Soil Health Champions Asked to Lead the Way on New Planning Tool

One thing we know for sure is that NACD Soil Health Champions aren’t afraid to try new things. So we’re reaching out to you in this special edition of the Soil Health Bulletin. We need your help, and here’s how you can: Please become a Resource Stewardship Evaluation Trailblazer.

How? By using and helping to improve a new planning tool introduced nationwide this year by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). We are asking you to lead the way nationally by acting locally. The first step is to arrange for a Resource Stewardship Evaluation. You can do that by contacting your local USDA Service Center for assistance from an NRCS or local conservation district employee, or by contacting Aaron Lauster, National Sustainable Agriculture lead for the NRCS, at aaron.lauster@wdc.usda.gov.

The Resource Stewardship Evaluation (RSET) Tool is the future of conservation planning. In the development of the tool, NRCS has integrated the best attributes of many of its resource evaluation tools into one modern way of planning. RSET gives producers a holistic look at their agricultural operation’s current management and conservation activities.

RSET compares an operation’s attributes and activities to NRCS’ stewardship benchmarks for five natural resource concerns: soil management, water quality, water quantity, air quality, and wildlife habitat. Then, RSET provides the results of the evaluation in an easy-to-read bar graph that shows how a producer’s management decisions affect the natural resources under his or her care.

RSET can help you answer field-specific questions like:

  • Is soil erosion under control? Are fields gaining or losing soil organic matter?

  • Are nutrients being used by crops or are they being lost to leaching or run-off?

  • Are farm and ranch operations resulting in net greenhouse gas emissions?

  • Are there opportunities for improving habitat for wildlife?

  • Is irrigation water being used efficiently?

The answers supplied by RSET are completely confidential and can help you achieve your desired stewardship goals. If you elect to, however, you may join the growing list of producers who have been recognized for using RSET. NACD has established an RSET Trailblazer Recognition Program in cooperation with NRCS and your local conservation district to honor those who have met their stewardship objectives through RSET.

All we’re asking right now, though, is that you consider using RSET. It is available free of charge on cropland and grazing land across the country. RSET may help you confirm once and for all that your soil health practices really are making a difference. And the knowledge you have about how soil health systems work may help NRCS improve and enhance the tool.

How can you help? Please contact your local USDA Service Center for assistance from an NRCS or a local conservation district employee, or contact Aaron Lauster, National Sustainable Agriculture lead for the NRCS, at aaron.lauster@wdc.usda.gov.

The blue line is the stewardship threshold for five key resource concerns using RSET

RSET Resources

Want to learn more about the Resource Stewardship Evaluation Tool? Here are some resources to help:

The NRCS Resource Stewardship webpage has helpful information, including graphic illustrations of the tool, testimonials, and other basics.

NACD’s fall 2016 issue of The Resource highlights the value of RSET in a feature on page 11.

These three short YouTube videos provide farmer and conservation professional perspectives on why RSET is a valuable service:

Why Use RSET?

Conservation planning is an ongoing conversation between you and your conservation professionals, be they conservation district, NRCS employees, or crop advisors. RSET helps start the conservation conversation. After using the free service, you determine next steps and timelines. Here are some benefits:

  • The evaluation can communicate the expected impacts of certain farm/ranch management and conservation practices.

  • It is remarkably simple. The tool provides the results in an easy-to-read graph showing how management decisions affect natural resources. Farmers and ranchers who have used the tool say the display is easy to understand and useful for making management decisions.

  • The evaluation is intended to be time-efficient and conservative. If the evaluation points out a potential problem, conservation professionals can use more detailed analyses to confirm concerns and recommend conservation practice planning and design.

  • A conservation plan developed using RSET provides farmers and ranchers with a roadmap to achieve their natural resource stewardship goals and quantify environmental benefits their working agricultural lands provide.

  • Some of the practices recommended in an RSET conservation plan may enhance steps you’ve already taken to increase the resiliency of your operation to extreme weather events and patterns.

  • Natural resource issues, especially water quality, are more important than ever to the public. Increased visibility has spelled added pressure on the agricultural sector to address multiple environmental concerns, not just soil erosion or range condition.

  • RSET gives farmers and their business partners a chance to be proactive in identifying natural resource problems and taking actions to address them, which not only provides benefits to the environment but also may help enhance profits, customer service, and public perception.

Stearns (MN) SWCD Conservation Technician Brad Wenz (left) says RSET is a great way to start a conservation conversation between producers and conservation professionals.

How long does it take to use the tool?

If you already have a conservation plan and nutrient and pesticide records, it may be just a quick field walk and data entry by the conservationist. For the first field, this may take 30 minutes or more. Similar additional fields may take just a few minutes.

If you don’t have a conservation plan and are starting from scratch, then the process would take longer. But if that is the case, consider that you will benefit from a free service that provides a conservation plan that you can return to time and again.

Why Are We Asking for Your Help?

NACD’s Soil Health Champions are recognized nationwide as leaders. You are on the cutting edge of change for the better and part of one of the biggest positive developments in the history of American agriculture.

Because you are leaders, others are watching. If you use RSET and think it is a valuable service, others will follow in your footsteps. If you suggest improvements to the service, all producers will benefit.

While we know that soil health systems are good for producers’ bottom lines and our natural resources, others want more proof. RSET is a tool to help convey the benefit of the practices you have pioneered.

Please consider using RSET and contact your local USDA Service Center for assistance from an NRCS or a local conservation district employee, or contact Aaron Lauster, National Sustainable Agriculture lead for the NRCS, at aaron.lauster@wdc.usda.gov.

For more information on RSET and NACD’s support of the new service, contact: Bill Berry, NACD communications specialist, billnick@charter.net, 715-341-9119.

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