NRCS-Michigan Conservation Notes July-August 2023

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USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

NRCS-Michigan Conservation Notes Newsletter-  July/August 2023

NRCS Michigan State Conservationist Garry Lee

Michigan and agriculture have a lot in common. The natural beauty and agricultural bounty of Michigan is often overlooked, and the importance of agriculture and the opportunities it provides is often overlooked by young people looking at a future career.

The USDA offers many opportunities for young people to explore careers in agriculture including at NRCS. Most years NRCS-Michigan hosts student interns through the USDA Pathways program and more recently through the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and a new partnership between NRCS-Michigan, a pair of professional rodeo stars, and Prairie View A&M University. The Earth Team Volunteer program also offers students, as well as adults, the opportunity to learn about NRCS while supporting conservation.

NRCS is always looking for good people interested in working in conservation and assisting agricultural producers. NRCS offers good careers, doing meaningful work, with opportunities to grow professionally and advance in a wide variety of occupations from engineering to botany to administration.

A Labor Day message from Agriculture Secretary Vilsack:

Labor Day stands as a tribute to the resilience and persistence of the American workforce. The Biden-Harris administration lives by the values of what this holiday represents: that working together makes us all stronger.

The work we do at the Department of Agriculture takes many shapes. Across all of our expanded mission areas, USDA is on the front lines of contributing to the success and prosperity of our nation. Because of the crucial support you provide to those we serve, Americans across the country are able to thrive in the communities they love.

It is with profound gratitude that I recognize your tremendous efforts to ensure the continued growth of both our workplace and of American agriculture.

I encourage you to take a well-deserved moment this weekend to rest, rejuvenate, and spend quality time with your loved ones. May you have a joyful and well-deserved Labor Day.

With much appreciation,

Secretary Thomas J. Vilsack

A Case Study on Pollinator Habitat & EQIP

MSU Assistant Professor Meghan Milbrath at her pollinator habitat planting in Jackson County.

When Meghan Milbrath decided to utilize the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to establish pollinator habitat, she saw an opportunity to educate people about the process.

Milbrath, an associate professor in Michigan State University’s Entomology Department, published an article about her experience, “A refuge for pollinators: A case study of establishing large-scale pollinator habitat on marginal farmland using federal funds,” on MSU’s website.

In addition to her job at MSU, Milbrath is also a beekeeper and maintains about 50 colonies of honeybees on a farmstead in Jackson County owned by a relative. The relative granted her control of about 26 acres of marginal farmland to convert to pollinator habitat. The parcel included a sandy hill, a smaller bordering portion of muck land, and a small woodlot.

It was not an easy process but the result was, “one of the happiest things I’ve ever done in my life,” said Milbrath.

She began the process in 2015 by visiting the USDA Service Center in Jackson. The paperwork required was arduous at times and she needed assistance to fill out many of the forms, Milbrath said. She was pleased to hear that most future applicants will not have to register through the System for Awards Management as she had to. By 2016 Milbrath was enrolled in EQIP and had begun site preparation which included a prescribed burn in March. She worked with a seed company to create separate seed mixes for the dry sandy and muck portions of the planting. She selected a variety of forbs that would bloom throughout the growing season, providing a constant food source for both her honeybees and native pollinators. She selected shorter grasses so that the flowering plants would be more visible.

Milbrath knew going into the process that pollinator plantings do not provide immediate gratification. Due to a wet spring, she was not able to begin planting until June in 2016 and she obtained an extension to complete planting in 2017. It wasn’t until 2020 that she could confirm that all the species she planted, except one, were established. Some species took until 2022 to bloom, prioritizing establishing roots first. “Some of these plants have 14-foot roots,” said Milbrath.

“Every time you walk out to the site it’s different,” said Milbrath.

In late July, bee balm was the dominant blooming species although many other native flowers were also in bloom including blue vervain and butterfly weed. The site has attracted ground nesting bees and other wildlife including bluebirds in the boxes Milbrath installed.

After going through the process, her final advice to those considering EQIP to establish pollinator habitat is “have patience and trust the process as the results are worth it.”

Monarch butterfly on a milkweed plant on a pollinator planting in Jackson County.

