Last month, I attended a conference where the topic of “more regulations in agriculture” was a reoccurring theme. Sitting in the audience, I began to notice my hands were getting sweaty and I started to feel anxious. It took me awhile to realize I was having a flashback to events that occurred years ago. I was recalling those days when I was responsible for enforcing “Conservation Compliance”.
For those of you who think the front line of environmental enforcement is a cakewalk, think again! Certainly, a few of my colleagues reveled in the power, but I (and the other 95% of NRCS field office employees) hated being “the policeman”. Even though I fully supported the principles of Conservation Compliance, being a regulator was one of the hardest, most unrewarding things I have ever done.
I am not writing this to discourage more regulation. I am not writing this to make you feel sorry for NRCS employees. I am not writing this to justify NRCS’s handling of “Conservation Compliance”. I am writing this to let you know that, if you have never done this before, being the conservation cop in your local community is very challenging.
Back to my story…The first two years (1990 and 1991) of Conservation Compliance were the easy years. NRCS management made it clear that no farmer, regardless of the situation, would be found “out of compliance”. But in 1992, NRCS management decided the grace period was over. We were directed to start enforcing the rules. If, while doing a spot check, we found a farmer not following his conservation plan, we were to take action. In other words, we needed to call the farmer “out of compliance”. To most farmers, being called “out of compliance” was financially devastating.
I called the first farmer “out of compliance” in 1992. I remember everything about this case. I remember the farm. I remember the farmer; he was a really nice guy. He was honest and he was hard working. Most importantly, I remember the farmer was doing the exact same things that 75% of farmers in Carroll County were doing. His downfall? He was one of the 5% selected for a random spot check.
My memory is not entirely clear, but I believe between 1992 and 1996 I called multiple farmers out of compliance each and every year. My supervisor once told me that I had called more farmers out of compliance than any other District Conservationist in the area. I don’t know if that was true or if he just wanted to let me know I was being too aggressive. Even though I didn’t like doing it, I took conservation compliance seriously.
I was never apologetic for taking action against a farmer, but regardless of the egregiousness of the infraction, being the enforcer sucked. From 1992 – 1996, and even for some years later, I found myself avoiding local restaurants, staying home from community events, and circumventing farmers in social situations. It was no secret that the farmers disliked me. Several times, I feared for my safety. At one point, I called the local police for advice. There were so many stories worse than mine.
There was not just one reason why I left NRCS, but Conservation Compliance sure made the decision easier.
Whether you think regulation is good or bad, remember that someone has to enforce the rules. If serious enforcement is expected, then agencies need to figure out how to provide better support for those who are required to be the conservation cops.