After Hearing About Workforce Shortages at 2023 Farm Bill Summit, Spanberger Introduces Bipartisan, Bicameral Bill to Increase Number of Technical Service Providers Assisting Virginia Crop & Livestock Producers

A Companion Bill is Led by U.S. Senators, Braun, Bennet, and Marshall in the U.S. Senate

WOODBRIDGE, Va. — U.S. Representative Abigail Spanberger today introduced bipartisan, bicameral legislation to help address America’s shortage of Technical Service Providers (TSPs), who help producers deploy and manage U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) conservation programs through one-on-one assistance.

In January 2023, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Chief Terry Cosby projected that his agency will need to hire between 3,000 and 4,000 employees over the next two years to implement USDA conservation programs and meet demand for technical assistance. But last year, USDA was given the authority to hire 1,500 new employees and only retained 500.

Spanberger has consistently heard about challenges caused by high demand and short staffing. During her 2023 Farm Bill Summit held last month in Caroline County, Virginia crop and livestock producers shared their concerns about this issue and how it’s slowing down their ability to build out their operations.

“As the only Virginian on the House Agriculture Committee, I’ve had many conversations with our Commonwealth’s crop and livestock producers about challenges caused by staffing shortages and burdensome requirements at NRCS,” said Spanberger. “This massive workforce issue is having real effects on the ground — and it’s slowing down the ability of Virginia producers to make smart management plans for their land.”

Spanberger’s Increased TSP Access Act would help boost the number of TSPs to provide more assistance to America’s farmers and ranchers. Specifically, the bill would help build out this workforce by cutting red tape, streamlining TSP certification requirements, and making sure TSPs are paid the market rate.

Spanberger added, “I’m proud to help lead the bipartisan Increased TSP Access Act. By cutting red tape, streamlining some of USDA’s bureaucracy, and prioritizing timely certification for these jobs, we can help more producers take advantage of voluntary conservation programs.”

Spanberger — Ranking Member of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee’s Conservation, Research, and Biotechnology Subcommittee — introduced this legislation in the U.S. House alongside U.S. Representative Jim Baird (R-IN-04), Chair of the Subcommittee. U.S. Senators Mike Braun (R-IN), Michael Bennet (D-CO), and Roger Marshall (R-KS) introduced companion legislation in the U.S. Senate.

“Our nation’s farmers and ranchers play a critical role in conservation, so it is important that they have access to Technical Service Providers (TSPs) who help fill the gaps in technical assistance when it comes to implementing conservation programs. I’m proud to lead this legislation that will streamline the TSP certification process to support our producers and improve conservation outcomes,” said Braun.

“As Colorado faces a future that’s going to be a lot hotter and a lot drier, we need to make it easier to access USDA conservation programs. But crippling red tape and understaffing at the NRCS make these programs too rigid and time-consuming for many Coloradans to apply to. The future of rural America depends on whether the next generation decides to continue their family farms and ranches – and to protect that future, the Increased TSP Access Act makes assistance more accessible and helps conservation programs live up to their potential,” said Bennet.

“Increasing the amount of Technical Service Providers (TSP) for the Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) was a key part of legislation that I introduced last fall to help the domestic fertilizer industry. I’m happy to partner with Senators Braun and Bennet on this commonsense approach that moves us towards our goal by cutting red tape that’s holding back farm participation in NRCS programs. Certified Crop Advisors and other similar professionals are already equipped with the skills necessary to help farmers and ranchers reach a variety of conservation goals. Establishing an expedited pathway to deliver conservation goals, especially as it relates to nutrient management plans, is the free-market answer to increasing agriculture-friendly conservation efforts,” said Marshall.

“In order for our farmers and ranchers to continue their vital conservation efforts, we need to make sure they have access to the best information and expertise available. By introducing legislation that directs USDA to establish a streamlined certification process for Technical Service Provider (TSPs) who hold appropriate specialty certifications, we can ensure rapid response times for our producers and address TSP shortages just as the 2018 Farm Bill intended,” said Baird.

