Monday, January 29, 2024

Penn State Center For Ag Conservation Assistance Hires Engineering Firm To Help Develop Certification Program For Conservation Professionals; Spring Conference; Seeking New Faculty

By Alexandra McLaughlin,
Penn State News

The Center for Agricultural Conservation Assistance Training, administered by Penn State Extension, has contracted with Herbert, Rowland & Grubic Inc., an infrastructure consulting firm operating in Pennsylvania and surrounding states with more than 60 years of experience in civil engineering and a reputation for innovative water quality solutions.

This partnership is aimed at boosting the conservation workforce’s capacity to implement best management practices, ultimately improving and protecting soil health and water quality in Pennsylvania. 

The firm will assist in establishing certification requirements, providing training, and supervising certified conservation professionals for the installation of projects statewide.

Spring Conference

Conservation professionals can learn more about the center’s new engineering services during the inaugural Pennsylvania Agricultural Conservation Conference, slated for late spring.

New Faculty Member

The College of Agricultural Sciences also is seeking a new faculty member in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering to contribute to the long-term goal of increasing the number of agricultural engineers in Pennsylvania.

Background On New Program

Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences established the center in 2023 in partnership with the State Conservation Commission and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“Our new Center is enthusiastically working alongside our conservation partners in the state to continue making it easier for farmers to take advantage of the programs that can benefit their farm operations and support their commitment to environmental stewardship, soil health and water quality,” said Jennifer Fetter, Penn State Extension water resources program leader and director of the Center.

The Center is funded by the State Conservation Commission through its Agriculture Conservation Assistance Program, which was created through the Clean Streams Fund established in the fiscal 2022-23 state budget. 

Additional support is provided by USDA-NRCS through its Conservation Technical Assistance Program.

A core service the Center offers is technical assistance for implementing conservation best management practices in agriculture, noted Justin Challenger, director of financial and technical assistance programs at the State Conservation Commission.

“The Commission is hoping the new contract will allow the center to provide more professional engineering technical assistance to the state’s 66 county conservation districts who implement the [Agriculture Conservation Assistance] program locally,” he said. “This new contract with the long-established, well-respected firm of Herbert, Rowland & Grubic will greatly enhance the center’s ability to provide technical assistance and training.”

While Pennsylvania allocates funds for agricultural conservation projects, the state faces challenges in designing and building projects due to a shortage of agricultural engineers — who currently must sign off on projects. 

Such projects include laying out fences for rotational grazing, installing pipelines for watering troughs in pastures, and designing grassed waterways to manage stormwater in crop fields.

“Those are practices we’d like to see more ag conservation professionals across the state be able to do themselves over time, so they aren’t waiting in line for an engineer,” Fetter said.

Bringing an engineer on board will enhance the implementation of conservation projects by increasing workforce capacity and addressing this bottleneck.

Fetter pointed to a system called job approval authority, inspired by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. 

In this system, employees undergo training and work with engineers to demonstrate competence. 

As they advance, they gain job approval authority, allowing them to certify projects. The goal is to replicate this system for state-funded projects in Pennsylvania.

“We’re helping the University develop a certification program for conservation professionals that will simultaneously create much-needed capacity for projects and create a promising career path for people passionate about conservation,” said Erin Letavic, project manager at Herbert, Rowland & Grubic. “We’ll use our engineering expertise to review work completed by program participants and guide them toward technical competency.”

The state has a limited number of agricultural engineers who already are working at full capacity, Fetter noted.

 “We must equip new individuals with the necessary skills and knowledge, granting them the authority to approve designs,” she said.

Participants in the certification program would not receive blanket authority to approve all projects. Instead, they would focus on specific practices, such as fencing and pipelines. 

“They would pick the suite of practices most relevant to their day-to-day work,” Fetter said.

She added that the engineering firm also will explore packaging practices that commonly are used simultaneously.

“For example, if you’re putting up fences to keep cows out of the stream, you also need to know how to create an off-stream watering system,” she said. “Pairing those practices together during trainings will allow participants to have a functional suite of approvals and design an entire farm system at one time.”

For ambitious agricultural best management practices, the firm will provide technical assistance to conservation districts and help with the planning, design, bidding and construction of projects.

“Sometimes we will complete those tasks ourselves, and sometimes we will review and certify the planning and design work created by program participants,” Letavic said. 

She emphasized that this program provides an opportunity for conservation professionals to enhance their resumes and undertake impactful projects.

“Being able to drive through the community and see the results of projects you’ve implemented is incredibly rewarding,” she said. “Best of all, it benefits everyone because it protects our rivers and strengthens Pennsylvania’s agriculture industry.”

Because farmers often face hurdles when trying to engage in conservation efforts, Fetter pointed out the center’s dedication to making the process smoother.

“Every bit of help makes a difference,” Fetter said. “Every innovative approach to reducing the wait, the expense, the interference with farm operations — anything we can do to make it less stressful is a huge win-win.”

Douglas Wolfgang, Executive Secretary of the State Conservation Commission, said the commission is proud to partner with Penn State Extension and USDA-NRCS on the new center.

“The engineering services provided by the center, through Herbert, Rowland & Grubic, will ensure that conservation professionals have the necessary job approval authority to design and implement practices funded by the Agricultural Conservation Assistance Program,” he said.

In addition to the Center naming Herbert, Rowland & Grubic as the engineer for the assistance program, the NRCS designated a full-time engineer, Mark Buckwalter, as the corresponding NRCS engineer to the center. 

He will assist conservation districts and the commission through training, quality assurance reviews, and coordination between state and federal projects.

Buckwalter has 14 years of experience with NRCS and has worked on agricultural projects in western and southcentral Pennsylvania. 

For the last three years, he has managed Pennsylvania’s Emergency Watershed Program, working with local and state partners to install streambank stabilization projects across the state.

"NRCS looks forward to working with Penn State, the State Conservation Commission, and Herbert, Rowland & Grubic to mentor new agricultural professionals and increase technical capacity on Pennsylvania’s landscape," said Denise Coleman, USDA-NRCS state conservationist.

Visit the Penn State Center for Agricultural Conservation Assistance Training webpage for more information on programs and initiatives.

(Reprinted from Penn State News.)

[Posted: January 29, 2024]  PA Environment Digest

No comments :

Post a Comment

Subscribe To Receive Updates:

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner