Soil conservationists develop conservation plans to help farmers and ranchers, developers, homeowners, and government officials best use their land while adhering to government conservation regulations. They suggest plans to conserve and reclaim soil, preserve or restore wetlands and other rare ecological areas, rotate crops for increased yields and soil conservation, reduce water pollution, and restore or increase wildlife populations. They assess land users’ needs, costs, maintenance requirements, and the life expectancy of various conservation practices. They plan design specifications using survey and field information, technical guides, and engineering field manuals. Soil conservationists also give talks to various organizations to educate land users and the public about how to conserve and restore soil and water resources. Many of their recommendations are based on information provided to them by soil scientists.
Soil conservation technicians work more directly with land users by putting the ideas and plans of the conservationist into action. In their work they use basic engineering and surveying tools, instruments, and techniques. They perform engineering surveys and design and implement conservation practices like terraces and grassed waterways. Soil conservation technicians monitor projects during and after construction and periodically revisit the site to evaluate the practices and plans.
Soil Conservationist and Technician Career History
In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed a National Conservation Commission to oversee the proper conservation of the country’s natural resources. As a result, many state and local conservation organizations were formed, and Americans began to take a serious interest in preserving their land’s natural resources.
Despite this interest, however, conservation methods were not always understood or implemented. For example, farmers in the southern Great Plains, wanting to harvest a cash crop, planted many thousands of acres of wheat during the early decades of the 20th century. The crop was repeated year after year until the natural grasslands of the area were destroyed and the soil was depleted of nutrients. When the area experienced prolonged droughts combined with the naturally occurring high winds, devastating dust storms swept the land during the 1930s. Parts of Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, New Mexico, and Colorado suffered from severe soil erosion that resulted in desert-like conditions, and this ruined area became known as the Dust Bowl.
As a result of what happened to the Dust Bowl, Congress established the Natural Resource Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1935. Because more than 800 million tons of topsoil had already been blown away by the winds over the plains, the job of reclaiming the land through wise conservation practices was not an easy one. In addition to the large areas of the Great Plains that had become desert land, there were other badly eroded lands throughout the country.
Fortunately, emergency planning came to the aid of the newly established conservation program. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was created to help alleviate unemployment during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The CCC established camps in rural areas and assigned people to aid in many different kinds of conservation. Soil conservationists directed those portions of the CCC program designed to halt the loss of topsoil by wind and water action.
Much progress has been made in the years since the Natural Resource Conservation Service was established. Wasted land has been reclaimed and further loss has been prevented. Land-grant colleges have initiated programs to help farmers understand the principles and procedures of soil conservation. The Cooperative Research, Education and Extension Service (within the Department of Agriculture) provides workers who are skilled in soil conservation to work with these programs.
Throughout the United States today there are several thousand federally appointed soil conservation districts. A worker employed by the government works in these districts to demonstrate soil conservation to farmers and agricultural businesses. There are usually one or more professional soil conservationists and one or more soil conservation technicians working in each district.
The Job of Soil Conservationists and Technicians
Soil sustains plant and animal life, influences water and air quality, and supports human health and habitation. Its quality has a major impact on ecological balance, biological diversity, air quality, water flow, and plant growth, including crops and forestation. Soil conservationists and technicians help scientists and engineers collect samples and data to determine soil quality, identify problems, and develop plans to better manage the land. They work with farmers, agricultural professionals, landowners, range managers, and public and private agencies to establish and maintain sound conservation practices.
A farmer or landowner contacts soil conservationists to help identify soil quality problems, improve soil quality, maintain it, or stop or reverse soil degradation. Conservationists visit the site to gather information, beginning with past and current uses of the soil and future plans for the site. They consult precipitation and soil maps and try to determine if the way land is being currently used is somehow degrading the soil quality. Conservationists consider irrigation practices, fertilizer use, and tillage systems. At least a five- to ten-year history of land use is most helpful for working in this field.
Site observation reveals signs of soil quality problems. The farmer or landowner can point out areas of concern that occur regularly, such as wet spots, salt accumulation, rills and gullies or excessive runoff water that could indicate erosion, stunted plant growth, or low crop yield. Samples are taken from these areas and tested for such physical, chemical, and biological properties as soil fertility, soil structure, soil stability, water storage and availability, and nutrient retention. Conservationists also look at plant characteristics, such as rooting depth, which can indicate density or compaction of the soil.
Once all the data are gathered and samples tested, conservationists analyze the results. They look for patterns and trends. If necessary, they take additional samples to verify discrepancies or confirm results. They prepare a report for the farmer or landowner.
