The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens

Obama's USDA: NRCS Chief Dave White


Sixth of an occasional series of U.S. Department of Agriculture interviews


The Obama administration’s efforts to save the sage grouse in the western states while possibly avoiding a listing as an endangered species and other large-scale conservation efforts are Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief Dave White's proudest achievements to date, White said in an interview with The Hagstrom Report.

“If you remember the spotted owl and the impact the spotted owl had when it was listed, the sage grouse has that same potential, but it covers about 10 times the area,” White said. “The reason I’m so concerned about that is we’re going to have 9 billion people on this planet. We need to double our food production in the next 30 or 40 years, and we must have agriculture as a healthy vibrant piece of the American economy.”

His controversial criticism of Environmental Protection Agency data on farm conservation efforts near the bay, he said, has “had a positive impact in fostering closer relationships, working relationships with EPA.”

On budget issues, White said he views his role as managing the budget he has been given rather than fighting for more resources. He said he wants to improve efficiency within NRCS through use of computers and reducing paper work, which would allow personnel to focus more on the farmers, ranchers and conservation efforts.

White said people who want to fight for more resources for the agency will have to approach other officials. “I’m not going to engage in any covert or uncovert action. We will be honest with Congress and others on ‘Here’s the impact, this is what will occur. That’s all we can do.”

The Natural Resources Conservation Service started out in the 1930s as the Soil Conservation Service. The old SCS was credited with saving the nation’s farm land from the erosion that occurred from bad farming practices that started in the homestead era and were responsible, along with low prices, for the conditions in farm country during the Great Depression.

The name was changed in a 1994 Agriculture Department reorganization and the mandate was broadened to help private land owners and managers conserve their soil, water, and other natural resources. Its budget is in excess of $4 billion per year, but several conservation programs were cut in the continuing resolution to fund the government through the 2011 fiscal year that ends on September 30.

President Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack appointed White NRCS chief in 2009. From 2002 to 2008, White was the NRCS state conservationist in Montana, but for much of 2007 and 2008, he was also detailed to work for then-Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, on the conservation title of the 2008 farm bill.

He also worked for Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., on the 2002 farm bill and served on the White House Task Force for Livable Communities. A graduate of the University of Missouri, where he studied agriculture, White began his 33-year career as a conservation aide in Missouri and has also served the agency in South Carolina.

Dave White
HAGSTROM: You’ve been the chief for two years now. What do you think your major accomplishments have been?

WHITE: I think how we’re approaching large-scale conservation issues, and I’m particularly proud of what we’re doing with the sage grouse out west. Sage grouse is an iconic species. It’s a candidate species. It’s a potential listing as a threatened and endangered species.

If you remember the spotted owl and the impact the spotted owl had when it was listed, the sage grouse has that same potential, but it covers about 10 times the area. So this has the potential to really have a major impact on 11 western states. What we’re doing is working very closely with the [U.S.] Fish and Wildlife Service [a division of the Interior Department], state wildlife agencies, and ranchers and state governments in the West to try to protect the core habitat areas for this bird and to prevent a listing.

In the context of your question, to look at a landscape-level conservation issue and to marshal our forces and focus our resources strategically, so we can address an issue in such a way that it protects this species and at the same time we allow ranching to flourish in the West.

The reason I’m so concerned about that is we’re going to have nine billion people on this planet. We need to double our food production in the next 30 or 40 years, and we must have agriculture as a healthy vibrant piece of the American economy.

We’ve had overwhelming support from the farmers, from the ranchers, state government.

[Pointing to a sculpture in his office] This statue was given to me by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. This is a replica of what [artist Frederic] Remington gave Teddy Roosevelt, and it’s because of the work we’re doing on the sage grouse.

It’s also a cross-departmental effort. The Fish and Wildlife Service is charged with the Endangered Species Act, and the reception we got there [is] a whole new shift. They went above and beyond to work with us. They have put in writing that if a rancher works with us, addresses the threats to the sage grouse, even if the bird is listed [he or she is] not going to have to do anything. They are going to give ranchers the certainty that they can continue ranching, no matter what happens.

