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Chair Abigail Spanberger Opening Statement at Hearing "Supporting Careers in Conservation: Workforce Training, Education, and Job Opportunities"

WASHINGTON House Agriculture Subcommittee Chair Abigail Spanberger delivered the following statement at today's hearing “Supporting Careers in Conservation: Workforce Training, Education, and Job Opportunities."

[As prepared for delivery]


Good afternoon, I would like to welcome you to today’s hearing focused on how this Committee and USDA can work with partners to better build and support a pipeline for careers in the conservation space, including at NRCS. I’m looking forward to hearing from our witnesses about the work they are doing, the needs they see, and the opportunities we have to encourage careers in the conservation workforce. A robust conservation workforce plays a critical role in helping America’s growers, producers, and forest landowners implement conservation practices — practices that not only have improved environmental outcomes, but also improved their operations’ bottom lines through increased crop quality, better yields, and other co-benefits.

Since the 1930s, NRCS has provided producers with technical support and financial assistance to achieve the benefits of a healthy and productive landscape. In 2019 alone, NRCS and its partners worked with more than 500,000 producers — half a million — on more than 43 million acres to build conservation plans and implement practices that increase production, reduce input costs, conserve natural resources, and protect wildlife habitat.

Together, these actions not only have a positive impact on farms, but also on their neighbors, their watersheds, and the entire U.S. population through well-documented environmental benefits, including improved water quality through the reduction of run-off, increased resilience of the land against drought in dry years, and reduced carbon dioxide emissions in the environment through the sequestration of carbon from healthier soils.

As we continue rebuilding our economy and finding solutions to the climate crisis, voluntary conservation programs can play a critical role in reducing our carbon footprint, making our food supply chains more resilient, while growing our economy, especially in rural communities. But it takes a qualified workforce to make that happen.

While farmers and producers stand ready to play their part in conservation, attrition in on-the-ground staff has reduced landowners' opportunities to learn from trained technical assistance providers who provide site-specific solutions to implement conservation practices effectively. Consider: between 2004 and 2019, staffing levels at NRCS have declined 24 percent. Unlike many other federal agencies, nearly all NRCS staff, or 98 percent, are located outside Washington, D.C. As such, attrition in NRCS' ranks is felt disproportionately by those seeking to implement conservation practices on their land.

Farmers are the original conservationists and can play a critical role in helping to safeguard our environment. In 2018, Congress reaffirmed the importance of voluntary, incentive-based conservation in the Farm Bill by maintaining robust funding in the conservation title. Moving forward, it is critical that Congress adequately fund technical assistance at NRCS to ensure the effective implementation and maximize accountability of these voluntary programs.

However, while increasing funding can help reduce attrition within the conservation workforce at NRCS, it does not reach the underlying issue of the conservation workforce shortage. Instead, I have heard directly about the fierce competition between state agencies, nonprofit technical service providers, and NRCS for the same small number of specialists in communities across my district and the country. In order to meet the needs of farmers, it is essential that we do more to attract more young Americans into this field and grow the size of this essential workforce.

Today, I am excited to hear more from our witnesses who are working to build this pipeline starting from K-12 all the way through our community colleges and land grant universities. I am also excited to hear how we can do more to retain those working in conservation already.

We have seen the challenges of, and innovations sparked by, a reduced workforce. Today’s witnesses offer unique perspectives regarding these challenges and opportunities that will help us build a pipeline into the conservation workforce. As we look ahead to the 2023 Farm Bill, I am excited to learn more about how we can build this pipeline by meeting people where they are and making sure they have the necessary information to consider and prepare for careers in conservation. 

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