The top federal conservation official in Illinois is easily recognized at the many field days and conferences he attends. He’s the one with the long ponytail and gregarious nature. Before the COVID pandemic, he was as likely to be spotted mingling among the farmers he serves as he was sitting at a desk in Springfield.
Ivan Dozier has been state conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service since 2012, leading the Illinois arm of the USDA agency. He oversees 260 employees tasked with implementing environmental policies across the state. In that capacity, he must bridge the divide between government regulators and those who work the land.
He is one of eight children raised on a grain and cattle farm in White County, in southeastern Illinois. With a Cherokee ancestry, Dozier is one of two Native American state conservationists (the other is in Washington state). He served on the agency’s civil rights committee and as president of the American Indian/Alaska Native Employees Association.
IFT: None of your siblings got involved in production agriculture. Did you consider going into farming?
DOZIER: I really did. Even when I decided to go to college I thought I might still try to get back and get into farming. None of my other family members did. But that was right at the time when machinery prices were high and I wasn’t willing to get into debt, so I looked at other things to get involved in agriculture.
IFT: But you still had a desire to work in the industry, didn’t you?
DOZIER: Yes. I went to the University of Illinois and got a bachelor’s degree in agronomy. I had done an internship with a seed corn company and thought I might be an agronomist. But as it turned out, there was a temporary position with the Soil Conservation Service (since merged into what became NRCS) near my hometown. I started working there in the spring of 1983 as a soil conservation aide. I ended up mapping soils in Wayne County for a while.
I took a brief break and joined the Army Reserves. I went to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri for basic and then to Fort Sam Houston to serve as a medical lab specialist. That turned out to be a good thing. After I got done with that training, it helped me go back to school. I earned a master’s degree from the University of Illinois-Springfield in environmental studies. I moved around quite a bit in various jobs as a soil conservationist. I was a district conservationist and had a three-year stint as an American Indian liaison for the agency. In 2003 I was named assistant state conservationist, and as state conservationist in 2012.
IFT: What does your position entail?
DOZIER: We handle technical assistance and training and oversee the state’s Environmental Quality Incentives program, the Conservation Reserve Program, the Conservation Stewardship Program, the Wetland Reserve Easement program and technical side of CRP. Everything this agency does within the boundary of Illinois is my responsibility.
IFT: How has the mission of the agency changed over the decades? And will it continue to change?
DOZIER: One of the big things we look primarily at is soil erosion and water quality issues. That was really the focus of the agency for the first 50 years or so. Now nutrient management and nutrient losses are big issues. Conservation is sometimes a moving target. As we learn more about how those farming activities can impact the environment, or they start using a different product or different crop, we focus on those things. A major concern is that farmers continue to have profitable business, but also anticipate what happens off-site.
Things change, and as they change, we may not know exactly what those impacts are. Carbon management was something we would not have said much at all about 10 years ago. Now people are talking about carbon. Farmers are constantly having to adapt in order to be responsible. And I think most of them do try to be responsible.
IFT: Many environmental regulations that affect farmers are outside the auspices of NRCS, but the agency necessarily gets involved in some ways. One example is Waters of the United States, which is getting a fresh look by the Biden administration. What is your connection to those types of programs?
DOZIER: Some of the rewrite was done by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers. It’s not exactly the same as our wetland policies, but they are related. We keep on top of that all the time to make sure we’re giving farmers the best advice. We’re not wetland cops. The way I look at it, our programs are voluntary. People who want to be eligible for USDA benefits, we can have that knowledge of things. We can help them understand to be eligible, or if they do cross the line, how to get back. I can see how frustrating it can be to think they’re getting some relief and clarity and coming back. Those are law of the land, and for everybody, not just farmers.
IFT: What cropping practices do you believe can have the biggest impact on achieving conservation goals?
DOZIER: Cover crops certainly have the ability to impact nutrient losses by helping scavenge the nutrients and make the soil more porous. And still some type of reduced tillage is good. Cover crops have a huge potential not only to deal with nutrient losses, but even with carbon captures. It’s exciting that old things are becoming new again.
IFT: In your opinion, how well is the farm community meeting the goals of conservation targets such as reducing nutrient losses? And what are the chances that those efforts will remain voluntary?
DOZIER: I wish I could say we were doing better. Unfortunately, on nutrient loss, we’re not going in the right direction. There has been a state strategy in place for six years and not much headway. It’s the carrot-and-stick thing, and I hope the stick doesn’t have to come out. Most farmers are good with conservation, and I hope we can get it done that way. I don’t say (mandates) could never happen, because they could. I am still an advocate of voluntary conservation, and I think the farmers can come up with solutions.
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July 5, 2021 at 05:52PM