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October 27, 2009

State Technical Committee Meeting Minutes

DATE: July 13, 2011

TIME: 9:00 a.m.

PLACE: Metro Technology Center, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

PRESENT: Junior Welch, ORWA
Rod Wanger, FSA
Melinda Thompson, FSA
Barth Crouch, Playa Lakes JV
John Hendrix, USFWS
Mike Sams, ODWC
Ed Hurliman, OK Forestry Association
Steven Smith, National Forester
Jeannie Anthony, ORWA
Kurt Atkinson, ODAFF – Forestry Services
Jessica Willis, Congressman Tom Cole’s Office
Terry Bidwell, OSU
Tim Bartram, OK Wheat Growers
Jean Steiner, USDA-ARS
Terry Detrick, American Farmers & Ranchers
Mike Thralls, OK Conservation Commission
Marla Peek, OK Farm Bureau
Jeff Crosby, Land Legacy
Ray West, City of Tulsa
Jay Pruett, The Nature Conservancy
Carl Parrott, ODEQ
Ed Fite, OSRC
Ben Pollard, OCC
Melanie Oliver, NRCS
Scott Schneider, NRCS
Steve Glasgow, NRCS
Richard Zetterberg, NRCS
Ron Hilliard, NRCS
Joni Mustain, NRCS

Minutes from the Meeting

1. MEETING CALLED TO ORDER – RON HILLIARD, NRCS, CHAIRMAN

Ron Hilliard welcomed the group and stated that four cases have been settled within USDA, involving Black Farmers, Native Americans, Hispanics, and Females. More than $1 billion dollars has been allocated to be paid in settlements for discrimination between 1981 to present. A phone number and website are available for information regarding these cases, and Ron provided a handout regarding this. He also stated that Outreach Meetings are being scheduled and will be held soon.

Ron also discussed changing the Allocation Process this year. A State Resource Assessment was developed, and several State Technical Committee members participated in developing the assessment. The 2012 budget will be built from this assessment. Ron stated that we need to see where we need to be with some of the USDA programs, and he encouraged the group to jot down any questions or issues they have regarding programs. A list of questions was provided to the group to consider.

All attendees then introduced themselves to the group, and Richard Zetterberg went over the agenda for the State Technical Committee meeting.

2.  FARM SERVICE AGENCY REPORT, ROD WANGER, FSA

Rod Wanger reported that FSA is offering Voluntary Early Retirement to control the budget. He stated there will be a 10% cut in personnel in 2012, and their agency is limited even in supplies to send out information to producers, and they are looking at using email more to get information out.

Rod stated FSA had a good Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) Signup with 187,000 acres offered and 164,000 accepted. Cimarron County hit their 25% cropland limitation, but will have acres expire in 2012. Most of the acreage is re-enrolled acreage, 192,000 acres will expire on 9-30-12, and there were 861,960 total active CRP acres as of April, 2011.

Rod discussed the SAFE Area for Wildlife Enhancement which targeted the Lesser Prairie Chicken and was formulated by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation and the US Fish & Wildlife Service. There are approximately 5,500 acres involved in this program at present, and participants get a Signup Incentive Payment of $100 per acre.

Rod stated the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program currently has 480 acres enrolled. For the Grassland Reserve Program (GRP), FSA deals with rental contracts, and approximately 59,416 acres have been enrolled. $2.3 million dollars was allocated for GRP in 2011. For the Emergency Conservation Program (ECP), three counties were approved due to wildfires; others were approved for tornados, and $1.1 million dollars has been allocated for the program.

Rod provided a map which details counties approved for Emergency Haying and Grazing of CRP. 148,658 acres are being hayed/grazed (primarily grazed), and there are concerns about wildfires due to this. Rod reported the Livestock Feed Program paid out about $12.5 million dollars as of 7-6-11, and is a significant program due to the drought. The Livestock Indemnity Program deals with livestock lost due to a disaster (snowstorm, blizzard, etc.).