A team of conservationists, engineers, scientists, and the landowners propose alternative solutions for soil problems. All the alternatives must be weighed carefully for their possible effects on ecological balance, natural resources, economic factors, and social or cultural factors. The landowner makes the final decision on which solutions to use and a plan is drafted.
After the plan is in place, soil conservationists and technicians continue to monitor and evaluate soil conditions, usually over a period of several years. Periodic soil sampling shows whether progress is being made, and if not, changes can be made to the plan.
These brief examples show how the process works. A farmer has a problem with crop disease. He sees that the yield is reduced and the health of plants is poor. Soil conservationists and technicians consider possible causes and test soil for pests, nutrient deficiencies, lack of biological diversity, saturated soil, and compacted layers. Depending on test results, conservationists might suggest a pest-management program, an improved drainage system, the use of animal manure, or crop rotation.
Another farmer notices the formation of rills and gullies on his land along with a thinning topsoil layer. Soil conservationists’ research shows that the erosion is due to such factors as lack of cover, excessive tillage that moves soil down a slope, intensive crop rotation, and low organic matter. Suggested solutions include reducing tillage, using animal manure, planting cover crops or strip crops, and using windbreaks.
Conservationists and technicians who work for the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees hundreds of millions of acres of public domain, help survey publicly owned areas and pinpoint land features to determine the best use of public lands. Soil conservation technicians in the Bureau of Reclamation assist civil, construction, materials, or general engineers. Their job is to oversee certain phases of such projects as the construction of dams and irrigation planning. The Bureau’s ultimate goal is the control of water and soil resources for the benefit of farms, homes, and cities.
Other soil conservationists and technicians work as range technicians, who help determine the value of rangeland, its grazing capabilities, erosion hazards, and livestock potential. Physical science technicians gather data in the field, studying the physical characteristics of the soil, make routine chemical analyses, and set up and operate test apparatus. Cartographic survey technicians work with cartographers (mapmakers) to map or chart the earth or graphically represent geographical information, survey the public domain, set boundaries, pinpoint land features, and determine the most beneficial public use. Engineering technicians conduct field tests and oversee some phases of construction on dams and irrigation projects. They also measure acreage, place property boundaries, and define drainage areas on maps. Surveying technicians perform surveys for field measurement and mapping, to plan for construction, to check the accuracy of dredging operations, or to provide reference points and lines for related work. They gather data for the design and construction of highways, dams, topographic maps, and nautical or aeronautical charts.
Soil Conservationist and Technician Career Requirements
While in high school, you should take at least one year each of algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. Take several years of English to develop your writing, research, and speaking skills as these are skills you will need when compiling reports and working with others. Science classes, of course, are important to take, including earth science, biology, and chemistry. If your high school offers agriculture classes, be sure to take any relating to land use, crop production, and soils.
Conservationists hold bachelor degrees in areas such as general agriculture, range management, crop or soil science, forestry, and agricultural engineering. Teaching and research positions require further graduate level education in a natural resources field. Though government jobs do not necessarily require a college degree (a combination of appropriate experience and education can serve as substitute), a college education can make you more desirable for a position.
Typical beginning courses include applied mathematics, communication skills, basic soils, botany, chemistry, zoology, and introduction to range management. Advanced courses include American government, surveying, forestry, game management, soil and water conservation, economics, fish management, and conservation engineering.
Conservationists and technicians must have some practical experience in the use of soil conservation techniques before they enter the field. Many schools require students to work in the field during the school year or during summer vacation before they can be awarded their degree. Jobs are available in the federal park systems and with privately owned industries.
Certification or Licensing
No certification or license is required of soil conservationists and technicians; however, becoming certified can improve your skills and professional standing. The American Society of Agronomy offers voluntary certification in soil science.
Most government agencies require applicants to take a competitive examination for consideration.
Soil conservationists and technicians must be able to apply practical as well as theoretical knowledge to their work. You must have a working knowledge of soil and water characteristics; be skilled in management of woodlands, wildlife areas, and recreation areas; and have knowledge of surveying instruments and practices, mapping, and the procedures used for interpreting aerial photographs.
Soil conservationists and technicians should also be able to write clear, concise reports to demonstrate and explain the results of tests, studies, and recommendations. A love for the outdoors and an appreciation for all natural resources are essential for success and personal fulfillment in this job.
Exploring Soil Conservationist and Technician Careers
One of the best ways to become acquainted with soil conservation work and technology is through summer or part-time work on a farm or at a natural park. Other ways to explore this career include joining a local chapter of the 4-H Club or National FFA Organization (formerly Future Farmers of America). Science courses that include lab sections and mathematics courses focusing on practical problem solving will also help give you a feel for this kind of work.
