Geographic Information Specialist, USDA
Thomas Lloyd (Toby) earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Washington College in 1995 then served as assistant manager for a 5,000-acre grain farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. His agricultural interest led him to the University of Delaware where he accepted a position as a Research Associate with the Department of Food and Resource Economics in 1997. While there, he was introduced to geographic information systems (GIS) for agricultural applications. In 1999, he earned an M.S. degree in Geography at George Mason University and began a career with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). As a member of the USDA’s Geospatial Information Branch for five years, Toby worked with satellite imagery and GIS technology used to estimate U.S. crop production. In January of 2005, joined USDA’s Farm Service Agency’s Conservation and Environmental Programs Division. He is responsible for the design and integration of GIS technology as it applies to conservation programs.
Most of the conservations programs offered to landowners in the U.S. are run by the Farm Service Agency and the Natural Resource Conservation Service, which was formerly known as the Soil Conservation Service. These programs are targeted at preserving wildlife habitat and reducing soil erosion.
Depending on the program, there are a number of practices required to accomplish its goals. Planting cool season grasses and trees prevents soil erosion and provide habitat, for instance. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is the nation’s largest conservation program. Its aim is to conserve environmentally sensitive land. It has 33 practices that apply to various types and location of land. Once a piece of land is accepted into the Conservation Reserve Program, specialists assist landowners in developing appropriate practices. It currently has 34 million acres enrolled from 395,000 farms. Participants receive rental payments and cost-sharing of practices employed. It’s a long-term program with contracts lasting 10 to 15 years.
Water quality is preserved by developing grass waterways and riparian buffers that slow and filter water run-off. Soil erosion is prevented by planting grasses such as switch grass. Wildlife habitat corridors and food plots can be used to encourage wildlife to live on CRP land.
For land to be eligible, producers must have owned and operated the land for 12 months prior to sign-up. It must be considered cropland planted to agricultural crops for the previous 6 crop years and be prone to soil erosion. USDA is looking for fragile soils that are most likely to erode. Sign-up periods for enrolling land come once every year and a half or two years.
Conservation priority areas such as the Chesapeake Watershed also qualify land for conservation programs. The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) is very popular in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland. It is an offshoot of CRP that targets specific geographic areas. CREP agreements are based on providing measurable results in the habitat and water quality areas. State and local governments work with USDA in identifying and establishing environmentally sensitive areas in which to establish CREP. Pennsylvania has two CREPs and Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey also have CREP agreements with USDA. Pennsylvania’s CREPs are for the Chesapeake Bay and Ohio River watersheds, with 77,000 and 65,000 acres enrolled, respectively. Rates paid to landowners tend to be somewhat higher for CREP than for CRP.
The Wild Life Enhancement and Habitat Program (WEHP) is a program with 2.3 million acres enrolled nationally. As its name implies, it is dedicated specifically to developing wildlife habitat. Contracts run from 5 to 10 years and landowners must follow a wildlife habitat development plan. This becomes the basis for cost-sharing payments. Similarly, the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) also creates habitat. Landowners entering the program have three ways to participate: permanent easement, 30-year easement and restoration cost share agreements. This program often retires marginal lands from agricultural use.
All of USDA’s conservation programs have excellent support at the county level where conservation experts know the land and work with landowners. These programs receive high marks from nongovernmental organizations like Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever and a number of environmental organizations.
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