The State Emergency Board (comprised of NRCS/FSA/RD/Extension) recently met, and 8 counties in northeastern Oklahoma have deferred requests for a Secretarial Natural Disaster Designation. This designation should occur soon, which makes producers in the counties eligible to apply for emergency loans, and also for an IRS Deferred Livestock Sale Revenue.

Rod also provided the following upcoming program deadlines for FSA programs: July 29, 2011: 2009 SURE; August 1, 2011: 2011 DCP/ACRE & 2011 Summer Crop Acreage Certification; August 31, 2011: 2011 NAP Coverage-Various Crop Closing Date; September 1, 2011: 2010 ACRE Production Reporting Date.

A question was asked regarding using firebreaks and fireguards for CRP, and another regarding whether cattle falling through ice on ponds would be eligible for LIP. Rod commented that firebreaks are a cost-share item for CRP; however, producers are not forced to have them. Rod stated he does not think FSA would be able to pay through LIP on cattle falling; however, if there was an ice storm/snowstorm and the cattle could not see the pond, payment could be made. An additional question was raised regarding the stocking rates for haying and grazing and if they would be allowed to graze anyway. Rod provided that there are two ways to administer this; they have a minimum residual height of stubble, and calculate a stocking rate – 75% of the rate.

3. AGENCY REPORTS

John Hendrix, US Fish & Wildlife Services: John Hendrix stated the US Fish & Wildlife Services’ budget for 2012 is bleak, but was good for 2011. The Partners Program receives $450,000 - $500,000 per year, and shares this funding with other agencies (OCC, ODWC). John provided that $512,000 was spent this year, and their agency works closely with NRCS and their engineers on wetlands sites. OCC puts the money given them into their District offices. For the past two years, USF&WS has had a lot of requests for a No Till Grass Drill, and they will provide one in Harper and Caddo Counties. Most of the money that goes to ODWC has been used for working with private landowners to cut Eastern Red Cedar.

A question was asked concerning whether cutting the red cedar is followed up with prescribed fire? John stated this is a turnkey job set up in their agreements (which are for 10 years) and there is one burn, and sometimes two.

Mike Sams, ODWC: Mike Sams reported ODWC does not receive state tax revenues and has not felt the strains of the budget; he stated their agency strongly depends on partnerships. ODWC has a Cooperative Agreement with NRCS for the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP), and this has expanded to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) with a Quail Emphasis. $2.5 million dollars will be utilized to benefit quail over a five year period. An Agreement with OSU will follow up to look at the effects.

For WHIP, $1.2 million was obligated 3 years ago; $750,000 last year; and $225,000 this year. There are only three ODWC staff members now working on WHIP instead of four. At this time, ODWC is unsure of where this agreement will go in the future.

A question was asked regarding what effect there is on quail where there is a dense turkey or pheasant population, and Mike answered that there is no effect as you see a habitat issue. There are a lot of turkey and quail in western Oklahoma, and pheasants do a lot better in agricultural land.

Mike Thralls, OCC: Mike Thralls reported their budget was just passed for the fiscal year which began July 1st. The budget is down 4%, and down 20% from last year’s budget. For personnel funds, there is an 8% reduction in staff, although there is a lot of program funding available.

There are eight rehab projects- flood control dams, where the funding is 65% federal monies, and 35% state monies. OCC has taken the lead on the Section 319 Clean Water Act Non Point Source program for which a 20% cut may occur. Mike also commented on the issues regarding blue green algae due to the hot weather and spring rains. He stated that nutrients is the one issue that can be impacted and can make a difference; however, this takes a lot of time.

Jean Steiner, ARS: Jean reported that she is working on a national project with NRCS, ARS, and other partners to determine environmental impacts of conservation, and they have focused on the Ft. Cobb watershed. The research project will broaden to include a grazing land component, and they are working to identify partners, priorities, and monitoring. If anyone is interested in working on this project, particularly for wildlife habitat, please contact Jean.

A question was asked regarding how much funding is from earmarks, and Jean answered that this is all base funding, no earmarks.