Another unique thing in our plan is not to provide palliative care to every single sage grouse, but it to focus on the core areas and ensure the survival of the species. We do need energy development, wind and gas and oil, but if we can protect the core areas, we can ensure the survival of the species.

Last year, just by doing one thing in this program — just by marking or taking down 180 miles of wire fencing that was injuring or killing sage grouse — we are estimating we saved 800 to 1,000 male birds from collisions. That’s equal to the entire male [grouse] population of North Dakota, South Dakota, Alberta, Saskatchewan, California and Washington state.

If [we] can have that kind of impact in one year, I am hopeful that Fish and Wildlife will see that. We’re doing it again this year, so I’m really hopeful we can prevent the listing of the species.

Another landscape effort would be the Chesapeake, under congressional direction. We released that CEAP [Conservation Effects Assessment Project] report. We think farmers have done a heck of a job. Then we went back, and we looked at our computer records on what farmers have done since — the CEAP report covered 2003 to 2006. From 2006 to 2010, in just that five-year period, they’ve reduced sediment by another 20 percent, nitrogen by another 17 percent, phosphorous by another 15 percent. If we keep going at this rate, agriculture is stepping up to the plate. I’m much more bullish on the Chesapeake Bay than most people are.

HAGSTROM: There were some reports about some things that you said about the Environmental Protection Agency and its Chesapeake Bay effort. Could you go over that and talk about your relationship with that agency? There’s been controversy about that.

WHITE: I was at a meeting, and the statement I made was that not everything that’s in the EPA bay model is 100 percent accurate. I gave the specific example of conservation tillage.

They show 50 percent of the ag land in the bay under conservation tillage. Our CEAP report says 88 percent. So I didn’t say the bay model was flawed. I just said that some of the data that’s into it isn’t 100 percent accurate.

Since then, I have met with EPA. They have agreed to take our conservation tillage data. They have further agreed to sit down with us and, over the next month or so, to scope out information we have in the CEAP report that they can readily use in the Chesapeake Bay model, and then those longer term things that we can work on as we move forward.

So my somewhat intemperate remarks have had a positive impact in fostering closer relationships, working relationships with EPA.

HAGSTROM: One time when you were testifying at one committee and Secretary Vilsack was in another, he brought up the issue of the NRCS financial report and there was an acknowledgment that there had been some problems. What’s happened with that? Have those issues been cleared up, or are you still under a cloud?

WHITE: Here’s the background of that. In 1980, somewhere around there, Congress passed the Chief Financial Officer Act. That required the departments to undergo audits of their finances. When that was passed, USDA as an entity had to have this audit, but also there were three independent audits in USDA. There was the Food and Nutrition Service, the vast amounts of money they deal with. I believe Rural Development was an independent audit, and the Forest Service.

Fast-forward to ’07, ’08, somewhere in there. We are the first agency in USDA since 1980 to go through an independent audit, and the reason being is the big influx of money in the ’02 farm bill.

It is my understanding that it normally takes an agency about seven to 10 years to achieve a clean audit. That is because you have to redo your processes. It’s a new world for us. We have one of the A team auditing us. It’s KPMG. So not only is this rigor being applied to us for the first time, but we’re also having it applied by one of the top auditing firms in the nation. We’re in year three. We are making progress.

[Pointing to a tall pile of paper] This is our audit remediation plan for this year.

There’s the term of art — I always struggle with it — material weaknesses. They have identified seven material weaknesses for NRCS. We have a team on each material weakness headed by a senior exec. All our states are involved. This is the plan that they’re going to do for each of those.

We think we are going to probably completely address three of them, but even though we think two of them will be cleared, one of them will stay on the books because, even if you fix something, the auditors have to look at it for two more years to see that [the agency] maintained that.

