USDA hires regional 'farm kid'
A farm kid from Waubun jumped at the chance to be Hubbard County's district conservationist when the position opened last summer.
Oh, the lure of family and friends was there, no doubt.
But it was the lure of catching another monster muskie that tugged at him almost as hard.
Dan Pazdernik assumed his USDA post in July, just as the muskie season was heating up.
Unfortunately, he was busy setting up office and helping farmers through a challenging growing season. Dipping a line had to take a back seat.
It's tough when your passion and vocation conflict. His desk sits just underneath the mounted lunker he caught in 2009. He figures he's due to catch another, this time over 50 inches.
But the challenge of promoting healthy soils and sustainable farming practices, while maximizing farm income in Hubbard County poses as big a challenge as that elusive tiger fish.
"We need to replenish our subsoil moisture or we could see real trouble," Pazdernik said.
"Soil health is the key to promoting a healthy, sustainable farm."
And without water, that goal can be especially challenging, he admitted.
Hubbard County was fortunate to get rains at just the right times last summer, he said, although the northern part of the county experienced drier conditions.
While politicians in Washington engage in a bruising debate over a new farm bill, Pazdernik continues administering his programs under the existing bill and staying well away from politics.
He administers the Environmental Quality Incentives Program or EQIP, the Conservation Stewardship Program, or CSP, and to a lesser extent, the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program or WHIP.
EQIP, his main focus, gives landowners financial assistance to establish conservation practices and also gives funds for structural projects.
For instance, if a farmer wanted to install a water sediment control basin, the National Resources Conservation Service - his office - would chip in 75 percent of the cost.
Pazdernik explained that such a system would place dams at strategic locations and use underground tiles that directed water to a stable outlet. It eliminates washouts in low areas of a field.
It's the efficient use of water that challenges Pazdernik. Irrigation management is one of his key responsibilities.
He educates farmers on the wise use of irrigation, not soaking a field with a high-density spray that will evaporate, but a slower trickle to do the same job using less water.
Changing irrigation nozzles from high pressure to low pressure keeps farmers from over-applying moisture, while conserving a valuable natural resource, he maintains.
Along with the lessons not to over-apply water, Pazdernik teaches farmers nutrient management plans, based on what soil types they have. In Hubbard County that can range from sand to clay, with much in between. He generally recommends a slow-release fertilizer in sandy soil.
No-tillage practices also work well on sandy ground. With the heavy clay soils, tilling helps penetrate the top layer so the soil can be seeded.
And, because of high corn and soybean prices, Pazdernik finds more acreage being put into production, as farmers jump on the bandwagon to capitalize on higher returns.
There are opportunities through USDA programs for even higher payment rates, he said.
Implementing a grazing system offers rewards and financing for fence, the pipeline, the watering tanks and even helping cattle farmers drill a new well.
High tunnels can lengthen the growing season by a few months. Incentives for tree planting and nutrient management are other ways to maximize farm income. Switching from conventional to organic farming is another.
He said there's no typical question or typical advice he gets or gives to those starting out. A myriad of factors comes into play, such as whether the farmer inherited the land or is leasing or purchasing it.
Like most government agencies, he's seen budget cuts. But he's also seen partnering between agencies to conduct workshops.
After graduating from the University of Minnesota-Crookston with a bachelor's degree in agronomy and water resource management, Pazdernik was a soil conservationist in Albert Lea for nearly two years. He transferred to Detroit Lakes, then Breckenridge, then Park Rapids.
He stresses that USDA programs are free.
"Farmers don't have to sign up for anything," or enroll in a government program, he said.
But he admits there may be a self-serving reason he wants more moisture for the region.
"I'm a snowmobiler so I love snow," he grinned.