4. NRCS PROGRAM MANAGER REPORTS

Melanie Oliver, NRCS: Melanie stated that the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) provides technical and financial assistance to private landowners and Tribes to restore, protect, and enhance wetlands in exchange for retiring eligible land from agricultural production. She reported that last year was the highest year for WRP in Oklahoma as $8 million dollars was spent. However, for this year, NRCS does not have enough applications to spend all of the funding allocated. She commented that an easement was closed on yesterday in Cherokee County which is the first one in that county.

WRP enrollment options are Permanent Easement (pays 100% of the easement and restoration cost); 30-year Easement (pays 75% of easement and restoration cost); Restoration Cost-Share Agreement (pays up to 75% of the restoration cost); and 30 Year Contract on Acreage Owned by Indian Tribes. Melanie stated that Oklahoma currently has 276 agreements, encompassing 60,850 acres in 41 counties. Melanie provided a map of the Geographical Area Rate Cap (GARC) for 2011, and stated the process to determine GARCs will change in 2012. The Oklahoma Ag Economic Service has been used to establish GARCs; however, in 2012, a market survey will be completed which will involve doing appraisals to estimate values. The State Technical Committee will review the GARCs, and hopefully GARC rates will increase after this survey.

Melanie showed some slides provided by Steve Barner, WRP Specialist, regarding WRP restoration in Oklahoma in 2011. Steve emphasized that the most successful WRP easements occur when the NRCS has an active and engaged relationship with the landowner. Active landowners and monitoring of the easement can provide opportunities to ensure that every acre is allowed to achieve maximum conservation value.

Slides on Forest Stand Improvement (FSI) were also provided. A high percentage of the riparian and upland buffers taken into WRP permanent easements are abandoned cropland fields or pastures. Most of these abandoned fields have grown to closed canopy, and disturbance is required in order to achieve climax community. Therefore, 200’ buffer zones along creeks and wetlands, oak species, diameter stems >20” for super emergent trees, and as many dead stems as possible in an upright position for den/cavity re-establishment are left. After the FSI treatment, native grass, forbs, and legumes are established, stumps are treated, prescribed fire is accomplished, oak species are planted, and monitoring occurs.

Richard Zetterberg, NRCS: Richard Zetterberg reported that the Healthy Forests Reserve Program (HFRP) was approved for Oklahoma in 2009 to protect endangered species. It is being offered in 5 counties: Ottawa, Adair, Cherokee, Sequoyah, and Delaware, and is targeting the Big Eared Bat, gray bat, and cave minnow through easements. Richard said that no new money was received for fiscal year 2011; however, $3.5 million was carried over from 2010. One permanent easement closed in Delaware County on 166 acres. Participants have signed easement offers in Delaware, Adair, and Cherokee counties.

Richard stated that FSA & NRCS administer the Grassland Reserve Program (GRP). FSA handles the rental agreements, and NRCS administers the easements. For fiscal year 2011, an allocation of $1.8 million dollars was received; in addition, $516,000 was received this month for the Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative. Two easement offers on 2,176 acres in Osage County and ten rental contracts on 6,000 acres have been approved for 2011.

No applications have been received for the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP) in FY 2011; however, three properties were closed on this fiscal year.

A question was raised concerning targeted areas – critical watershed areas – and how much of the easements are tied into the water bodies. Richard stated that the HFRP deals with the restoration of trees and is geared toward burning, in most cases the upland areas. The goal is to protect the cave of the Big Eared Bat as there are only 2,500 bats left.

Richard stated that the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is the largest program; however, the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) is growing. Richard provided the most common practices for EQIP as being Brush Management, Fence, Forage and Biomass Planting, Pond, Irrigation System, Sprinkler, Residue and Tillage Management, No-Till/Strip Till/Direct Seed, Grade Stabilization Structure, Nutrient Management, Irrigation System, Microirrigation, and Integrated Pest Management. A question was asked regarding Brush Management, and whether the bulk of this practice involves red cedar, and Richard replied that 75-80% is cedar. A comment was made that Prescribed Burning should be at the top as mechanical control does not have a very big impact. Richard commented that fire is a separate practice and due to the participant, weather, etc., it is hard to keep prescribed burning on schedule; a lot is planned, but not accomplished. Another comment was made regarding the fact that a lot of wildfires have done a great job at controlling the cedars.

