Steve Ottelien the Conservationist

by Sharon Ruiz age 14 and Kadjata Bah, age 12

At exactly 10:30 am on a Thursday morning we welcomed Steve Ottelien into our office at the Dane County Land and Water Resource Department for an interview. This friendly, approachable man had agreed to talk to us about his job as a soil and water conservationist.

Ottelien grew up on a dairy farm near Marshfield where he gained skills that would be essential to his career later on. He then attended UW-Madison, majoring in Dairy Sciences and Agricultural Economics and worked part time at the USDA Agricultural Stabilization Conservation Service. After college he continued to work there until the conservationist position opened at Dane County Land and Water Resource Department, later learning all the other aspects of the job.

Ottelien's job moves him from place to place, each day addressing different environmental issues.. “I enjoy working on my house and it’s funny that through my job I get to see different solutions and how they can tie into my own home.”

What are your hobbies? What do you like to do for fun?

SO: I like to do a lot of outside things. I enjoy sports, I enjoy biking and hiking, things like that. I also do a lot of small projects on my house. Through my job I meet with landowners who have some type of environmental issues that they are looking for advice on or just an evaluation of whether or not this is something that they should be concerned with. If it's a situation where we deem that corrective measures can be installed, then we provide the design to the landowner to correct the situation. We also work with them and their contractor to oversee construction. What's interesting to me is that it ties into my hobby of working on my own house because professionally I am doing basic design work and layouts and I can translate that into doing repair jobs or remodeling at my home.

What would you say is your driving force for protecting the environment?

SO: It’s the people. I’m mostly working with farmers and for them farming is not only a career but it’s a way of life, and they’re building off the farm that might’ve been in their family for multi-generations. They truly have a passion to keep updating and maintaining their farm. What drives me in this job is that I am able to assist them in making improvements to their operation which for them is improvements to their family; building on their family legacy of owning the land. They may have some environmental issue and our goal is the same, to correct the environmental issue be it soil erosion control or manure runoff.

To better help the people would you say that it’s better to having farming experience or to have the position you currently hold?

SO: I think both are equal. I think it’s very beneficial that I have the farm background, because I have a solid understanding of what they’re going through on a day to day basis. Again we all have the same goals; we all want to see clean water. I think all, of us working together creates a positive outcome.

What is your opinion on the problem Dane County is facing with phosphorus pollution?

SO: I think we’ve made major strides. When you think historically let’s keep in mind that there was a time when all the sewage from the city of Madison went to Lake Monona so I think we’ve made major progress. When I look at the individual farmers, they are more concerned with how their animals eat and how comfortable they are than what the farmers actually eat themselves. Farmers may skip a meal or they may just have an energy bar for lunch. However this is not the same for their cows; what they feed their cows is carefully measured out; it's for the health of the animal and for the best production. The same thought process occurs when you look at how farmers fertilize their crops; they are really looking for the most economic benefit. Because they have such a good understanding of what they're applying, it’s been very beneficial to the environment as we move forward. I think the challenge we have is people are looking for immediate results. I think we've made a lot of steps forward, especially in the last 30 years that I’ve been here.

Is there something else that you would like to include or something that you want us to know about?

SO: If you get the opportunity, I recommend visiting some farms. There are many types of farming and I personally don't believe one is better than the other. I think people find their passion and they go that route. And one of the real positives of my job is I do get to see that. It's truly amazing in these modern complex dairies how well they’re maintained and how comfortable the cattle are, and you can say the same thing about their equipment. Their equipment is just unbelievably hi-tech and that allows them to better minimize any phosphorus leaving their operation.

Is there something you want to say to the public?

SO: Look for an opportunity to get out on the farm and see how most of their decisions are tailored towards either animal comfort or crop production in terms of minimizing runoff of their cropland and manure. When animals are healthy and comfortable they produce more. If you can get on those tours, the operations are quite impressive.

What are your hopes for sustainability in the coming years?

SO: When you ask that question are you mostly thinking of sustainability for the environment? I’m a strong believer that progress comes from people buying in. I think we're too quick to point fingers at other people and we're not thinking about the small steps people can make in their own lives. I do believe it's the small things that matter the most. For when you think about sustainability I think it's very important for buy-in by all parties. When you make a request of someone you have to make sure that you're listening to that individual, what their individual needs are. Many times we think we have the solution without thinking about their individual needs. I think you're going to get much further by working with people instead of just regulating.

Do you have any advice for young people who are considering a future in conservation?

SO: A position like mine has a lot of positives. I get to work with a lot of interesting people. I also get to work outside thirty to forty percent of the time, which is positive because it gets you out of the office in terms of different activities in your day. We’re problem solvers so you find the joy in the fact that you're assisting people with issues and you're providing solutions, and many times seeing the solutions through. No matter what job you're doing I think it really is important to learn to listen and try to understand where your clients are coming from. Your goal is assisting your clients to succeed and not to ask them to do more than what they can succeed at. Very few people can make large leaps of change quickly and successfully. It really is a slow step by step process.