Farm Horizons, Dec. 2017

Wright Soil and Water Conservation gets new district manager

By Jennifer Von Ohlen

Wright Soil and Water Conservation is under new management following the retirement of Kerry Saxton, who served as district manager for roughly 40 years.

His successor, Luke Johnson is the youngest of three boys, and spent his childhood in a small farming community near Atwater where his parents (both retired teachers) raised sheep and pastured a neighbor’s steer on their hobby farm.

Once he grew up, Johnson studied geology and geography at the University of Minnesota. It was during his sophomore year there that he first learned about soil water and conservation districts (SWCD), and would later take a summer job planting CRP grass for Kandiyohi’s SWCD.

Following college, Johnson spent a little less than a year working as a farm bill technician for Traverse SWCD before accepting the engineering technician job at Wright SWCD in 2005. When the district manager position became available this past spring, however, Johnson saw it as an opportunity to try something new.

“It was a tough decision to step away from a position that I had enjoyed doing for 11.5 years,” he said. “I knew I would miss getting in the field as much as I had been able to, but I felt like it was time for a new challenge, while still being able to stay [with a company] that I really enjoy.”

In addition to spending less time outdoors, becoming supervisor to his long-time coworkers made Johnson hesitant to pursue the manager position. As it turned out, however, his fellow staff were very supportive, and Johnson said that was “very important” for him to know moving forward.

“Mostly, I really liked the trajectory of the district, and wanted to maintain that going forward,” he explained.

His first day as district manager was March 13, which also happened to be a board meeting.

“So, I guess I jumped right in, in that regard,” said Johnson.

Besides keeping a positive atmosphere among his fellow employees, one of Johnson’s goals is to maintain Wright SWCD’s relationship with producers and landowners.

“We are here to assist the public when possible and preserve our resources, so that is what we want to do,” he stated.

In aspiring to his goals and adjusting to his new responsibilities, Johnson has already faced several challenges – mainly, finding the time to get everything done.

“Wright County is very resource-rich in terms of recreational water bodies, thus protecting or restoring them requires much attention,” he explained.

“Wright County also has both urban and rural conservation demands that demand attention and differing staff expertise,” he added.

Wright SWCD has been trying to enforce a Regional Aquatic Invasive Species inspection program within the county and three area lakes in Annandale, which has resulted in some “strong comments” to be stated on both sides of the discussion.

Also, because Wright SWCD was selected as the administration of the state Wetland Conservation Act, Johnson said it can be challenging to create a “delicate balance” when working with landowners to further conservation.

He added that overcoming the stigma of being part of the government is also challenging.

“I feel like we do our best to get help and get answers for people when we can,” Johnson stated.

Despite these hurdles, Johnson said there are several joys that come with being district manager, too. His top two highlights are still being able to get outside and meet people in and around Wright County.

“What I have found the most rewarding is getting to know a producer, discussing their concerns/issues – typically a soil erosion problem, then working with them to come up with a solution that helps their operation and helps produce better water quality as a result,” he said.

He continued, “I have learned more about our landscape and lakes in conservations with farmers, landowners, and coworkers than I could have ever learned in school.”

One of the recently completed projects aided in Johnson’s on-the-job learning was the installation of a limestone filter in Mink Lake and Somers Lake, which is designed to bind phosphorus to the limestone before it enters the lakes.

Wright SWCD also finished two agriculture waste management projects this year – creating a 14-month manure storage system for producers, which is made to protect adjacent water bodies. Several water and sediment control basin projects have also recently been completed, started, or prepared for construction this fall, a practice Johnson said is frequently used as the county’s topography regularly produces flow areas that produce “temporary water storage” areas in the landscape.

Johnson explained, “This practice entails building a small earthen dam in the field (made from clay taken nearby in the field) that temporarily holds water behind it (up to 24 hours), and the water is slowly drained via tile with an intake.”

No matter what the project is, however, Johnson wouldn’t be able to achieve any of Wright SWCD’s accomplishments without the dedicated work of his fellow staff members.

“Working with great coworkers and partners has made coming to work a joy nearly every day for over 12 years.”

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