JOB WELL DONE /Dale Ehlers will retire this month after 27 years of service in Marion County

Dale and Betty Ehlers have made Marion their home since arriving in July 1989. ?Our kids will tell you, this was the best move we ever made,? Betty says.
Dale and Betty Ehlers have made Marion their home since arriving in July 1989. ?Our kids will tell you, this was the best move we ever made,? Betty says.
It took more than a nudge for Dale Ehlers to find his occupational destiny.

Having grown up on a farm near the Kansas-Nebraska border, Ehlers left for trade school after graduating from high school. He wanted to be a diesel mechanic.

When he realized he didn?t care for the work, Ehlers found his niche as a heavy-equipment operator who specialized in soil conservation projects.

Then a tree fell on him.

?I had a tree come down on the dozer and pinned me underneath it and broke my back,? he said.

That was in 1974. It took eight months of healing and rehab, but Ehlers eventually returned to his heavy-equipment business.

In 1987, he was pushing trees with his dozer when a log broke and hit him in the side.

?I broke a bunch of ribs and a bunch of other stuff,? he said. Later, after undergoing back surgery to fuse three vertebrae, his doctors gave him some strong occupational advice.

?They told me my career was over doing what I was doing,? Ehlers said.

Having worked with the Soil Conservation Service and an independent contractor, he went to the district office in Man?kato to seek employment. The district manager helped him fill out the paperwork.

He was informed the SCS had assigned him to its office in Marion County. That was in July 1989. Now, 27 years later, Ehlers will complete his successful career at the end of the month.

?I?ve really enjoyed working here,? Ehlers said. ?I know I haven?t made everybody happy because you never can when you?re a public servant. But it?s just the satisfaction of a job well done.?

Larger mandate

For Dale, the transition from heavy equipment to planning projects was a smooth one.

?I had done this work since I was 22 or 23 out there building terraces, waterways and ponds, you name it,? he said. ?I had a lot of relearning to do because I had to find the proper way to do things, plus the design work and stuff, which I had never done on the construction end of things. But it just kind of fit like a glove.?

If his personal occupational transition wasn?t enough, the Soil Conserva?tion Service entered a transition of its own around 2008.

?With the re-invention of the USDA we became the Natural Resources Conser?vation Service, which expanded what we did before,? he said.

?We still did what we were doing before, but it gave people more of a knowledge that we were working with soil, water, air, plants and animals.

?We?ve got so much diversification today?we?re soil conservation, we?re livestock water, we?re rangeland management. You just kind of become a jack of all trades, I guess.?

Ehlers said he has enjoyed the challenge of helping farmers or stockmen find effective solutions to their conservation-related issues.

?I think the thing I am most happy with is when we have a landowner who has an erosion problem, or he?s got a livestock water problem, or a rotational problem in his grazing system. It?s working with them, getting them to see the light, developing a system that will work for them.

?They?re the ones who have to farm, they?re the ones that have to manage it,? he added. ?I like seeing that (project) get on the ground and then, quite honestly, just getting a pat on the back for it.?

New challenges

During his time with the Marion County office, Ehlers and the rest of the office team have seen profound changes in the way they have had to pursue their conservation goals.

One significant challenge has been the move to large farms with large equipment.

?We have come so far in the last 20 years?everybody?s got big equipment,? Ehlers said. ?So things have to be designed as much as possible to fit the bigger equipment.

?If it?s not farmer-friendly, they?re going to turn around and curse you until the sun comes up,? he added with a chuckle.

The move in recent years to no-till practices hasn?t solved every problem either.

?With the advent of no-till, it won?t stop gullies,? Ehlers said. ?You still have concentrated water flow. So you?ve got to come up with a system to cut off excess water. Then you just go at it.?

The solutions often involve compromises?a concept not embraced by every client.

?You can?t have everything the way you want it,? Ehlers said. ?Each and every individual is different. We have as much cultural diversity in this county as anywhere else.

?And we have geographic diversity,? he added. ?We?re in the Flint Hills, and then you go to the flatland?from one corner of the county to the other. So, what works here, does not work there. You?ve got to blend, mix and match.?

The principle holds true for ranching clients as well.

?This county is full of livestock producers,? Ehlers said. ?When you drive around the countryside, just look at all the livestock waste facilities.

?Each one is its own system. The complexity can be anywhere from something simple to something elaborate. So you get the ground work done, you get an engineer in here, and you start developing this, this, this….

?And then you go to the landowner, and he says, ?well, I?d like to change this or that.??

But Ehlers isn?t easily ruffled.

?I like the diversity,? he admitted. ?But don?t get me wrong?most of the time you?re going to make it work, but sometimes it just flat don?t.?

Transition period

Ehlers said one of the things he?s planning now is his approach to ?retirement,? which officially begins Feb. 29, although his last official day in the office will be Friday, Feb. 26.

?There?s going to be a transition period,? he said. ?I?m going to try to help (NRCS) as much as I can. I ain?t going to get paid for it; it?s going to be volunteer.

?I?ve got jobs out there that nobody else knows much about,? Ehlers added. ?I just don?t feel I can walk away from them, because those landowners or producers need to come back (to NRCS). I need to get them figured out until we get to the point where (their projects) are pretty much off the books.

?Besides, I?d go stark raving crazy just sitting in the house.?

Beyond his work with NRCS, Ehlers is an avid outdoorsman. He and a few others started a Quail Unlim?ited chapter in Marion County 16 years ago; it continues today as Quail For?ever.

?We?ve got a lot of projects going,? he said. ?I could stay busy doing just that. It ain?t going to be no problem?