By Katy Parker, executive director, Alabama Association of Conservation Districts
In the last week of November, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue met twice with leaders in conservation. Perdue first met with the presidents of the conservation partnership organizations (National Association of Conservation Districts, National Association of State Conservation Agencies, National Association of Conservation District Employees Association, and National Association of Resource Conservation and Development Councils) and then with representatives of conservation district state associations, ensuring that districts’ voices are being heard in Washington, D.C.
The main topic of conversation for both meetings was the proposed USDA reorganization, and how districts would be affected by restructuring.
In their meeting with the Secretary, representatives from NACD’s Southeast Region expressed the importance of maintaining the vital locally-led aspect of conservation districts in any type of transition in the agency.
Leadership from Alabama and Mississippi, including Alabama Association of Conservation Districts (AACD) President Bill Bailey, AACD Executive Director Katy Parker, Alabama Soil & Water Conservation Committee Executive Director Dr. Bill Puckett, Mississippi Soil & Water Conservation Commission Chairman Buddy Allen, and Mississippi Association of Conservation Districts President Pete Hunter, urged the Secretary to keep conservation districts in mind throughout the reorganization process.
Secretary Perdue assured the group that NRCS would remain a stand-alone agency and shared his vision to restore accountability and improve customer service in local USDA offices. Secretary Perdue stated that this plan is still a framework and not a road map, and told the group he anticipates Bill Northey’s confirmation as the Undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation.
The Southeast group left with a few key observations: Secretary Perdue seems genuine, personable, and his primary concern is serving American farmers. (The rocking chairs in the lobby indicate he remembers who he’s there to serve.) His private sector mentality guides his vision, the success of which will rely heavily on those tasked to implement it — in most cases, career staff.
And that’s where the group determined its efforts should focus next: Continuously delivering the message of conservation districts to the Secretary’s staffers is critical.
The Secretary encouraged the group to keep the lines of communication open. The group was grateful for the opportunity to meet with the Secretary in person and feels that he now has a better understanding of the relationship between districts and NRCS.