We’re looking at probably another two to three years for us to completely spiff up the entire system.

HAGSTROM: Have they accused you of improper spending or improper record keeping?

WHITE: It’s mostly record keeping. There are no issues as far as fraud or abuse or anything like that.

We’re finding it’s a rigor that we have to enforce. We’ve got to have good [financial] policies. Our policies have all been updated now.

But reimbursable agreements is a material weakness. Reimbursable agreements is — you’re Forest Service, and you’re going to pay NRCS to do a soil survey on a national forest, or you’re [Bureau of Land Management in the Interior Department] and you’re going to pay us to do something. There are record-keeping issues with that.

There are issues on computer access. They look at stuff like who has clearance to get into the NRCS computer system. So, if a person retires or dies or shifts to another job, how long is it before you can no longer get [access]? We’ve got to tighten up those kinds of things.

It’s how you charge. We’ve got a lot of trucks out there in rural America and accounting for all the gasoline charge receipts that are around the country.

It’s big stuff, it’s little stuff, but it is the entire look at our financial package. We take it very seriously. Even in a tough budget year, we will be beefing up the number of financial people because we simply must do a great job. I want Congress and the public to have 100 percent confidence in our records, and it’s just going to take us a while to get there.

HAGSTROM: In the last few years, the budget has gone up, but your number of personnel has not. How do you see that situation now, especially since we’re in a tough budget year? There have been some complaints that you don’t have enough people, that you use consultants more than NRCS used to. How do you see this personnel situation going in future years?

WHITE: I know that there have been many people say, “Well, you need more people. You need more people.” That’s not a realistic assumption. It’s not a realistic request.

What we have to do is get efficiencies in the system. We’re going to lose people. Essentially, we know that. This is a tough budget climate. The president has had to make tough budget decisions in what he puts forward. Congress will make more tough decisions. My job is to manage through that.

Now, specifically, on how we can do a better job with the farm bill monies and the funds we’re entrusted with is we launched the streamlining effort.

We’re looking at redefining our business processes, so we can do a better job. We believe that within the next two or three years, if we can stay on track, we’re going to eliminate 80 percent of the administrative clerical tasks that our people have to do right now. If we do that, that would be the equivalent of us gaining 1,500 people.

A lot of it is from [information technology] investments. We’ve got to get into this century on IT, but if we can do that, we can do a superb job of administering these conservation programs with less resources.

HAGSTROM: How many people do you have?

WHITE: We have about 11,500 to 12,000 people.

HAGSTROM: These 1,500 people whose time you would gain — they are people who should be doing conservation work but are spending a lot of time on clerical stuff?

WHITE: I’m mostly looking at the field office staff, the front-line staff. We have some very good tools, but they’re stove-piped.

One of the big things we want to do is a unified desktop. Right now if I’m doing a conservation plan for [a farmer] and I want to know the soils on your farm, I have to get out of your plan, go to a different database, get the soils, get that information, paste it back in your plan.

We have a database that tells us how all the pesticides move through the soils. [The Agricultural Research Service] developed it for us. So [the farmer] is using Lamoni; he’s using glyphosate in a Lamoni silt loam. Well, how does glyphosate move through a Lamoni silt loam? How far are we to the depth of groundwater? Is that an issue? So you got to get out of your plan, got to figure out the chemical interactions and put it back in. We’re just having to type in too much stuff.

What we visualize is a unified desktop, so those things are available to them. So you don’t have to get in and out of programs. We’re the soils people. The soils should be automatically populated. We ought to be able to take more advantage of the investments we have made in geographic information systems. So, for that person in the field, instead of having to do that clerical stuff, [he or she] can be out walking the land with a farmer or with a rancher.

The other big thing is the mobile computing. They should have that data right there in their hands.

HAGSTROM: When they’re out on the farms?

WHITE: When they’re out on the farm. In rural America, we don’t have cell towers every 50 feet like we do here in the city, but even so you can put all this data in, in the field, on your way driving back to the office. Why couldn’t you uplink [so it would be] downloaded when you get back there?

