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Chair Spanberger Opening Statement at Hearing on the Challenges and Successes of Conservation Programs in 2020

Washington, October 1, 2020

WASHINGTON- House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry Chair Abigail Spanberger of Virginia delivered the following statement at today's hearing on the challenges and successes of conservation programs in 2020.

[As Prepared for Delivery]

"Good morning and welcome to today’s hearing on the Challenges and Successes of Conservation Programs in 2020.

"I hesitate to say, “in these unprecedented times,” but it goes without saying that the ways NRCS operates and serves stakeholders and landowners across the country look different these days. Perhaps more importantly, the realities facing farmers and producers as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic downturn are about as different today as one could imagine as compared to when the 2018 Farm Bill was passed. We’re here today to examine the ways NRCS is adjusting to the new normal of serving customers and administering programs amid the pandemic, how producers and farmers are utilizing conservation during these dual crises, what challenges NRCS is experiencing, what successes the agency has had that we can build upon, what role conservation could play in the coming economic recovery, and whether there are additional flexibilities that farmers and producers may need within existing conservation programs to ensure that they are able to continue the important work of conservation during these uncertain times.

"Since the 1930’s, NRCS has worked to provide producers with technical support and financial assistance to achieve the benefits of a healthy and productive landscape. In 2019 alone, NRCS and its partners worked with more than 500,000 producers on over 43 million acres to build conservation plans and implement practices that increase production, reduce input costs, conserve natural resources, and protect wildlife habitat. Together these actions not only have a positive impact on farms, but also on their neighbors, their watersheds, and the entire U.S. population.

"In my home state of Virginia, NRCS works with 47 soil and water conservation districts and partners at the state and local levels to make sure Virginia’s farmers and landowners have the assistance and resources they need to protect soil and water quality across our state.

"Yet, in Central Virginia and across the country, the process of administering and delivering successful and meaningful conservation programs has grown increasingly complex over the years. For one, the forces acting on our soil and water and air are themselves becoming more extreme. We are seeing more frequent and intense impacts as a result of climate change – including frequent storms and flooding across the Midwest, hurricanes in the Southeast, and historic wildfires in the west. Adding to this complex environment is the COVID-19 public health crisis which, in addition to its human toll, has rippled throughout the agricultural sector as well.

"For these reasons, it’s imperative that we take a hard look at the ways we deliver our conservation programs, so that we can make sure we’re still able to accomplish their important goals in light of the challenges that exist. We know that NRCS programs not only help producers adapt to climatic conditions to protect food and fiber production but can even help reverse the effects of climate change. We also know that conservation programs can assist communities in recovering from economic shocks like the one presented by COVID-19 by generating significant economic activity and supporting a variety of jobs in rural communities. It’s worth noting that conservation spending, including implementation of practices, direct payments to farmers, and administrative costs, results in an injection of dollars into local economies. For example, from 2014 to 2017, $2.6 billion dollars was invested in the conservation technical assistance program.  This investment generated an average of $4 billion in economic activity and supported 12,100 jobs each year.

"Throughout this hearing today, I am eager to hear from our experts on conservation program delivery especially in light of this rapidly evolving landscape. I am also interested in hearing how conservation can contribute to the well-being of farm operations and aid in the COVID recovery.

"I also specifically want to hear our witness’ perspectives on the ability of NRCS field staff to service producers as the environmental landscape evolves, including updated staffing needs of the department, efforts to attract qualified staff, and what personnel resources are required to optimize the ability of these critical programs to accomplish their important goals."   

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