Yellow Medicine SWCD makes adjustments in wake of COVID

Kyle Klausing
News Editor
Granite Falls Advocate Tribune

When COVID-19 first hit, few expected the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns to last as long as they have. Most also did not expect the pandemic to so fundamentally upend ‘normal’ ways of doing things. At the Yellow Medicine Soil Water and Conservation District office in Clarkfield, adapting to changing circumstances has meant reassessing old services and reimagining outreach with local producers. The Advocate Tribune sat down with Director Tyler Knutson to learn more about how the SWCD has managed so far and what the horizon looks like moving forward.

Knutson said that a primary concern for the SWCD is both ensuring community safety and continuing with the office’s work. “Safety and customer service are one in the same,” Knutson explained. “It is critical that all staff and customers can continue working in their capacities in a safe and healthy way. If we let down our guard as an office, we can wind up benching people for weeks, or worse, affect someone’s health.” He explained that the SWCD has a statutory mandate to “provide technical, financial, and educational support to the public for the purpose of conserving and protecting soil, water, and other natural resources.”

Needless to say, COVID-19 has found ways to hamper the SWCD staff in their efforts to achieve their mandate - the biggest being the closure of the office back in April. Despite the challenges, SWCD staff have found ways to stay engaged with their customers while staying closed to the public. Whether its signing legal documents on vehicle hoods or catching up local farmers via Zoom, COVID-19 has certainly prompted the staff to be creative with their workarounds.

Knutson also credited the success of remote working to their private industry partners. “We do everything we can to relay information, and continue to improve the quality of advice and program availability to crop consultants, bankers, earthwork contractors, and many more lines of work that are paid experts of agricultural producers,” he added. Knutson also discussed the SWCD’s financial situation. While some state and federal government programs are facing cuts and funding freezes, the financial situation with the Yellow Medicine SWCD is stable. Still, Knutson acknowledged that “the outlook we are getting from a state and federal funding perspective is that the out-years (2022 and beyond) look tight for growth in revenue.” Since the SWCD receives funding from a number of different sources, it will be hard to predict exactly what the situation will look like next year. “My job is to make recommendations to the board that keep expectations in check, while maximizing the amount of conservation we get on the ground,” Knutson explained.

On top of the problems created by the pandemic, the Yellow Medicine SWCD has also undergone “major shifts and uncertainty in the staffing of the SWCD,” according to Knutson. He added that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced himself and the SWCD Personnel Committee to undergo “major introspection and prioritization both temporarily and long term as SWCD staff has departed and the remainder consider their goals with the SWCD.” For example, when Brooke Buysse recently left the SWCD to take a position at a different agency, it meant that the Yellow Medicine SWCD had to put their Aquatic Invasive Species educational initiative on the back burner as Buysse was the one primarily in charge of directing that effort. As the office develops plans to reopen and return to some semblance of a new normalcy, Knutson said that “we will evaluate what we keep doing, stop doing, and start doing to better fulfill the mission of the SWCD and serve customers.”

The question of reopening public offices has been a thorny issue for just about everybody - the SWCD included. Their office is located between their partners with the county government and the United States Department of Agriculture-Natural Resources Conservation Services (USDA-NRCS). While the County Board of Commissioners decided to open the county offices to the public, the USDA is undergoing a phased reopening mirrored by other USDA offices across the country. The office is currently in Phase 2, which means that people are allowed into the office for in-person appointments after screening and only when necessary. “It remains to be seen if we will move into Phase three, to allow more regular flow,” Knutson said, acknowledging that there are still many unknowns up in the air.

In the meantime, Knuston said that people are encouraged to follow the SWCD website for updates about reopening, or just call the office directly. When the office does eventually reopen to the public, Knutson said that visitors should use the front door on the south side of the building since the side door will be locked and only used for employees or in the case of an emergency. Once inside, visitors will need to approach a counter for a temperature check and symptom screening. Disposable masks and sanitizer will also be available for use. “Our customers’ patience and cooperation is both expected and deeply appreciated as we all walk through this together,” Knutson said.