If a person is applying for a conservation plan and [we’re] out there in the field with them, why can’t we tell them right then and there, “You will be funded”? Why couldn’t we print out the contract right then and there instead of having these batching processes the way we do now?

The other thing we’d like to do is open up our stuff to the ranchers and farmers. You may bank by mail. You’ve certainly bought stuff from Amazon or Costco over the Internet. A farmer should be able to come in and make an appointment over the Web, should be able to ask a question, should be able to see his or her conservation plan, should be able to see his or her [Environmental Quality Incentives Program] contract, find out when they’re due to put a practice on the ground; if they’re due reimbursement, where it is in the process.

Just think, if they could do that, they can do that at night, on weekends, on their own schedule. It also frees up a lot of our time. I think we can manage the budget if we can get this streamline thing through.

HAGSTROM: The president’s budget proposal would make some cuts. There’s the H.R. 1 cuts, and cuts in the continuing resolution. You’re under pressure in a lot of ways. What are you doing about all of this? Are you fighting behind the scenes? What is your approach on these budget matters?

WHITE: I always tried to be pretty much of a square-shooter. I’m not going to go around behind somebody’s back or anything like that.

My task is to manage the agency through whatever budget cuts there are. I think that we can do that in an appropriate way, with compassion for employees who may be affected, in a fair way. When we come out the other side, we will be a stronger entity.

There’s going to be some real impacts. There’s going to be impacts on people. There’s going to be impacts across the country. We’re just one small agency. It’s going to be magnified many times, but I’m not going to curl up in a fetal position and cry myself to sleep. I’m going to try to manage this process as best we can.

I also want to support the secretary and other agency heads who are dealing with this issue as well and the priorities that the president has outlined for this administration.

I have to realize that I’m just a tiny krill swimming amongst a pod of great blue whales, but this little krill is going to do the best damn job he can.

HAGSTROM: If somebody wants to fight these budget cuts, I guess they shouldn’t come to you. They should be approaching others. At what level do you think these budget cuts are being fought?

WHITE: Oh, my. You’re right. I’m not going to engage in any covert or uncovert action. We will be honest with Congress and others on “Here’s the impact, this is what will occur.” That’s all we can do.

What any other entity or organization does is up to them. I certainly can’t prescribe a course of action for them.

I would just hope that people behave honestly and ethically throughout this process.

HAGSTROM: In the rule-making after the last farm bill, NRCS asked specifically for public comment on how it’s used existing conservation programs for climate change mitigation and adaptation. Did you get much of a response? Have you changed any programs?

WHITE: We got some response. I don’t recall anything which has really knocked our socks off.

Secretary Vilsack is interested in this topic and how we approach climate change. We went out with some requests for proposals for projects that would look at adaptation and climate change. We’re in the reviewing process of that.

HAGSTROM: Is there a clear line between what the Forest Service does with private landowners and what NRCS does? How do you work that out?

WHITE: The Forest Service traditionally has state private forestry as their program, and they work through the state foresters.

We have become engaged to forestry through the farm bill programs offering that to the non-industrial private forest landowners.

We, too, are working with the state foresters, and I haven’t seen any kind of conflict or any kind of bubbles in that. We actually have often entered into agreements with state foresters to get their technical help to develop these forestry plans.

We just signed a memorandum of understanding with the American Forest Foundation and the Forest Service to agree on a template for what a forest plan is, so we don’t have competing forest plans. .

HAGSTROM: Is this a state’s forest plan, an individual landowner’s?

WHITE: Individual landowners.

HAGSTROM: Are you talking about somebody who has 100 acres of forest or 15 acres of forest?

WHITE: Both. We generally like to see a plan. Our plan could be a lot simpler than a full-blown plan. It may just deal with one practice. Say a non-industrial private forest landowner wants to do pre- commercial thinning. We may only do that kind of stuff. When you do that, you also look at your [invasive species]. You’re opening up. You’re going to have healthier trees that are left, less disease control. So it could be a lot of things; it could be a very simple thing. And it’s not size appended. A lot of your forest landowners are pretty small acreage people.

