If you saw the work accomplished by Fond du Lac County Land and Water Conservation Department (LWCD) this summer, you would not have known that we were in the midst of a global pandemic. From partnerships, grants, and cost-sharing funding that the department was working on going into the new year, this summer had shaped up to be especially busy, even before the pandemic came in March.
Many county conservation departments across Wisconsin were in similar situations. As state and local health precautions were made, county offices took a variety of approaches to ensure the staff and public was safe while working through the busiest three months of the year. Some county offices, like Portage County LWCD, closed the office to the public for several months, and were able to work remotely. Other counties alternated staff coming into the office to maintain social distancing, and others even managed to take necessary precautions while staying open.
Despite these adjustments, county conservation departments were able to be there for landowners and producers and install important projects on the landscape. We interviewed Paul Tollard, Fond du Lac County Conservationist, and Steve Bradley, Portage County Conservationist, about their experiences with balancing COVID-19 and summer demands.
In what ways have you been able to meet the needs of the public with precautions in place?
Bradley: “Our office has been closed to public walk-ins and are by appointment-only. We usually meet people in the parking lot. When making on-site visits and lake association meetings, we try to keep as much of it outside, while adhering to wearing masks and social distancing.”
Tollard: “We are co-located in a USDA Agricultural Service Center and coordinated with local USDA agencies in the building to follow local, state, and federal guidelines to the greatest extent possible. Even with our building closed to the public, the Fond du Lac LWCD staff are mostly field staff. We are very used to meeting with landowners in the field, so the pandemic has not really impacted our work. We are currently meeting with landowners in the office parking lot, if not in the field, and so far that has been working very well. In short, business as usual.”
What are some of the changes you’ve made to county programs to meet your goals?
Bradley: “We’ve really just seen a shift in the type of work being done and what is prioritized. For example, we accomplished a lot of wild parsnip treatment.
“Our youth education program had to get more creative with social distancing measures in place. We have a very successful prairie pollinator program, where students participate in a presentation on prairies and pollinators. At the end of the presentation, each student receives a prairie plug to plant in their school prairie or take home. We started all the seeds in January at our houses to make sure they would be ready for April and May presentations.
“A bit of a surprise came in March when schools closed, and no presentations were able to occur. We had thousands of prairie plants growing at our houses and nowhere for them to go. Plan B came when one of our local Farmer Led Groups stepped up to take the pollinator pledge. They allowed us to plant our prairie plugs on areas of their property they weren’t using to farm. Not only did this benefit the farm with increased pollinators, but it now provides additional educational sites for school groups to visit.”
Tollard: “We used less staff to sort our trees for the County Tree Sale Program this spring and we went to a drive-thru for the tree order pick up. The tree program went very well and we plan to continue with the drive-thru pick up in the future. We also had to move the Ag and Household Clean Sweep that was scheduled for April to the end of October.
“One of the other challenges this year has been holding in-person
field days for the Demonstration Farm Networks and other grants that we have in
the county. We have been trying to have smaller groups or virtual field days,
but groups have been limited to 10 or less which makes it difficult to host
field days and trainings.”
Have you noticed any pandemic-related challenges when working with producers or landowners?
Bradley: “Larger agricultural projects were much slower this year, but the low-cost soft practices are certainly increasing. One the non-agricultural side, things were normal or slightly busier. Another thing to note is that wearing masks during onsite visits can get uncomfortably warm and everyone likes to share their opinions about the pandemic.”
Tollard: “We have not experienced any landowners or farmers backing out of projects due to the pandemic so far. In fact, contractors were so busy this year that there might be projects that get delayed until 2021. We have been fortunate that contractors were able to keep working and our projects are getting completed, even if things are slightly behind schedule. A big shout-out to Wisconsin DATCP Technician Drew Zelle for his help this year.”
Are there any “silver linings” to come out of all of this?
Bradley: “We’re all happy to be part of a team that can tackle challenges, be creative, and still provide services to our residents, even with all the restrictions. We worked together to find a new way to get the job done!”
What is one quarantine hobby or accomplishment that you’re proud of?
Tollard: “I taught myself to play guitar a few years ago, so once or twice a week during the Safer at Home shut down I would play a “quaran-tune” song and share it with family and friends."