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The View from Here: Two gaps in CNMP development

Mike Gangwer Published on 10 October 2013
We are delivering our comprehensive nutrient management plans (CNMPs) technical service provider update training next week. Here are the details.

We (Michigan NRCS) contract out much of our work for developing CNMPs. Nearly all of our contractors are registered as technical service providers (TSPs).

A landowner, such as a dairyman, asks for a conservation plan that includes the decisions he makes to mitigate resource concerns. These concerns are related to water quality and soil erosion.

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The contract is written between NRCS and the landowner. The landowner, in turn, hires a TSP contractor to develop the plan, and then once accepted by NRCS, we pay the landowner who, in turn, pays the contractor for the work.

Our role at the NRCS state office includes checking the quality of the CNMP, certifying the TSPs and training them to deliver a good product to the landowner. This is a tall order. The checking component usually includes a site visit with the contractor and the local district conservationist from the field office.

We have already examined the CNMP technically, but on-site we evaluate what we read with what we see on the ground. Sometimes what we read in the CNMP is confusing; the site visit clears up that confusion.

Other times, we understand the CNMP completely, but on-site we see something different. And different reviewers see different things. We usually have an engineer with us to examine the structural work, and this means existing and planned structures, including a planned waste-storage facility.

Several months ago, we began thinking about the TSP update session and what might be useful. Generally, we used to cover many topics, thinking that the group of about 20 contractors had a wide range of questions about developing a CNMP.

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This year we took a different approach. We examined our field notes and selected two topics that are gaps in CNMP development; thus our entire update meeting next week is dedicated to filling these two gaps.

The first is social science. Many times in this column, I have written about the human environment, whether overseas or here in the U.S. In our planning lexicon, we use the phrase “identifying the landowner’s goals and objectives.”

This may seem obvious, but many contractors and planners commit too little time to talking with the landowner, specifically the farm family.

We insist this discussion be done with enough rigor to properly plan so the farm family is capable of implementing what they have already thought about accomplishing. We do not like surprises, and most landowners don’t either.

One challenge is the art of talking with the farm family about goals and objectives because we do not have dedicated software to help us other than inventorying assets, and some people are good at everything else, but having this kind of personal discussion is not easy for them.

And some farm families choose to keep much of these kinds of things to themselves. We suggest, however, that planning must include the capabilities of the farm family to change both the physical and human environment of the farm in the future and do so willingly.

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Many times, we find the planner has already decided some course of action for the farm family and the landowner, and he or they are not solidly behind it. And we know that the outcome in these situations is not good.

Our status reviews point out the farms with poor planning, and we believe the root cause of much of it is based on an inadequate job of identifying the farm family goals and objectives and building the plan on them.

Our second gap is incomplete work done on the production area (PA – farm headquarters) to properly identify and evaluate the resource concerns.

Written another way, the planner will account for all the surface area on the PA, especially knowing the contributing area that adds contaminated runoff volume that becomes polluted (meeting a regulatory concentration or level).

This may seem straightforward, but many of our contractors fail at explaining all existing or potential leaks, discharges or runoff flow paths of polluted volume – usually manure.

Newer PA sites are actually less of a challenge than older ones for the obvious reasons. Brand-new dairy sites have everything roofed and guttered or surface lots (corrals) contained so that nothing leaves the PA site other than a flowpath or piped discharge of clean water.

Older farms, especially dairy sites – not so much. For all polluted volume we have two options: Store it in a structure or treat it using vegetation or some sort of mechanical process.

Once again, we have somewhat of a subjective task ahead of us when conducting a PA inventory and evaluation, especially the evaluation part. Inventory is straightforward, but it takes a trained eye to visually determine flowpath and then quantify that flowpath in terms of contributing area, runoff curve number, manure and rainwater as inputs, and then the volume per unit time.

Our update session next week includes a classroom discussion in the morning and a field visit to a dairy farm in the afternoon. We talk about concepts in the morning, and then after lunch, go put them into play.

Our objective is to help our TSP contractors go back to their offices and farm sites with some new ideas for delivering a better CNMP to their clients.

In answering the question: “Why do this?”, this is our answer … to help them do a good job with federal taxpayer dollars, and ultimately, develop a CNMP that the landowner willingly implements.

Putting it on the shelf is not acceptable – and from my perspective, if that does happen, it is not the fault of the planner or TSP contractor; it is our fault.

And this means we identify the two greatest gaps in CNMP development and seek to collectively fill them so they are no longer gaps.

Interestingly enough, my posit here is that among the contractors there is an enormous body of intellect and ability. Getting them all in a room and on one field site will stimulate conversation and learning.

Our NRCS role, therefore, is not so much lecturing and telling them how to do this work but letting the group discover these for themselves. We facilitate, not dictate.

My guess is that we will learn a lot, too. And this is the way collective learning takes place. Best of all, there will not be a single PowerPoint presentation. How about that. PD

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Mike Gangwer
Agricultural Scientist
USDA-NRCS

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