When Mickey Black took a summer job back in 1962, he never imagined that 40 years later he'd be working for the same organization.

“I'm still just trying to make a hand,” says Black, assistant director for field operations, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Lubbock.

He's made a pretty good hand, competent enough to be recognized by the Texas Tech College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, as a Distinguished Alumni for 2003.

Black earned a degree from the economics department in 1964 and except for a two-year stint in the U.S. Army has put that degree to work ever since helping farmers, ranchers and landowners find affordable ways to maintain conservation practices on their land.

He has seen a lot of changes in four decades of work with what was known as the Soil Conservation Service when he took that summer job back in 1962. “I worked two summers as a student trainee,” he recalls.

He signed on full-time after graduation but worked just a few months until the Army called him for two years of active duty, after which he came back to SCS.

Black says the biggest change he has seen in the organization is numbers. “Back in the '60s we had from 1,400 to 1,500 employees covering the state,” he says. “Now we have less than 700.”

He sees some irony in that. “When we need to employ conservation practices more than ever, we have fewer people to do the job,” he says. “We get a lot of help from technology and research, but programs have to be ‘ground applicable,’ useful and affordable for landowners.”

Black says the agency cut personnel primarily from mid-management and state levels to “maintain as many folks as possible in the field.”

Black says farmers benefit from decades of research and innovations that make conservation planning and implementation easier.

“Cutting back on personnel means we have to rely more on technology,” he says. “When we had 1,400 employees, we did a lot of knocking on doors, meeting folks and telling them about conservation programs. We spent a lot of time surveying, surveying and analyzing.

“Now we've replaced the old survey system we used for years with laser leveling. Global positioning system technology allows us to work a lot faster. And we can download aerial photographs into a computer and analyze information. I doubt that innovations are going to stop here.

He say rotation has been another big production change.

“Planting a high residue crop instead of a soil-depleting one improves the land. And conservation tillage has come a long way in the past few years.”

He says conservation tillage provides economic as well as environmental benefits to farmers. “They save money because it's cheaper to get the crops in with less tillage. They also save on irrigation and many are improving yields.”

He says farmers across the High Plains and throughout Texas have improved irrigation efficiency. “Center pivot irrigation was better than row irrigation and many have replaced high impact nozzles with low energy precision application (LEPA) systems.”

He says subsurface drip irrigation promises even more water conservation for the High Plains. “Farmers have done an excellent job with irrigation water efficiency.”

Technology will help farmers meet the challenge of feeding and clothing a population that will double in the next 50 years, Black says. He looks at progress so far. “At one time, we considered a bale to a bale and half of cotton per acre a good yield. Today, farmers are making three and a half or four bales and I've heard reports of five.

“Farmers and ranchers have learned from each other and we have learned from them. They make us better at telling others about our programs.”

He says cotton farmers are pushing the crop farther north, into areas where they once grew mostly high residue crops. “They're making three to three and a half bales per acre their first year.”

Black thinks cotton farmers gain an advantage going into high residue crop areas. “They have more organic matter, which improves soil moisture retention. It will be interesting to see how the fields hold up after several years.”

He says farmers have taken a lot of erosion-prone soils out of production, aided by the conservation reserve program, which is “not all that different from the 1950's soil bank programs.”

Black says turning cropland into grassland with introduced and native grasses saves soil and improves wildlife habitat.

“Managing land for wildlife has been a big change,” Black says. “Early on, few landowners had much interest in wildlife habitat, but today some see wildlife as an important resource, in some cases a primary source of income.”

Conservation programs have changed significantly since Black began his career. He says focus began to change with the 1985 farm bill. Until that time, most programs were voluntary. “After 1985, compliance remained somewhat voluntary,” he says, “but to be eligible to participate in government crop programs farmers with highly erodible land had to develop and implement a conservation plan.”

That's pretty much everyone south of Lubbock. “From 95 percent to 100 percent of the soil south and west of Lubbock is highly erodible. It's not as fragile north of Lubbock where soils are tighter and only 8 percent to 10 percent is considered highly erodible.”

He says in the past landowners could sign on for one-year programs. “They could apply for one practice and not tie up the whole operation.”

He sys the 1996 farm bill eliminated old programs and replaced them with EQIP and wildlife incentive programs.

“Today, we have a mix, with a minimum of two-year and a maximum of ten year contracts.”

Significant challenges loom as farmers and landowners try to maintain conservation programs with depressed commodity prices.

“Economic viability remains the number one challenge limiting conservation efforts,” Black says. “Maintaining a viable incentive program to assist farmers and ranchers continues to be our challenge. That's difficult with limited funds and a public that doesn't understand the value of programs that help farmers.

“Some call conservation incentive programs another hand out, but they don't realize the costs involved in conservation practices. Program incentives allow farmers to maintain farm viability and their livelihoods. The consumer is the big beneficiary, along with the environment. Our country's cheap food and fiber policy allows consumers to buy food cheaper than anywhere else in the world.”

Black says, somewhat wistfully, that he doesn't work as directly with farmers and landowners as he once did. That's the downside of administration.

“But I work with young employees, right out of college. I help train them and I'm impressed that we have a lot of good people coming along.”

He says NRCS and other agencies need smart young people interested in making good hands.

rsmith@primediabusiness.com