I think we’re like in lockstep with Forest Service or state foresters on this, and we certainly want to be.

HAGSTROM: There is a lot of talk about merging conservation programs. Do you have an idea of what programs could be merged and not hurt by merger?

WHITE: What are you talking about?

HAGSTROM: Like wetlands and grasslands.

WHITE: In the context of the ’12 farm bill?

HAGSTROM: Yes, in the context of the ’12 farm bill, the Conservation Stewardship Program, the Wetlands Reserve Program, the Grasslands Reserve Program. There’s talk that there too many programs, that people are having to apply too many places, that having them all is an inefficient way to deal with conservation.

WHITE: In the 2002 farm bill, I was loaned to Sen. [Richard] Lugar [R- Ind.] and helped him with the conservation title. In 2008, I was loaned to Sen. [Tom] Harkin [D-Iowa] and helped with the conservation title. In ’08 particularly, the House made some efforts to consolidate the easement programs. On the Senate side, we made some efforts to consolidate some of the cost share financial assistance programs and were unsuccessful. We were unsuccessful because some of the groups identified very strongly with these programs and would do anything to protect them. There’s ownership issues.

But I think in ’12, the opportunity certainly exists for Congress to take a look at all of the conservation programs. Do you really need as many programs as we have, or are there opportunities where you can streamline them and make them more efficient? From an agency standpoint, if you’re talking about fewer rules, you’re talking about less time to develop that stuff, you’re talking about field people who only have to understand a few things rather than a gamut of different programs. It makes it simpler for the farmers and ranchers. The acronyms become confusing after a while.

I would think that looking at that kind of stuff in the ’12 farm bill in the context of transforming how we do our business is something that they will take very seriously.

Plus, Congress will have the RCA [Soil and Water Resources Conservation Act appraisal] this time to help inform those decisions.

HAGSTROM: About the RCA [which was presented to Congress on April 6], has the process revealed anything particularly noteworthy?

WHITE: The RCA process is really a departmental one that nine different agencies in USDA helped develop. Then it went to [the Office of Management and Budget], the OMB clearance process sent it to all the departments that had a natural resources interest. So it’s gone through departmental, it’s gone through OMB review, [and then back to Agriculture Secretary Vilsack].

In general terms, it’s not going to be a big surprise. Water quality, water quantity are top-of-the-mind issues across the country. We had five listening sessions and 15 focus groups for a total of 20 sessions. The scientific data that went into this was from the 2007 Ag Census, from all the CEAP data we had on the CEAP at that time, from the National Resources Inventory. So it’s really well-informed with science and shaped around a lot of the public input. There’s going to be stuff in there about the impact of climate change.

Speaking from a personal perspective, I was at the NRCS in Montana. What I was seeing in Montana was up near the Canadian border, we’re seeing farmers shifting from spring wheat to winter wheat because the summers were getting to be too warm and dry for them to harvest the crop. So they’re actually planting the crop in the fall, and then they’re harvesting it in June. When it gets to be a little too warm for spring wheat in Montana, something is happening.

What is happening as we shift crop patterns around the country, when you plant, what you plant, how you plant, and all this is into that same area, about 9 billion people, doubling food production? How do we make all that work?

For the first time ever, we’re going to have estimates of erosion on range land. It’s going to be a good document. I mentioned in ’02, I was with Lugar, ’08, I was with Harkin. In neither one of those cases did Congress have access to up-to-date valid resource information that they could use to inform [questions such as] do you combine these programs, or do you leave them alone? What do you do, or how do you adjust it?

I know I’m not going to be up there this go-around, but the staff on the House and Senate Ag committees are going to have some pretty doggone good information that will help them as they move through it. The senators and representatives will be more informed when they do make the decisions.