Visiting Students Learn about Ag Careers

Visiting students in a Michigan-NRCS partnership agreement test for soil compaction in a corn field in SE Michigan.

Cory Hightower and Zachary White probably never envisioned themselves driving a blueberry picker in Michigan. Recent high school graduates Hightower, from Texas, and White, from Tennessee, found themselves doing just that as part of a collaboration between NRCS-Michigan, Prairie View A&M University, and the non-profit organization Royalty ID.

Hightower and White were among a group of nine students who came to Michigan for a 30-day internship to learn about agriculture, conservation, and careers at NRCS. The students were hosted by field offices in Ann Arbor, Flint, Paw Paw, and Portage.

Before coming to Michigan, the students spent 30 days at Camp Royalty. Camp Royalty is operated by Royalty ID, an organization started by professional calf ropers King Pickett and Cory Solomon. Royalty ID assisted in promoting the program at rodeo events to find students with an interest in agriculture but who may not be aware of related careers such as with NRCS. They were successful in recruiting a number of high school students who attended Camp Royalty, those who graduated in 2023 were invited to participate in the 30-day NRCS agriculture immersion program in Michigan.

We tried to expose them to everything “ag” as well as what interests them, said District Conservationist Jeff Douglas who hosted Hightower and White in Van Buren County. On a visit to evaluate a pollinator planting enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, the two learned about native plant species and their benefits to pollinators and other wildlife. Students assigned to the Ann Arbor field office were able to learn about urban agriculture including volunteering at the Keep Growing Detroit USDA People’s Garden at the Eastern Market.

The final phase of the program is a 7-day agricultural career exploration conference at Prairie View A&M University in Texas. NRCS-Michigan wishes our summer visitors success in their future career plans and we look forward to hosting a new group of students in 2024.

NRCS-Michigan summer interns including 9 through the Royalty ID program, one Pathways Program Intern and a Thurgood Marshall Intern.

USDA Thurgood Marshall Intern Trey Jones conducts a soil health assessment in a field in Ionia County.

Ionia Field Office Hosts Thurgood Marshall Intern

Massey "Trey" Jones III from Birmingham, Ala., got a taste of working for NRCS as well as living in a northern climate as a Thurgood Marshall College Fund intern at the Ionia NRCS field office.

Jones is a student majoring in Agribusiness at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., where he learned about the internship program. He’d never been to Michigan before arriving on June 5, and spent 10 weeks working at the Ionia field office. It was shorts weather by March in Baton Rouge but Michigan was still cold when he arrived in June, said Jones.

Jones served as an Earth Team volunteer in Alabama in 2022 but agriculture in Michigan is very different, he said. Most of the farms he visited as an Earth Team volunteer in Alabama were 10 acres or smaller. His time in Michigan was much more intensive and far ranging, he joined Soil Conservationist Paul Nelson on many of his field visits including construction inspections, and monitoring of easements and conservation practices.
The internship project requires a student project so District Conservationist Tamara Buitenwerf had Jones conduct soil health assessments on fields enrolled or soon to be enrolled in conservation programs.

“This was something Trey could do and take ownership of it,” said Buitenwerf.
The data Jones collected will be used to document the soil health benefits of conservation practices implemented through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Jones used a soil health kit to measure water infiltration, residue decomposition, soil compaction, and other soil health indicators.

Jones plans to graduate in December 2024 and will likely pursue a career with USDA.

Earth Team Valuable Resource for Conservation

Earth Team Volunteer Isabelle Franks on a restored wetland mitigation site standing next to a swamp white oak sapling.

by Erin Segar, Area Resource Soil Scientist, Grand Rapids Area Office

Since 1985, dedicated Earth Team Volunteers (ETV) have worked alongside NRCS conservationists to accomplish the agency mission of providing conservation resources to farmers, ranchers, and forest owners. These volunteers are a valued source of talent, and a true asset to both NRCS and the communities they serve. Services performed can include anything from clerical work to mapping soils to conservation technical assistance.

