Last week’s dust storm in Lubbock was a startling reminder of how skies across much of the nation often looked in the 1930s before the creation of federal and state conservation programs.

“The ongoing severe statewide drought, combined with high winds and excessive heat, has created unprecedented conditions that make conservation efforts more important than ever,” says Salvador Salinas, Texas state conservationist for the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

Born out of the Dust Bowl, the USDA-NRCS was created to develop techniques to combat erosion. The soil types common across the southern High Plains are very productive for crops, but also highly erodible in some areas, making them especially vulnerable to wind erosion.

“Since 1935 our agency and partners in conservation have been working with landowners to advance soil conservation techniques and agriculture technology,” says Salinas.

Salinas encourages all landowners in Texas to seek assistance for land management during the drought this year from their local NRCS office or their county’s Soil and Water Conservation District. Both are located in the USDA Service Center in nearly every county in Texas.

Conservation practices such as leaving last year’s crop in the field, reducing the number of times the field is plowed, planting cover crops, planting wind breaks, and rotational grazing to promote plant growth and improve ground cover all help decrease wind erosion.

With no relief in the weather pattern, more agriculture producers than ever sought NRCS drought management help last year. Since October 1, 2010, conservation efforts to provide cleaner air, improve water quality and quantity, and reduce soil erosion were voluntarily applied on 9.9 million acres in Texas. This compares to 8.3 million acres in FY 2010.

Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), a USDA farm bill program, is the largest conservation program for farmers and ranchers to receive financial and technical help with structural and management of conservation practices on agricultural land.

EQIP, Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) and other programs have helped fund the efforts. In FY2011, $121.4 million was invested in conserving natural resources in Texas. This compares to $163 million in FY 2011. 

Another farm bill program that provides conservation benefits is the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), designed to reduce erosion, improve water quality, enhance wildlife, and improve air quality. CRP is administered by the Farm Service Agency, a conservation partner of NRCS; however, NRCS provides technical assistance and some promotional assistance to the program. CRP is a voluntary program in which farmers and ranchers enter into 10- to 15-year contracts with USDA to take highly erodible land and other environmentally sensitive cropland out of production by applying protective vegetative cover best suited for wildlife. This year, NRCS wrote 3,447 conservation plans on 598,064 acres of CRP land. There are currently 3.1 million acres under CRP in Texas.

“Even though the Lubbock area experienced a bad dust storm, without established conservation practices in place such storms would be more frequent, more destructive and more widespread,” Salinas says.

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