Soil conservation took Les Everett across the world but also keeps him down on the farm
Even as a 4Her growing up on the family farm in Iowa, young Les Everett was looking for ways to improve soil health and the environment. One of his 4H projects showed the importance of check dams in slowing down water flow and the accompanying soil erosion. Eventually those interests brought him to the Water Resources Center, where after 23 years of work he retired from this past May.
Following a Vietnam-era stint in the Army serving as assistant to the chief administrator at Walter Reed Hospital and two more years in the Peace Corps in Zaire as an agricultural volunteer, Everett returned to school, earning an MS in Agronomy from Cornell and a doctorate in plant breeding from the University of Minnesota. He spent the next ten years as a maize (corn) breeder with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Nigeria and Cameroon, where he developed the first hybrid and synthetic varieties of food and feed corn for the Cameroon midaltitude belt and trained national scientists. “I did use my soil studies also while in Cameroon since I had to be a jack of all trades, as there was no one to hand off related duties to,” remembers Everett.
Everett returned to the UMN campus with the idea of someday going back to Africa, but that was not to be. Former Water Resources Center director Jim Anderson needed help with soil and water quality projects in 1995, hired Everett, and launched him into nutrient management outreach.
Everett views his efforts in manure and nutrient management as one of his greater successes. He organized and managed projects for Extension educators who conducted hundreds of nutrient management workshops across the state, helping farmers calculate and map out appropriate rates for manure and fertilizer application onto their farm fields. With spreadsheets and the Nutrient Management Planner software they provided farmers with field-specific application rates as well as the financial benefits of this approach for their operations. This type of human interaction and instruction not only earned cooperation from the farmers, but also won over hearts and minds to larger land and water conservation issues. Farmers could see that adopting environmental farming practices did not mean financial hardship.
One of the more challenging aspects of Everett’s work was convincing members of the Legislature to acquire statewide high-resolution LiDAR elevation data, increasing the effectiveness of water quality improvement projects funded by Clean Water Legacy money. Everett’s famous tenacity served him and Minnesota’s water quality legislation well, as he attended a legion of committee meetings to educate and remind the representatives of the importance of research-informed water investments. He had a positive view of the legislature. “They really wanted to know about water and environmental issues. Lots of people were lobbying for money for other projects. I just had to keep showing up,” said Everett.
Retirement will not be idle; Everett is a first time homeowner which comes with it’s own list of projects, and yes, he is still helping out on the family farm, managing woods and fixing waterways, projects not so removed from those long ago 4H demonstrations.