Specifically, the Increased TSP Access Act would:

  • Establish an Approval Progress for Non-Federal Certifying Entities. Spanberger’s bill would require USDA to build a process allowing ag retailers, conservation organizations, cooperatives, professional societies, and service providers to become certifying entities. Additionally, it would put clear deadlines on USDA to make sure the agency is responsive in administering the program.
  • Streamline Certification for TSPs. The bill directs USDA to establish a streamlined certification process for TSPs who hold appropriate specialty certifications (including certified crop advisors). This requirement would guarantee that applicants with other certifications aren’t burdened with duplicative training — but are still trained in the competencies needed to serve as a TSP.
  • Ensure Parity in Compensation. The Increased TSP Access Act would make sure that TSPs — who are often paid using conservation program dollars — are paid the fair market rate for their services.

Spanberger’s bipartisan, bicameral legislation is endorsed by several nationwide farm groups and conservation organizations.

“Farmers and ranchers are committed to continually improving the land, water and air entrusted in our care and we have voluntarily committed over 140 million acres across the country to conservation. But we can’t do this alone and that’s why the Increased TSP Access Act is needed. It would expand the number of partners that farmers and ranchers can depend upon to access conservation programs and help implement additional stewardship practices on the land,” said Zippy Duvall, President, American Farm Bureau Federation.

“Thank you to Sen. Braun, Sen. Bennet, Sen. Marshall, Rep. Baird, and Rep. Spanberger for introducing the Increased TSP Access Act. Ducks Unlimited’s agronomists and biologists work closely with NRCS and private landowners to help agricultural producers assess the health of their soil and get the most out of their production. Through streamlining the certification process, this legislation will make voluntary conservation programs more accessible and provide producers with increased flexibility to implement conservation practices on their land,” said Adam Putnam, CEO, Ducks Unlimited.

“Every day, farmers across the country turn to their trusted retail agronomists for advice. This new legislation would provide farmers expanded access to local agronomists and ag retailers who can provide conservation expertise as part of their total agronomic plan. Truterra, the sustainability business of Land O’Lakes, Inc., has developed unique, collaborative projects to help farmers across the nation adopt conservation practices and scale-up their on-farm conservation systems. We support expanding the number and availability of TSPs because it will enable us to help the federal government meet the high demand for conservation delivery services. Land O’Lakes appreciates the leadership of U.S. Senators Braun, Bennet and Marshall, as well as U.S. Representatives Baird and Spanberger, in expanding the conservation delivery system by increasing access to private sector resources,” said Tom Ryan, President, Truterra — Land O’ Lakes’ Sustainability Business.

“Since the Technical Service Provider program was established, our Certified Crop Advisers and Certified Professional Soil Scientists have partnered with NRCS to provide conservation technical assistance as trusted advisers to farmers across the United States. Over this time, we’ve also seen a need for the program to be better defined so that more certified professionals can become TSPs, and remain so. We are pleased to support the Increased TSP Access Act and continue to work with administrators to improve the TSP Program and ultimately deliver more conservation technical assistance to our nation’s farmers,” said Jim Cudahy, CEO, American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, and Soil Science Society of America.

The Increased TSP Access Act is also endorsed by the Agricultural Retailers Association, American Seed Trade Association, American Society of Agronomy, Bipartisan Policy Center, Citizens Climate Lobby, ConservAmerica, Corteva, Danone North America, Environmental Defense Fund, Evangelical Environmental Network, GROWMARK, Inc., International Certified Crop Advisers, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, National Milk Producers Federation, North American Millers’ Association, and Unilever United States.

BACKGROUND

TSPs help producers access USDA conservation programs through granular, one-on-one assistance. For example, TSPs can help producers to develop grazing management plans, nutrient management plans, and sustainable forestry plans. They can also help producers to increase irrigation efficiency or transition their operation to organic production.

The 2018 Farm Bill included language (Section 2502) that would allow USDA to approve non-Federal entities to certify TSPs. Unfortunately, Section 2502 did not include clear deadlines for USDA to set up its non-Federal certification process. It also lacked guardrails to ensure that Congressional intent was implemented in a timely manner. As a result, this language was never fully implemented by USDA. The Increased TSP Access Act builds on the framework from the 2023 Farm Bill.

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