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Turning a page on conservation in Kandiyohi County with optimism

Rick Reimer devoted more than three decades to conservation projects in Kandiyohi County with the Soil and Water Conservation District. He's leaving his post knowing that the challenges for conservation are many, but he remains optimistic about our ability to address them.

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District Supervisor Rick Reimer is leaving the Kandiyohi County Soil and Water Conservation District after a 31 years career. Reimer said he's leaving the position with the same optimism for conservation in the county as he brought to his job at the start. He is shown in early July 2021 outside the district's office in Willmar. Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — In so many ways, the challenges for conservation have never been greater in Kandiyohi County .

The density of development along the county’s lakes continues to grow. There’s more tile removing water faster and contributing to a flashy hydrology in waterways. Rising commodity markets have many looking at putting conservation acres back into production.

Rick Reimer has seen all of these forces at work and more during a 31-year career with the Kandiyohi County Soil and Water Conservation District. The district supervisor is retiring at the end of the month. Yet he is leaving with the same optimism for the future of conservation in the county as when he started.

“I feel we are moving forward,” said Reimer, when asked for his assessment of where things are going. The challenges have always been there, he said.

What makes him optimistic is what has carried him through his career. There are good stewards out there on the land who understand the value of conservation, he said.

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The county is fortunate as well, he said, because its leaders believe in conservation and support the work. So do many municipal and township officials. And, there are many residents who appreciate the outdoors and know the importance of conservation.

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Rick Reimer's love for the outdoors began when fishing the Willmar Lakes area with his grandfather as a youth. He said it led him to his career in conservation. He holds the first walleye he caught on the Minnesota Opener in May 2018 in this West Central Tribune file photo. He fished Big Kandiyohi Lake. Eric Dischino / West Central Tribune file photo

It is his own lifelong appreciation for the outdoors — fishing and hunting in particular — that led him to this work. He grew up in Willmar with a fishing pole in hand. His grandfather, Roy, often took him on the local waters, along with an AM radio for Twins and Vikings games.

Reimer’s Eagle Scout project gave a hint of where he was headed: He organized a cleanup of all the litter and trash surrounding the Foot and Willmar lakes.

He graduated from Willmar High School in 1974 and did a four-year stint with the Air Force. Much of this time was spent at the Minuteman missile base near Grand Forks, North Dakota.

He returned to Willmar and attended the Willmar Community College before enrolling at the University of Northern Iowa. Joe Salem had recruited him to play football at the University of Minnesota, but he chose to play for the Panthers. They were willing to offer him a redshirt year.

Starting in his youth, Reimer had worked on farms in Kandiyohi County. He baled hay for Francis Liebel, worked on a pig farm and held jobs with Surge and Hanson Silo.

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“Hardest job you’ll ever get, building silos,” he said. It put him in great football shape. “I could run through walls,” he said, laughing. He played offensive tackle for the Panthers.

All the hard work on farms in Kandiyohi County would pay off later. He got to know many farmers around the county, and they knew him as a hard worker.

Reimer said he initially intended to be a civil engineer, and learned to do survey work. He realized while attending the University of Northern Iowa that the outdoors was his true passion, and earned his bachelor’s degree in biology and environmental science.

He worked in Brown County after graduation. He took a position with the Kandiyohi County Soil and Water Conservation District when an opening came up in 1990.

He and his wife, Maribeth, were more than happy to move their two daughters and make Willmar home, he said.

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Rick Reimer has been a longtime champion for windbreaks to help protect topsoil from wind erosion as well as reduce energy needs for buildings. Reimer, at left, is shown earlier in his career planting a shelter belt. Photo courtesy of Rick Reimer

“We were planting trees like crazy,” he said of his first years with the local SWCD office. He would help plant 70,000 to 80,000 trees a year.

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The Conservation Reserve Program was big too. Typically, fields were planted to switchgrass, alfalfa and brome.

How things have changed.

Today, tree plantings remain important, but more resources are being allocated to a broader array of services. Reimer has been devoting more time in recent years to addressing streambank and lakeshore erosion, working on wetland restoration projects and promoting cover crops.

No pun intended, he said, but the buzz over pollinators and awareness of their loss has changed things too. Conservation plantings today involve a full mix of grasses and flowering plants.

Reimer said conservationists are able to do a better job today thanks to advances in science and technology. And they also are better at delivering services thanks to the willingness of this SWCD office and others to partner with others, he said.

One area where that cooperation is apparent today is the increased focus on protecting groundwater resources, he said.

At the heart of it all, conservation work has not changed. It’s all voluntary, he pointed out. Reimer said he’s worked hard to promote the economic and environmental benefits that conservation projects can provide to landowners. “Turn a negative into a positive,” he tells landowners.

Briana Sanchez / TribuneRick Reimer, district manager for the Kandiyohi County Soil and Water Conservation District, speaks Wednesday in Willmar during a session to address landowner questions about Minnesota's new buffer law.
Rick Reimer has often been the face of conservation in Kandiyohi County in his role as district supervisor with the Kandiyohi County Soil and Water Conservation District. He is shown speaking in Willmar during a session in April 2017 to address landowner questions about Minnesota's buffer law. Briana Sanchez / West Central Tribune file photo

His career has taught him patience. Conservation takes time. The Grass Lake project — r estoration of the basin southeast of Willmar for flood mitigation and improved water quality — required the involvement of many landowners and partners to restore the original 1,040-acre lake bed. It was three decades in the making, he said.

He's learned that it can take a generation to change attitudes and practices. He pointed to one farmer who refused to scrap his moldboard plow. His son is now profiting economically by having converted the farm to minimum tillage practices that have greatly reduced soil erosion.

What he will miss most, he said, are the many invitations he receives each year from landowners who appreciate the benefits of conservation and ask him to come and take a look at what they hope to improve.

He said he’ll miss the contact with landowners and co-workers, but he leaves his post knowing this. “There’s quality people coming up, absolutely,” he said of the young people entering the profession today.

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Rick Reimer of the Kandiyohi County Conservation Office gives a free tree to visitor Mel Nelson of Spicer (white cap) Saturday during the annual Earth Day celebration at Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center near New London. The day's events also included free omelets, exhibits on green energy, hands-on learning opportunities, archaeology exhibits and a presentation about early American Indians in Minnesota. To see a video of the event, please go to www.wctrib.com. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

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