The timing is ripe to reconsider this valuable resource we have available to our agency. The seemingly never-ending sentiments of “not enough hours in the day,” and “not enough hands-on deck,” have accumulated over the last four years. There is an historic need for NRCS assistance brought on by the historic rains of 2019, followed 10 months later by a worldwide pandemic, and now the Inflation Reduction Act. The demand for NRCS’s conservation technical and financial assistance reaches wider and deeper than ever before. The Earth Team is a proven resource to address the need.

You can try to seek out a great ETV, and sometimes great ETV’s find you. This is a story of the latter. While on a site visit to an established Wetland Reserve Program easement in Calhoun County, I was visiting with the landowner. After learning that Calhoun was my home county, and one of the 19 I cover for my job, the landowner seemed interested in knowing my background. After a few minutes, he shared that his daughter, Isabelle, is currently entering her senior year at Ferris State University majoring in Environmental Biology. He said, “she would love to do what you do.” My wheels began to spin.

Within a few days, Isabelle and I had spoken, set up a plan, and she had the ETV form submitted to Brian Buehler, ETV coordinator for NRCS Michigan. Isabelle, “Izzy”, was tasked with completing monitoring site visits and reports for established mitigation sites in five counties. Izzy’s skillset suited this task well, as it requires a knowledge of plant identification, invasive species control, and attention to detail with reviewing the mitigation plans for the required components. She has a natural aptitude for conservation work, and often stokes that desire while exploring on her family’s WRP easement. She also spent part of her summer working an internship at the Toledo Zoo propagating native plants, some of which she was ecstatic to find growing on the mitigation sites. Often exclaiming, “It’s so cool to see these growing outside of a greenhouse!”

Izzy really hit the ground running with minimal direction. She was able to navigate the complex jargon and technical aspects of the mitigation plans and provide the agency with polished reports. The reports were submitted to the NRCS state biologist to suffice the Food Security Act policy for monitoring mitigation plans. Volunteering for about 30 hours, Izzy was able to assume the majority of the areawide task for the year and complete it.

This ETV story is an aspiring one for all NRCS conservationists to go find a great ETV, or let one find you!

Employee Updates

New Employees

Soil Conservationist Sheila Easton

Sheila Easton - Soil Conservationist, Cold Water

Last Position: CTAI, Branch Conservation District
Hometown: Grass Lake
Education: B.S. Natural Resources Management - Grand Valley State University, M.S. Conservation Policy and Environmental Policy - University of Michigan
Family: husband Derek, dog Dolly, cat Chloe
Hobbies & Interests: baking, gardening, triathalons, camping, hiking, and boating


Staff Updates

Luis Matrir - Area Program Specialist, Grand Rapids (formerly district conservationist, Stanton)

Caitlain Thompson - Area Program Specialist, Flint (formerly district conservationist, Gladwin)

Conservation Calendar

Upcoming Events


13 - Fruit Farm Field Day, 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., Lemon Creek Winery - Berrien Springs, for more information and to RSVP (by Sept. 6) call 269/471-9111 ext. 3

15 - Tire Recycling Event, 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Traverse Bay Area Career Tech Center - Traverse City, for more information and to register go to

20 - Harter Family Pasture Walk, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., Harter Family Farm - Rudyard, for more information go to

22-23 - Michigan Forest Association Annual Celebration, noon to 5 p.m., Comfort Inn - Manistique, for more information go to

28 - Small Farm Management Field Day, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Indigo Lavender Farms - Imlay City, for more information and to register email


5 & 12 - Community Scientist Stream Monitoring, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., Olivet College - Olivet, for more information go to 

7 - Annual River Conservation Day, 8 a.m. to noon, Bennett Park - Charlotte, for more information and to register go to

14 - October Big Day Birding Event, 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., Boardman River Nature Center - Traverse City, for more information and to register go to

21 - Michigan Beekeepers Association Fall Conference, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Doherty Hotel - Clare, for more information go to

26 - Pollinate Conference Series, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.,  Pierce Cedar Creek Institute - Hastings, for more information go to


 2 - Pollinate Conference Series, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Chantal Winery and Vineyard - Traverse City, for more information go to

Michigan State Office

3001 Coolidge Road, Suite 250
East Lansing, MI 48823

Phone: 517-324-5270