Assessing the NMP Situation
Part 1: The DATCP Nutrient Management Update in Context
The main way that interested parties have to keep tabs on the NMP program is an annual report compiled by Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection. This report normally consists of some data presentation (i.e. percent of cropland in NMP by county), some news about the state NMP program (i.e. updates to regulatory codes and technical standards), and an analysis of NMP quality based on audits of individual plans for “on paper” completeness. Given the politically explosive nature of regulating nutrient pollution, this annual report is not generally very enlightening. There are very clear reasons why the report is not particularly useful, and this is because of the people and groups who have an interest in the NMP program serving their individual needs rather than society at large.
One clear conclusion that can be drawn from the report every year is that there are very wide disparities between NMP adoption in the counties. This makes sense because most of the NMP program is administered at the county level. The 2020 report shows a range of 0%-77% of total cropland in NMP. This data isn’t useful unless you already know what local conditions are driving different approaches to administering the NMP program. For example, Door County consistently has one of the highest percentage of cropland in NMP. There is a lot that could be said about Door Counties’ NMP program. It has high livestock density in an ecosystem that is highly susceptible to contamination. Door County also has a highly developed tourism economy which creates an alternative base of power that doesn’t exist in rural counties that are more dominated by agricultural interests. Other counties with higher NMP adoption have expanding urban/suburban/exurban development that puts city interests into conflict with country interests. Counties with low NMP adoption tend to be more rural and many are dominated by woodland/wetland ecosystems rather than cropland. An in depth analysis of disparities in county level NMP adoption is required to make full sense of this. The big take away here is that knowing county level NMP adoption rates isn’t particularly useful without knowing what factors are affecting disparities in adoption rates.
The regulatory updates are likewise hard to follow except for the most insider-ey of insiders. In my experience there is only a small segment of plan writers who engage seriously with the regulatory process. Most plan writers are just working within SnapPlus and learning by trial and error. Protecting the clients they are writing plans for is what most plan writers consider their main priority, and diligent attention to the rules is not often considered in the client’s best interest. This makes sense because the clients provide plan writers the means of survival via paying them for their services. This is troubling because the nature of NMP rules and regulations means that basically only a highly trained and experienced expert can make any sense of them. Not only are plan writers not engaged with making rules and regulations clear and approachable to the public at large, many are engaged in an active process of making the rules seem impossible to understand as a way of protecting their clients. In general, there is a huge need for a greater understanding of NMP rules and regulations by the public at large. We need to be able to understand this stuff so we can know when powerful interests are fucking with us. DATCP’s report does not provide sufficient information for a general readership to understand what is going on.
Finally, the report usually includes an analysis of NMP quality based on audits of individual plans for “on paper” completeness. The 2020 report does not include this analysis (presumably because the audit was not done due to covid), but it is a regular feature of the report. I have participated in one of these audit processes as a private plan writer. DATCP brings together DATCP staff, county conservation staff, and private plan writers for review. This process is problematic for a few reasons. First of all, on paper compliance is bullshit. I very easily could and many times did falsify information in a NMP to show compliance. Plan writers have even developed a language around this to explain our fraudulent behavior. We often say that the plan is meant to show what must be done in order to be in compliance. There is a clear understanding among plan writers that many landowners/farmers are not willing or able to make the management changes contained in the plan. Since we still want to get paid for writing the plan, we reassure ourselves that the best we can do is show the landowner/farmer what the should be doing. The point here is that there is clear incentive to include fraudulent information in an NMP and that fraudulent information is almost impossible to positively identify during an on paper audit. The flip side of this is that there are very few consequences for fraudulent behavior. In this context, “on paper” compliance is not a meaningful determinant of the health of the NMP program. For example, one of the major things this audit process has tracked is proper soil sample reporting. Proper soil sample reporting is something that is achievable for nearly every farm every year. The fact that NMPs failed to include proper soil sample documentation for so long is due to plan writers and landowners/farmers not taking the process seriously because they don’t have to. Another issue with this audit process is that all parties performing the audit have a distinctive interest in portraying the NMP program as successful. Agency staff that are tasked with administering these programs have an interest in portraying the programs as successful because there jobs and income are tied to them. Private plan writers are likewise not incentivized to identify major problems in the program, because they derive income from the system as it exists. For a more useful audit process, outside groups and interests would have to be included.
The goal of this analysis is to situate the reader within the context of DATCP’s annual Nutrient Management Report. I identified the major elements of the report, and offered criticisms of the individual elements based on my engagement and experience with the NMP program. In a future analysis I will take on a specific data point in the 2020 report - year to year change in reported NMP acres.