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1708 PD: A quality conversation

Mike Gangwer Published on 26 November 2008

On a beautiful autumn day in central Michigan, a colleague and I visited a dairy farm. I am responsible for completing a number of quality assurance reviews for the Department of Agriculture. Specifically, my job is evaluating the planning done on a livestock farm to mitigate a resource concern such as soil and water. We want to make sure the federal government gets some return on the investment made on that farm.

This may be to evaluate the effectiveness of a waste storage facility at providing storage duration for the landowner to capture all volume inputs on the production area site (farm buildings) and reduce the potential for overland runoff when manure is applied to crop or pastured fields. Our metric is what we call quality criteria, and they are readily published in our field office technical guide, or FOTG.

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We conduct these reviews with the planner and the landowner. We are interested in more than just the planning, so often the landowner can provide a perspective of what worked, what did not and what might have worked differently. On a personal level we evaluate the effectiveness of the landowner’s management style; are those items in the schedule of implementation actually installed, and are those items operated and managed according to design parameters?

This visit, however, turned out differently. The planning work was dismal. The production area site had not been adequately evaluated; the two storage facilities had been installed with no as-built records, and the landowner certainly had not operated and managed them according to our specifications.

This might be a long day with a lousy outcome. We began with the obvious; how do we, as strangers on this farm (having never been on it), tell the landowner that both liquid storage facilities are overtopped, are discharging into surface water and based on the time of year (October), these facilities should be pumped down to minimal level? Add this as well, the contributing runoff area is significantly under-designed. The concept of keeping clean water out of the storage flowpath is obvious, but that means roof gutter maintenance and diversion control. Keeping the clean water clean had not been accounted for in the final planning effort.

We learned that the planner and the landowner, the dairy farm family in this case, have been friends for over 20 years. They live in different counties but share several common aspects, including children in the same department in college (not in production agriculture, by the way).

In fact, the root problem on this farm is one that I find frequently; the planner would not put his friendship with the dairyman in jeopardy. That is, talking with the landowner about upgrading his management ability may degrade a long friendship. Yet the conversion must occur.

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I have often claimed to landowners in this scenario that they are much better off by hearing these words from planners and advisors rather than wait to hear them from the regulatory community. On this very farm, I asked the landowner to take a walk with me. When he did, we walked to the far reach of one of the storage facilities. It was over-topping. The liquid manure was flowing to the tree line that borders the perennial stream. We walked that flowpath, and I pointed out the severity of this discharge.

He offered no resistance. He did not give me excuses nor did the landowner blame what he saw on a large storm event (there was not one recently). He did understand my words: “If federal tax dollars (Farm Bill Program, Title 2, EQIP) are to be spent on this farm, you will have this facility drawn down to an acceptable level prior to the winter storage period. We will conduct a status review to see that this is done. I will write it into your Schedule of Implementation as part of this CNMP, and you will sign it.”

If the landowner balks or does not agree, then he will not participate in EQIP, will not receive federal taxpayer dollars for conservation activities on his farm and will be at the mercy of the regulatory community if someone turns this operation into that community.

I do not have this conversation often. But today I did, and I hope that I got the landowner’s attention. This is a serious matter; it involves money from the government and his very livelihood.

I do often state this: as planners, we do our part and we can help the landowner pay for engineering and management practices. But when we leave the driveway, these must be implemented, operated and maintained. This is the role of the landowner, and that is the fundamental contractual arrangement we have between those of us in the public sector and those in the private sector.

For nearly all cases, the arrangement works well. Sometimes a walk down a certain flowpath can have a good outcome. I hope today will yield one. PD

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Mike Gangwer
USDA

– NRCS Nutrient Management Specialist

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