Richard stated there was a request made at the July, 2010, State Technical Committee Meeting to add In-Vessel Composters to the EQIP Cost List, which was accomplished. This practice has been planned in 7 EQIP contracts in Grady, Hughes, Seminole, and Woodward counties with $366,849 obligated.

Richard discussed state-wide initiatives such as the Ag Energy Initiative and the Organic Initiative. Richard feels there is more potential for the Organic Initiative, and we need to educate more about it. He also commented on the Ogallala Aquifer Initiative, the Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative (which is a multi-state initiative), and the Illinois River Initiative. Richard stated the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program (AWEP) received forty-four applications with fourteen selected for funding with over $620,000 provided to address water quality and quantity issues on 2,800 acres.

Richard reported that over 290 applications were received for the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP), and nine applications were selected for funding. The most common practices were brush management, prescribed burning, prescribed grazing, range planting, and field borders.

Richard stated that over 1,200 acres were received for the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), with 584 contracts selected for funding. Over 746,000 acres were enrolled in 2011 at an annual cost of over $10 million dollars. Richard stated that CSP is a stewardship program, and an applicant has to be at a certain level to get in.

A question was asked about budget cuts and whether USDA will continue to meet obligations of existing contracts. Richard responded that he has never seen the government not make good on an approved contract. It was asked if the producer would have the option to bail out of a contract, and Richard responded that both parties would have an obligation to fulfill a contract. It was asked whether the Ogallala Aquifer Initiative includes cedar removal, and Richard responded that it does not.

Steve Glasgow, NRCS: Steve discussed Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG), and stated there are two ways to apply: nationally or state. The State Technical Committee submitted a state CIG, and this is a grant program, funded through EQIP. CIG is offered to individuals, groups, and agencies who can demonstrate existing technologies to deal with practices. There is one application for $50,000 which the subcommittee of the State Technical Committee will review. The applicant should be notified at the end of July, and Steve stated that three categories offered have now increased to six.

Steve was asked if he could summarize the national CIGs that have been approved in Oklahoma. Steve stated that Heifer International is developing a mentoring network for small landowners. It is a multi-state project in place for three years. He also reported there is a CIG which involves the tribes in the southwestern part of the state.

Ron Hilliard, NRCS: Ron discussed the Resource Assessment which is out for review and has to be sent to the national office by August 5th. Ron stated that this Assessment is an effort of all partners who will prioritize the data, and will be the basis for requesting funds from the national office for fiscal year 2012. A comment was made regarding soil erosion not being rated very high and a question asked whether research is coming and if this is a big focus of the research plan. The response was that this is difficult because so much can occur within the stream bank itself. Another question was asked regarding Water Quality Degradation and how they were able to determine how many/which acres are at risk. The response was that they used GIS and looked at all water bodies, nutrient limited watersheds, soils, land use value, and proximity to certain things. Historic NRCS assistance and what NRCS can get done were also reviewed based on three years, and this will be re-evaluated. The OCC Water Quality Division reviewed this information as well. It was asked whether the public water source was taken into account, and the response was that everything in the watershed was taken into account. Ron stated that Oklahoma leads the nation in watershed dams, and the Watershed Rehab Program was allocated $15 million dollars this year with a proposal out for $50 million dollars. This funding provides thirty-five NRCS full-time jobs.

5. INPUT FOR FY 2012 PROGRAMS/QUESTIONS –RON HILLIARD, NRCS

Ron provided a handout to the group entitled, “Talking Points”, which listed questions regarding USDA programs. He asked the State Technical Committee members to complete the form and send it to NRCS to inform us of anything as far as Program Delivery that we are not doing and need to be doing.

