New Mexico native Brent Van Dyke admits he had a lot to learn before taking the reins of the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD). One discussion that surprised him in particular was about a focus on water quality, as opposed to water quantity.
“I farm in the desert. Water quantity is a major priority from a Westerner’s perspective,” says Van Dyke, who was sworn in as president of the NACD earlier in 2017. “It wasn’t until I got on the national board that I realized there are people who talk about things like water quality.”
Van Dyke’s first awareness of conservation needs stemmed from repercussions of the Dust Bowl. Growing up in northeastern New Mexico, he remembers helping ranchers uncover farm equipment that had been abandoned for 20 to 30 years. Since then, his awareness has grown significantly, and on a recent trip to Iowa, he began to really understand the diversity of American agriculture and conservation after needing a visual explanation of tiles that were used to remove excess water on Midwest farms.
“That’s a very unique perspective when you come from the West, because we would never want to take water off the land,” Van Dyke says. “We struggle getting water on the land.”
Van Dyke graduated from New Mexico State University and served as an agriculture teacher and FFA advisor in Hobbs for 31 years. Today, he and his wife run a commercial and registered cattle operation in Hobbs, as well as an irrigated alfalfa and bermuda hay farm in Lea County, and a cotton operation in Texas.
Restore New Mexico
When Van Dyke joined his local conservation district board in 2002, the Restore New Mexico project was already underway. Entities including the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Bureau of Land Management, state land office and private landowners had partnered together to remove invasive species such as mesquite and cactus in areas that had been poorly managed for livestock, or used in oil and gas drilling.
The project works to keep native wildlife, like the lesser prairie chicken and dune sands lizard, off of the endangered species list, saving farmers and ranchers from added restrictions. Since its inception in 2005, collaborators have returned more than 3.3 million acres back to native grasslands, according to Debbie Hughes, executive director of the New Mexico Association of Conservation Districts. Hughes says the program has also invested at least $35 million, including federal matching dollars in local contractors, for projects like installing pipelines and aerially applying herbicide to eradicate invasive plants.
“You had that locally led, grassroots, boots-on-the-ground expertise in every part of the scenario, so it worked very well,” Van Dyke says. “It’s the poster child nationwide of pulling all of the people together who could be affected and benefit from figuring out the solution and working on the problems.”
He sees those partnerships as something folks across the country can learn from as they solve challenges in agriculture, and specifically in conservation.
“We have to produce more food and fiber in the next 35 years than we have produced in the history of mankind. Talk about a challenge,” Van Dyke says. “We’re only going to be successful if everybody works together in achieving that goal. That’s why a voluntary, incentive-based conservation program works where farmers and ranchers sign up with the federal government on cost-share projects that every taxpayer in America is going to benefit from. That’s critical.”