Nearly two-thirds of all conservation workers are employed by local and federal government agencies. At the federal level, most soil conservationists and technicians work for the Natural Resource Conservation Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Bureau of Reclamation. Others work for agencies at the state and county level. Soil conservationists and technicians also work for private agencies and firms such as banks and loan agencies, mining or steel companies, and public utilities. A small percentage of workers are self-employed consultants that advise private industry owners and government agencies.
Most students gain outside experience by working a summer job in their area of interest. You can get information on summer positions through your school’s placement office. Often, contacts made on summer jobs lead to permanent employment after graduation. College career counselors and faculty members are often valuable sources of advice and information in finding employment.
Most soil conservationists and technicians find work with state, county, or federal agencies. Hiring procedures for these jobs vary according to the level of government in which the applicant is seeking work. In general, however, students begin the application procedure during the fourth semester of their program and take some form of competitive examination as part of the process. College placement personnel can help students find out about the application procedures. Representatives of government agencies often visit college campuses to explain employment opportunities to students and sometimes to recruit for their agencies.
Soil conservationists and technicians usually start out with a local conservation district to gain experience and expertise before advancing to the state, regional, or national level.
In many cases, conservationists and technicians continue their education while working by taking evening courses at a local college or technical institute. Federal agencies that employ conservationists and technicians have a policy of promotion from within. Because of this policy, there is a continuing opportunity for such workers to advance through the ranks. The degree of advancement that all conservationists and technicians can expect in their working careers is determined by their aptitudes, abilities, and, of course, their desire to advance.
Workers seeking a more dramatic change can transfer their skills to related jobs outside the conservation industry, such as farming or land appraisal.
The majority of soil conservationists and technicians work for the federal government, and their salaries are determined by their government service rating. In 2005, the average annual salary for soil conservationists employed by the federal government was $60,671, according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook. Starting salaries for those with bachelor’s degrees employed by the federal government was $24,677 or $30,567 in 2005, depending on academic achievement. Those with master’s degrees earned a higher starting salary of $37,390 or $45,239, and with a doctorate, $54,221.
The U.S. Department of Labor reports that median earnings for conservation scientists were $52,480 in 2004. Some conservation scientists earned less than $30,740, while others earned $78,470 or more annually.
The salaries of conservationists and technicians working for private firms or agencies are roughly comparable to those paid by the federal government. Earnings at the state and local levels vary depending on the region but are typically lower.
Government jobs and larger private industries offer comprehensive benefit packages which are usually more generous than those offered at smaller firms.
Soil conservationists and technicians usually work 40 hours per week except in unusual or emergency situations. They have opportunities to travel, especially when they work for federal agencies.
Soil conservation is an outdoor job. Workers travel to work sites by car but must often walk great distances to an assigned area. Although they sometimes work from aerial photographs and other on-site pictures, they cannot work from pictures alone. They must visit the spot that presents the problem in order to make appropriate recommendations.
Although soil conservationists and technicians spend much of their working time outdoors, indoor work is also necessary when generating detailed reports of their work to agency offices.
In their role as assistants to professionals, soil conservation technicians often assume the role of government public relations representatives when dealing with landowners and land managers. They must be able to explain the underlying principles of the structures that they design and the surveys that they perform.
To meet these and other requirements of the job, conservationists and technicians should be prepared to continue their education both formally and informally throughout their careers. They must stay aware of current periodicals and studies so that they can keep up-to-date in their areas of specialization.
Soil conservationists and technicians gain satisfaction from knowing that their work is vitally important to the nation’s economy and environment. Without their expertise, large portions of land in the United States could become barren within a generation.
Soil Conservationist and Technician Career Outlook
The U.S. Department of Labor predicts employment for conservation scientists (a category including soil conservationists) to grow slower than the average through 2014, mainly due to decreased federal spending in this area. Nevertheless, the need for government involvement in protecting natural resources should remain strong. More opportunities may be available with state and local government agencies, which are aware of needs in their areas. The vast majority of America’s cropland has suffered from some sort of erosion, and only continued efforts by soil conservation professionals can prevent a dangerous depletion of our most valuable resource: fertile soil.
Some soil conservationists and technicians are employed as research and testing experts for public utility companies, banks and loan agencies, and mining or steel companies. At present, a relatively small number of soil conservation workers are employed by these firms or agencies. However, it is these private-sector areas that will provide the most employment opportunities over the next 10 years.