Virginia Farmer To Lead USDA’s Conservation Division

This article was written by Nate Birt and Portia Stewart on behalf of Trust in Food, a division of Farm Journal that helps farmers, ranchers and growers increase profitability and resiliency with conservation agriculture. It also engages consumers with storytelling about farming and food.

The newly named chief conservationist of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service is a fifth-generation Virginia farmer committed to creating opportunities for U.S. farmers, ranchers and growers. As a husband and father of six children, Matthew Lohr is well aware his agency has a tremendous responsibility to support both multigenerational farm families and beginning farmers in their stewardship of land, water and other natural resources.

“There’s just so much that we have to offer,” says Lohr, whose diversified operation includes feeder cattle, barley, hay and sweet corn.

He has a passion for putting conservation practices on the ground, an ethic he learned from his father and grandfather. Lohr’s farm in the Shenandoah Valley has nutrient management plans in place, is entirely no-till and uses practices such as cover crops and rotational grazing. Federal programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program have helped his family further integrate conservation into their business.

Lohr thinks his personal commitment to conservation, coupled with his strong desire to tell ag’s story to the American public and collaborate with an array of stakeholders on important conservation issues will serve his constituency of farmers, ranchers and growers in the months ahead.

Strategic Priorities. Among the top priorities of Lohr and his team is the implementation of the newly authorized farm bill. That includes developing new rules that will be fully in effect by Oct. 1, Lohr says. His team is hard at work building those processes and timelines, he says. For now, mandatory and carryover funding has permitted his office to continue some operations amid the government shutdown.

In addition to the farm bill, Lohr will support Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue’s vision of maximizing efficiency and improving customer service to farmers across USDA’s Farm Production and Conservation division, which includes NRCS. Lohr will continue to meet with farmers from across the U.S. to understand how producers interact with NRCS in the field. Outcomes of those conversations could include actions that save farmers time in applying for program dollars and reducing paperwork requirements where appropriate.

“We want to be seen as farmer-friendly,” Lohr says. That’s true not only for longtime farm families but also for those new to agriculture, including young, beginning, small, minority and veteran operators who are “extremely important for the future of this great industry,” he notes.

Challenges And Opportunities. Headwinds are an inevitable part of farming, Lohr acknowledges, including the weather. This past year, his family’s farm saw more than 60 in. of rain compared to an annual average of 32 in.

More broadly, Lohr sees three issues that are particularly challenging for farmers. One is environmental regulations. NRCS can be a proactive partner in helping farmers identify resource concerns and take steps to prevent regulatory intervention, Lohr says. Another is urban sprawl, which can spread particularly rapidly in times of high land prices and low commodity prices. Easements are among the tools NRCS provides to keep land in agriculture for future generations, and they are a tool Lohr’s family has used on its operation. The third challenge is succession planning and passing on working lands not only within families but also to newcomers eager to enter agriculture.

“NRCS is here to help all types of producers,” Lohr explains. “There are so many programs available for any type of operation.”

Lohr points out that while his team will continue seeking ways to improve, he is proud of the approximately 10,000 NRCS employees staffing nearly 3,000 offices across the U.S.

By focusing on its financial and educational outreach, Lohr says, NRCS will work in the years ahead to make farmers fully aware of the agency’s resources, reach those who need a roadmap for accelerating conservation on their farms and ensure processes run smoothly. He points to USDA’s website as a hallmark of the agency’s work to fine-tune customer service to create a one-stop shop for farmers seeking important information for their businesses.

Looking Ahead. Lohr is hopeful that a year from now, more U.S. farmers will be able to point to concrete examples of ways NRCS has added efficiency and value to their operations. For now, Lohr seeks to deliver on those promises by serving in a role he feels he has been training to perform.

“It is one of the greatest honors of my life to be in this position,” he says.