GOODHUE, Minn. - Tom Steger knows southeastern Minnesota, literally.

Steger, district conservationist with the Goodhue County Natural Resource Conservation Service, retired this month after 40 years with the agency.

Jim Fritz, area resource conservationist in Rochester, has worked with Steger for about 20 years. Steger, he said, "is going to be very hard to replace."

"He has the respect of all the farmers he's worked with, and the respect of all his coworkers," said Fritz. "He's just an all-around good person, and conservation has always been his passion."

Fritz said that even while Steger was getting close to retirement, he was always willing to take on new challenges and responsibilities.

"He ran hard to the finish line, and was hard at work on his last day," said Fritz. "I don't see Tom sitting idle for very long."

Starting out

In his sophomore year at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, Steger was partnered with a Soil Conservation Service officer in Wisconsin who was looking for summer interns.

He said he was lucky enough to get hired and work a couple summers with the agency and by the the time he graduated, there was a position waiting for him.

"It was kind of a tight job market so I thought with an offer standing, I'm going to grab it," said Steger. "And I ended up sticking with it for 40 years."

It was 1979 when Steger started working for the agency in Wisconsin, before he took a transfer to the Red River Valley in 1983, where he was in charge of Marshall County.

He said there have been a lot of changes in his work since then, but none bigger than technology.

"Computers have been good and bad," he said. "You can do a lot more work in a shorter period of time, but a lot more detail is expected."

He said when he first started, his job meant going door-to-door, trying to convince farmers there was something they could do to help out the bigger picture in the county.

"Often you'd find people at home, like well over the half the time," said Steger.

But nowadays, he said, that's rarely the case, which makes it harder to make an initial contact or to do a follow-up.

"In the last couple years I've started to do more texting with farmers and emailing," he said. "It's just the way it is now, it's not face-to-face, it's different. You lose some effectiveness that way."

An average 8 or 9-hour workday for Steger has changed from him heading out into the field right away, to starting each day by checking emails.

Looking back

Steger's responsibilities included managing NRCS activities, technical programs in Goodhue County and administering a number of programs including the Conservation Stewardship Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Programs.

His favorite part of the job was conservation planning and working with landowners to help them identify resource concerns, and then look at solutions to fix the problems.

"It's kind of fun now, that I can see go around and see so many shelterbelts (a line of trees or shrubs planted to protect an area from strong winds and erosion) that I helped plan out 15-20 years ago," said Steger. "And you see them doing some good now."

He said one fact remains even as farming methods have changed, and farms and machinery have gotten bigger.

"At heart, farmers still want to do the right thing," said Steger. "It's just maybe more complicated and problematic to help them do it."

Soil health

Two clumps of soil sit in a bowl at the center of Steger's office desk, which came from the same farm. One is from a fence line, and the other from a cropped area that's been rented out for 15 years.

Just in the color of the soils, you can see that much of the organic matter from the cropped area has been depleted and is crusted over with no room for water to soak in.

"That's soil health, right there" he said. "Something that just in the last four or five years has become more of a buzzword."

One of his regrets is that he didn't have more time to teach soil health.

Steger said that "gully erosion was 99% of our work" when he first started, but the agency has evolved. It used to be the Soil Conservation Service and now it's the Natural Resource Conservation Service, to recognize the agency deals with more than just the soil.

To strengthen the state's soil and water, "there's always work to be done," he said. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Board of Water and Soil Resources and NRCS offer a lot of resources but sometimes farmers' work gets in the way.

"When push comes to shove, and it's time to get on that tractor and get that corn harvested before it freezes up, a lot of times these programs get pushed aside," said Steger, "because they gotta get the work done, and I understand that."

It's tough when farmers are on a thin economic margin, he said, and they are asked to change something that's worked for them, but not necessarily for the environment.

Talking with an engineer in the office recently, Steger referenced an old design he did for a farmer that had an earthen manure pit drawn on it. The farmer told him he couldn't put the pit there, and Steger asked him why not. He said, "there's a fence there." Steger told him the fence could be moved.

"My grandpa put the fence there, so we're going to keep the fence there," the farmer told him.