A comment was made that USDA needs to advertize as landowners of today are different: i.e. businessmen, lawyers, etc., farming only on weekends. Jean Steiner reported that the Soil & Water Conservation Society (SWCS) held a meeting in June, and this issue was identified as a gap. There will be a workshop in January or February to address this, and the SWCS will use this Committee to publicize the information. Ron stated that USDA needs to consider using popular means of communicating with the public; he believes that Facebook possibly could be utilized.

A question was asked about the Adjusted Gross Income Limitations, and the fact that there are wealthy, professional people involved in USDA programs. Rod Wanger stated that the AGI limit is $500,000/$1 million dollars unless 66% is from farm income. A comment was made that this is one of the dilemmas that people who cannot afford much are competing for these programs with those who are wealthier. Ron commented that NRCS has been undergoing an internal audit the last two years, and we lose the funding if the landowner cannot afford to follow through with a contract. The funding is returned to the national office, and we are not able to utilize it in the state. It was asked if a producer can delay practices, and Ron responded that yes, a producer can execute a modification to reschedule. He also stated that the producer determines what they can afford to do in a contract, and a waiver of liquidated damages can be granted if the producer notifies NRCS in writing of a hardship.

A comment was made regarding CSP eligibility determinations, and the perception that this is not made on what is being done, but how a producer is able to answer the questions. Richard Zetterberg stated that the producer receives a ranking score based on what is completed on the form; however, a field review is done to verify the information. A re-ranking will occur if what is on the form is not what is seen in the field. A comment was made regarding frustration with the self-certification process as it takes too long and sometimes the information is lost in the system and they have to begin again; a lot of paperwork is involved (30-32 pages). A comment was made about the producer looking at the initial score and maybe if the staff were more enthused about the program, more applicants could be approved. It was stated that the application can be deferred to the next year, but there is no recourse at that point and no appeal rights.

A question was asked regarding easements and whether oil and gas development will be allowed on properties. Ron stated if there is a potential for activity, we are looking at the surface, and if oil and gas comes later, we will deal with it. He stated that he, as State Conservationist, has relaxed this policy and that we also do due diligence. It has to be agreed to by the Office of General Counsel and the national office, but it is not cut and dried that we will not take the land into the program.

Ron commented that several field offices are overloaded with work, and NRCS is detailing staff to those offices, but we are not able to add staff at this time. He stated Oklahoma has over 6,000 active contracts with 16,000 practices involved at this time. A comment was made that we should be looking at ways to leverage federal funds with local and state agencies.

A comment was made about invasive species and that due to mechanically removing these, quail are down, and there are water quality issues. The statement was made if more burning occurred instead of cutting, it would help as cedars are everywhere you look.

Jessica Willis commented on her ag casework and how it is very important to get information out to the public. She stated that a lot of people do not have internet access and they need to be educated about USDA programs.

Ron stated that we need the help of all agencies to emphasize the value of USDA programs to consumers to improve and conserve natural resources, not just pay producers in order to provide the safest, least expensive food. It was commented that we need more outreach, and there is so much information on the web, but it is hard to get out all of it to everyone. A suggestion was made to utilize billboards across the state for conservation issues, providing USDA office phone numbers. Mike Sams commented that ODWC has worked with a lot of “new” landowners and there is a lot of information out there, but no time to look at all of the information that is available. It was stated that there are a lot of initiatives available, but producers get confused with so many options.

Barth Crouch reported that the Senate Ag Committee will hold a Farm Bill Hearing in Wichita, Kansas, on Thursday, August 25, 2011, from 9 am to noon, at the Hilton Wichita Airport, to discuss reauthorization of the Farm Bill.

6. CLOSING REMARKS – RON HILLIARD, NRCS

Ron Hilliard thanked the committee members for taking time to attend this meeting, and asked that any issues, comments, or questions be sent to USDA for review.


Last Reviewed/Modified: 11/01/2011

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