on the details.

“While better coordination between FSA, RMA, and NRCS is certainly needed, each of these three agencies provides critical and unique services and programs, which should be retained and strengthened, not weakened or eliminated,” the organization said in a news release.

In creating the new undersecretary for farm programs and conservation, Perdue would take influence away from another mission area — rural development — by relegating it from a “mission area” to an “office,” the sustainable agriculture group said.

The NRCS runs many of the department’s big conservation programs, such as the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Others, such as the Conservation Reserve Program, fall under the Farm Service Agency.

Perdue’s direction to the agencies to consider office locations comes as the Trump administration contemplates budget cuts that would include shrinking USDA county-level staffs.

Combining offices, though, could reap benefits in smoother operations, especially if farmers can find multiple services in one location, Eideberg said. That would continue an effort the USDA has made in the past, she said.