PORTAGE, Wis. – Experiences at Camp U-Nah-Li-Ya near Suring, Wisconsin, cultivated Lizzie Dawson’s interest in nature. She was a camper and then a camp counselor. Participants are afforded an opportunity to develop “resilience, environmental awareness, leadership skills and compassion for all,” according to the YMCA, which operates it.

Dawson continues to take those goals to heart as a soil conservationist and a disability-emphasis-program manager for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Wisconsin’s Columbia County.

The Green Bay native earned a bachelor’s degree in 2015 in crop and weed science with an emphasis in agronomy from North Dakota State University. She also earned a master’s degree in plant sciences at the university.

Before beginning graduate school she served a summer internship with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Fargo, North Dakota. The agency’s “Pathway Programs” offers internship opportunities for students from high school through post-graduate school. Dawson’s internship helped prepare her for her current position as a soil conservationist.

“I ask landowners to describe their hopes and dreams for their land and help them to achieve their goals,” she said of her job.

Many of the landowners with whom she works want to improve soil health to make their land more productive, she said. Many also want to improve soil health for the next generation. She works with landowners regarding conservation practices such as no-till, strip-till, grassed waterways and cover crops. Public outreach and education is one of her favorite parts of her job, she said.

“I enjoy talking about what we do as an agency,” she said. “Not many of my friends in Green Bay know what I do so I often take selfies – in all kinds of weather, working with cover crops, cattle or woodlands, etc. It builds awareness.”

She said she’s had many mentors in her life. Among those mentors are Edward Deckard – crop physiology professor and coordinator of plant sciences and horticulture graduate programs at North Dakota State University – and his wife, Brenda Deckard – director of plant-sciences student services at the university.

“Lizzy is one of the more passionate, energetic and enthusiastic people I know for agriculture, conservation and for life,” Edward Deckard said. “She’s been our ‘go to’ person for many projects involving conservation in our agriculture environment. We’ve taught at North Dakota State since 1970; during that time we’ve had many wonderful students.

“But Lizzie is always one of the first persons that comes to mind when we need a ‘pick-me-up.’ She makes people happy even when being happy is difficult. Her personality, intelligence, talents and dreams are as good as it gets. Brenda and I love her dearly and miss her presence in North Dakota. The Natural Resources Conservation Service in Wisconsin is so fortunate to have Lizzie. She made our university a better place and I know she’ll do the same in Wisconsin.”

Dawson helped teach a course in world food crops while at North Dakota State University.

“It was a 100-level course for students from all walks of life,” she said.

She also was involved in a community-based garden program where she provided outreach to refugees from Somalia and Ukraine. She and the Deckards helped to bring the community together with potlucks in addition to sharing gardening information. Dawson planted native species to attract pollinators for a project at a zoo in Fargo, providing her opportunities to talk with zoo visitors about habitat.

Dawson also considers as mentors her co-workers at the Natural Resources Conservation Service. And she has appreciated the opportunity, she said, to learn from women landowners through Women Caring for the Land programs. The Women, Food and Agriculture Network developed the program to serve women landowners who are interested in learning more about conservation.

“I’ve enjoyed hearing their stories about the things they’ve overcome and how they’re worked on regenerative farming,” she said.

In one of the programs a speaker described how she was involved in creating a community garden to address the scarcity of fresh food in a metropolitan area.

“I admire the passion they have,” Dawson said.

She said she’d encourage young people to learn more about a possible career in conservation. The Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Pathway Program can help them explore and make connections for job opportunities.

“I’ve made some great connections,” she said.

Visit nrcs.usda.gov -- search for “Pathways Programs” -- and wfan.org and campunahliya.org for more information.

Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the industry’s newest ideas, research and technologies as a staff reporter for Agri-View based in Wisconsin.