Eyes On Farm Conservation Compliance

Aerial flights are going statewide this year in Iowa. USDA/NRCS is using airplanes with cameras to check farms for conservation compliance.

Published on: Apr 30, 2012

FAQ: My district soil conservationist with NRCS in our county says USDA is going to use airplanes to check farms for soil conservation compliance this year in Iowa, beginning in May. Can you tell me more about this stepped-up effort?

Answer: The following information is provided by Laura Greiner, state public affairs specialist for USDA-NRCS in Iowa.

In May this year federal conservation officials will begin a statewide effort to conduct conservation compliance reviews using aerial photography. After piloting a similar project last year in two of the agency's five administrative areas, officials with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service have expanded the project to all tracts randomly selected for annual conservation compliance reviews.

EYE IN THE SKY: Taken during last years pilot project in Iowa, this aerial photo shows an example of the ephemeral gully erosion issues that were observed during the 2011 conservation compliance reviews.
EYE IN THE SKY: Taken during last year's pilot project in Iowa, this aerial photo shows an example of the ephemeral gully erosion issues that were observed during the 2011 conservation compliance reviews.

Last year's pilot project included 635 sites in 40 counties in Iowa. This year officials estimate 1,620 sites will be reviewed in all 99 counties in the state. NRCS will send letters to all landowners with randomly selected sites before flights begin.

"We found the aerial images provided a much better vantage point to see damaged waterways and ephemeral gully erosion, both top natural resource concerns in our state," says Marty Adkins, NRCS state resource conservationist.

Closer look at compliance - hopefully you'll get a "good news" letter

Instead of NRCS staff taking photographs, this year NRCS will contract to use special planes equipped with GPS-synched, high-resolution cameras attached to the belly of the craft. "We feel this will be much more efficient," explains Adkins. "We went through several teams of volunteers to complete last year's pilot project. All the banking and tight turning of the airplane that is required to get good photographs took a lot of time."

If this year's photography shows no signs of compliance issues, NRCS will send landowners the "good news" letter shortly after photos and plans are reviewed. If photography reveals potential issues, a conservation compliance team member will conduct a full-field review, using documentation from the landowner's conservation plan. The field review will include, at minimum, a check for crop residue levels and ephemeral gully erosion. Landowners may request to be present during on-site reviews, says Adkins, who is based at the state NRCS office in Des Moines.

NRCS will follow-up with on-the-ground reviews of compliance

NRCS will be using conservation compliance teams to ensure no employee will complete a status review for land in their home county, he says. These area-based teams will also conduct on-the-ground compliance reviews on tracts with variances from previous years and check tracts where whistleblowers, loan participants and others are involved.

When a tract is found out of compliance, the team leader will send letters to participants no later than July 13, says Adkins. Landowners may appeal the initial technical finding to the USDA Farm Service Agency.

The 1985 Farm Bill requires NRCS to check a random sampling of highly erodible fields each year to ensure farmers are following the provisions in their conservation plans. Conservation compliance is required of farmers and landowners for them to maintain their eligibility to participate in USDA programs.

Summing up: NRCS will begin flying fields statewide in May 2012 to check for conservation compliance. Landowners with randomly selected sites will be notified before flights begin. NRCS is required to check a random sample of highly erodible fields each year to see if farmers and landowners are following their soil conservation compliance plans.

For more information about conservation and wetland compliance visit www.ia.nrcs.usda.gov or your local NRCS office.