Goodbye NRCS California!

Where to start? I’ve had an interesting year in 2015. I left for Poland in March and to my surprise, got accepted into the CLM program near the beginning of my stay. I returned to Chicago two months later, and two weeks later, I was driving across the West to the Central Valley of California to intern with the US Dept. of Agriculture. Now, agriculture was never an interest of mine. I consider myself an ecologist, not an agronomist; but I am interested in land management, which was a common thread of the two. I am also open-minded to different things so I decided to take PMC Manager Margaret Smither-Kopperl’s offer as a way to challenge myself and grow in my field. 

A PMC is a Plant Materials Center. They are part of the plant materials program of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and they work across agencies to address different public needs, whether producing seed for the BLM or NPS’s conservation programs, or conducting agricultural experiments to determine which cover crops best improve soil health. 

The Lockeford PMC in California has over 100 acres of land and is lightly staffed, so my role there wasn’t well defined – which I am grateful for because it allowed me to wear many hats. A typical work day would look something like this: Wake up at 5:30, drive from Sacramento at 6:20 to get to Lockeford by 7:00. I would check my emails, get the key for the pickup and go do field work (which varied greatly day-to-day). Many times myself and two other coworkers would move irrigation pipes to prep the fields for fall plantings.  Other times I would collected bloom count, percent cover, pollinator visitation, soil sample, biomass, etc. data, usually with Jeff, our biological science technician. When it got hot out, I’d head to the office and do computer work. One of my big projects was making sense of the cover crop data for the previous 4 years. It was very tedious work, but valuable for future plantings. Otherwise I would work on other projects, including planning, research, and writing USDA Plant Guides (which I loved to do). I would also clean seed (rarely, maybe 5 times, there wasn’t a lot this year), or work the greenhouse and propagate plugs. 

Some large projects I was responsible for were:

1. That cover crop data management project

2. Preparing the 2015 Adaptation trial planting which included: determining seeding rates, weighing out and preparing seed, coming up with an order for planting, flagging out the field and making signs

3. Creating seed mixes for critical area plantings, which included combating the erosion of the PMC levee by seeding bank-stabilizing native vegetation

4. My favorite: the restoration of the riparian corridor on the PMC property. The goal was to enhance the natural and cultural resources that the tract of land by the river provides by removing the invasive blackberries and weedy trees and planting native sedges and grasses. I did a lot of research on this, ordered a brush cutter and blade for the job and, following the schedule that Jeff and I came up with in June, we prepped the site and seeded it in the fall. It was a LOT of work. If anyone is interested, take a look at the pictures from my post from July and you will see the difference is dramatic. It’s a shame that I couldn’t stay longer to see what it looks like a year – two years from now, but I’m sure Margaret will update me and let me know!

The people:

Let’s start with Margaret. She is AMAZING. If any prospective interns are reading this, you will be very, very happy with her. She is a very realistic, yet positive person. She really gave me a lot of independence and freedom to engage in projects I was interested in (such as the riparian restoration), and was really trusting and supportive all the way through. She was a truly amazing mentor and I have nothing but great things to say about her. Jeff was my other favorite person at work. We collaborated on a lot of things and really got along. We seemed to value each other’s ideas and if we ever disagreed, we could always see the other’s point of view and got the job done. Other co-workers were fine; there was an individual that was difficult to work with, but for the most part we were able to work amicably. 

Social life:

I’m a pretty social person but during the 5 months it was pretty stagnant. Mia (another CLM intern) said she moved in with a friend and was able to make mutual friends that way, so it depends on your situation. I sort of fell into a routine during the week. On the weekends I would travel to Tahoe, San Francisco, Big Sur, the Sierras and hike, which was super nice. You don’t get those kind of views in Illinois! I would also chill with Jeff occasionally and go out in Midtown, which was nice. This was just my situation, but it could be very different for you. 

So, what did I get from my internship? For one, the environment, climate, and drought of the Central Valley forced me to approach environmental problems differently. I was taken out of my familiar way of thinking, which was conducive to growth. I got to meet people of very different backgrounds and learn from them. I also gained an appreciation for agriculture and the realm of conservation within it. This particular internship afforded me a lot of freedom in making decisions and built my resume in a way that other positions would not have, so I’m sure it will help me as I move forward in my career. If you are a CLM candidate considering working in Lockeford, it would do you good to be well-rounded. You should be able to not only monitor vegetation, collect and analyze data, but also perform practical farm labor like operating irrigation systems and tractors. With that being said, for me, this was a very rewarding experience. 

On that note, I am signing off. I thank Krissa and Rebecca for all their patience and hard work and I wish all of you guys luck in your careers!

Michal Tutka

Conservation and Land Management Intern

USDA-NRCS Lockeford California 

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