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Conservation Planning Bootcamp Blog

It’s great to be back at the District in Cleveland, Ohio! For the last three weeks, I’ve been in Lincoln, Nebraska, taking part in the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Conservation Planning Bootcamp (say that three times fast). I feel that I’ve learned more in the past three weeks than I’ve learned in the past three years.

Before writing about Bootcamp, I’d like to say thanks to the NRCS for providing the funding to the National Association of Conservation Districts to attend this training. Additional thanks goes to my boss, Jan Rybka, for providing me the opportunity. And last but not least, thanks to my family for allowing me to go away for three weeks.

So Conservation Planning Bootcamp, what is it? Simply put, it’s a three-week immersive experience that’s strives to give its participants a hands-on overview of all things the NRCS does in the name of farmland conservation and the procedural steps to get those things done.

NRCS and District employees from all over the States participate in this training. We had folks from Texas, Ohio, Arkansas, Michigan, Puerto Rico, Oklahoma, Iowa, Missouri, Kentucky, California, Nebraska, and etcetera. Everyone comes with a different skill set and experience level. Often, state location correlated with some kind of skill set. The Texans knew their rangeland. Iowans knew their terraces and grassed waterways. The Alabamans and Ohioans knew their manure storage.

I, as the lone urban ag person amongst the group, stood out as uniquely unique. I think in thousands of square feet; whereas, these folks think in thousands of acres. That being said, everybody made me feel very welcome, and all were willing to share, teach, and explain without any kind of city slicker type judgement. I came out of this experience confident that America’s conservationists are top-notch and that they all have our soil, water, animals, plants, and air in America’s best interests. Earning the nickname, “Pawpaw” from my peers was pretty cool too.

Ultimately, the goal of Conservation Planning Bootcamp is to develop a conservation plan for a farmer. The plan itself contains no less than 20 documents and is predicated on a rigorous set of mostly environmental “if, then” premises. These “if, then” premises manifest themselves into a document called the CPA-52, which in layman’s terms is a giant Excel spreadsheet checklist of resource concerns. To quantify “giant,” I believe ours had 400 rows.

Even though the CPA-52 is quite a beast in and of itself, it’s the research that goes into answering the questions that is so involved. To answer some questions, the planner must walk the field to see if there is visible erosion or more tough questions like, does the field have more than 20% residue, but less than 90% residue? Other questions are answered with web-based research, like threatened and endangered species, soil types, and impaired watersheds. And still yet other answers have to come from the farmer him/herself. When the CPA-52 is all done, you feel like Sherlock Holmes.

The data from the CPA-52 is then input into another Excel spreadsheet called the Conservation Practice Physical Effects (CPPE). This tool basically spits out conservation practices that would assist the farmer in achieving their conservation goals based on all of the resource concerns in the CPA-52. These answers ultimately become the conservation plan. Everything that I’ve described so far goes into a case file or plan folder.

Some of the other 20 documents in the case file include Job Sheets (instructions for the farmer to implement practices), the 1-800 phone number for marking gas lines, maps, maps, and more maps, a pesticide report, assessments of different land types (crop, forest, range, pasture, associated ag lands), a stream assessment, and MORE!

All of those just mentioned assessments came from get-your-hands-dirty in the field work. Truth be told, these exercises were my favorite part of the entire experience even in the full exposure 90+ degree Nebraska sun. When we went into the forest, we defined an area, calculated canopy cover and stocking rates, inventoried the types of trees, and took core samples to determine the age of the forest. Out in the pasture, we threw out hula-hoop sized rings and clipped all of the plants to their nub. From there we inventoried the types of grasses, forbs, and legumes, and weighed them out to determine the amount of biomass in the 49.2 acre pasture. Ultimately, we then calculated how long and how many cattle could graze on the pasture. My most favorite of all these exercises was the soil assessment, where we tested for nitrates, phosphates, soil aggregation, pH, smell, worm holes and more in a long term no-till crop field. And oh my, that soil was gorgeous.

Additionally, we learned the ins and outs of the Web Soil Survey and how to make maps using Toolkit (a proprietary NRCS program). We got a super cool tour of the USDA’s soil laboratory and analysis tools, and saw their soil samples storage area, which reminded me a lot of the last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Lastly, we were taught how to survey, which is something I’ve always wanted to know.

All in all, Conservation Planning Bootcamp was an amazing experience that I would recommend to anyone in the Districts. Personally, I now have my eye on becoming a Certified Planner, which is an option that I didn’t even know was available to me. That being said after three weeks, I believe we were all feeling a little burnt out and wanted to go home. I achieved my goals of learning the ways of the NRCS and networking like a champ. Therefore, I consider Bootcamp a success!

Blog Author: Justin Husher, Horticulture Specialist

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