By Michele F. Mihaljevich
COLUMBUS, Ohio – While growing up in rural Mississippi, John Wilson spent a lot of time working on farms. He planted crops, helped at livestock operations and hauled and raked hay. Wilson also spent time disking gardens in the community in preparation for planting.
After spending years in the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Wilson now knows that wasn’t such a good idea.
“My goal (in doing the disking) was to not leave anything on the surface,” he said with a chuckle. “Now I know that probably wasn’t the best thing to do but that’s how I was trying to do it back then. At the time, that’s what the client wanted and that’s what I thought I needed to do. Now I know I could have done it differently.”
Wilson was named Ohio State Conservationist by NRCS in mid-February. It is his job to provide soil, water and natural resource conservation leadership, including overseeing programs and partnerships designed to provide financial and technical assistance to private landowners to improve the health of their operations while protecting natural resources, according to the agency.
Wilson has had several roles with NRCS and its predecessor, the Soil Conservation Service (SCS). Most recently, he was deputy state conservationist for NRCS in Arkansas. Prior to that, he was acting state conservationist in Ohio from January-May 2021. He also served as assistant state conservationist for field operations in Ohio, as well as state administrative officer and assistant state conservationist for programs.
Wilson said he’s happy to be back in Ohio, where he’s spent the better part of his conservation career.
“I was hoping to get back the whole time when I left,” he noted. “I’m certainly honored for the opportunity to once again work with the producers, the partners and the researchers working to protect the natural resources.”
Wilson’s conservation career began while he was in college at Alcorn State University, where he met recruiters from SCS. He ended up spending a couple of summers and a fall in Adrian, Mich., as a student trainee.
“I looked at the opportunities to work out there, on the land, with the producers, looking at their particular operations and hearing what they wanted to do to protect their natural resources. I thought that was an honorable thing to do and certainly wanted to help them make it happen. I thought this is something I would want to do for a career.”
After Wilson graduated from Alcorn State (he has a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics and agricultural education), he began his professional career in Michigan as a soil conservationist. He later served as a district conservationist and urban resource conservationist in Michigan before becoming the assistant for field operations in northwest Ohio. Wilson and the local staff worked in the Western Lake Erie Basin (WLEB), “trying to look at what we can do to address the nutrient issues that go into the Maumee, as well as the Toledo harbor. I’ve been working on that for quite some while.”
Wilson said he thinks efforts to lower the amount of harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie are working to a certain extent. “Certainly our goals are to decrease the number of nutrients falling into the Toledo harbor and therefore the Lake Erie basin.”
To help reach those goals, NRCS participates in several Regional Conservation Partnership Programs, including one with the state of Ohio, he said. The program focuses on land management practices designed to lower the amount of nutrients going into Lake Erie.
Another partnership in the WLEB involves Indiana, Michigan and Ohio, he said. The program focuses on producers and landowners operating near the Maumee River headwaters and seeks to improve soil health and reduce nutrient loading.
For producers with questions about conservation techniques, NRCS offers demonstration farms and field days, Wilson said, noting those programs waned over the last couple years due to COVID-19. He hopes to see such events return soon.
“Those farmers that are really kind of on the fence, trying to figure out what’s best for their operation, it gives them an opportunity to go and look at some of the practices and talk to the producers that are actually living it and get their input on how it’s working for them.”
NRCS is also focusing on equity and urban agriculture, as USDA is committed to the values of equity and inclusion, Wilson said. The agency is “taking a bold step, historic action to reduce the barriers in access to opportunity for the underserved communities,” he noted.
He said NRCS has a partnership with the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association to provide conservation outreach by education and technical assistance to accomplish equity and justice for Ohio’s socially underserved farmers.