February 18, 2017

Saving the world through a mid-life crisis

This week my School held a meant-to-be-comforting meeting for its junior faculty to discuss the future in uncertain times, and a few of us who are starting to get long in the tooth were invited to provide some perspective. It occurred to me that perhaps hoping for comfort from a set of people with their own mid-life ponderings highlighted by tinges or splotches of gray hair was not the best idea, but we vamped. We rose to the moment to talk about our early days, and we spoke from the heart about how we had turned mistakes into eventual success. And, there were cookies, so everyone went home happy.

As the cookie was digested, happiness turned to thoughts of insignificance for me, as the message most clear from the meeting was that there will always be young folks to take your place, and they might even be smarter than you. So, Mr. Senior Faculty Member, just remember that as you think about retirement and the need for the University to keep you around. I sulked.

Years of experience have contributed to my current grumpiness, as my initial plans for saving the world have gone south.  I blame my high school speech teacher for starting this with an off-handed comment that someone with an unusual name like mine is destined for greatness. So, I started my quest. The world slapped back more than once, but somehow I arrived where I wanted to go--a University campus with brick buildings filled with people using phrases like "high impact" and "science-supported decisions" and "learning objectives," and it felt like home. Some successes occurred. Struggles eventually resulted in advances. Brilliant opportunities happened. Even then, I realized that the singular demographic principle that I studied, rate of growth, had turned to bite me, as my long-term goals were still farther in the distance than I wanted. And, the years left in my career could now be counted using some of the digits on my four appendages.

I suppose this is how a mid-life crisis happens.

My internal ponderings have not led to purchases of candy-red sports cars or the like. But, one does start to compare yourself to those nearby as you claw for examples of relevance and meaning in your day-to-day existence. My father figures, in their own ways, made contributions to their communities--one kept a small town's vehicles running for almost half a century and the other solved micro-economic problems for farm families. Although they set the bar of relevance fairly high, I suppose there are lessons in their stories about finding your niche and doing a job well to help people.

But, how does their impact compare to pile of published manuscripts about ducks and prairie chickens and a rotating door of students through my classes? Further, the world still was an environmental mess. A real mess. Maybe worse than when I started?

The cookie from our faculty gathering was mostly a forgotten entity by the time my wife and I called our son on the same night this week to chat. He is at the University in his first year, and I suppose his new-found ability to fend for himself and mostly excel at life decisions is also cause for a realization that my wife and I have one less responsibility in this world. Still, he needs life-polishing from time to time, and I had noticed a $38 charge on his student account that had not been explained. I used my conversation time to ask him what kind of illicit material he had charged to us.

"I needed a new SD card for my camera for class," he replied, which was disappointing as I hoped it would be something outrageous like two large pizzas or a video game, so we could have a discussion about good choices.

"Well, you owe me $38," I muttered.

"How about I pay you back by saving the environment?" asked the idealistic kid with no job, who didn't know he'd just landed a glancing blow on a sensitive spot on my psyche.

"Good," I retorted as I recovered. "Because, I'm not going to get that done."  And, that was the honest truth. I had given up.

"Well, we'll know a lot more about prairie chickens," he replied.  And I was finished. Game, set, match. Points go to the man-boy, who made his parents roll with laughter fueled by pent-up anxiety. A message of comfort laced with truth. 

Do what you can, where you can. Save the world a little bit at a time. And, keep making those big goals, son.

February 11, 2017

Downturn in the ag economy: Trump and the 2018 Farm Bill

If you are a member of the ag community, your head must be spinning--and for good reason. The President you helped to elect is eliminating trade deals that benefit you, while the ag economy stumbles. Layer on top of these dynamics the divisive Congress in DC, and hopes for a timely 2018 Farm Bill appear slim.

In 2015, I published an essay on the impending bust in the ag economy, in which I suggested planners should begin to think about the 2018 Farm Bill as an opportunity for an innovative direction for conservation on farm lands. I wrote: "History shows that political will and innovation come together during times of economic crisis to shape the future of conservation."

Since writing that piece, I've honestly been amazed at the trepidation of the ag community to admit that a bust in the ag economy was on the horizon. You can see this hesitation in the descriptions offered by many (except for farmers directly involved) in this recent piece by Harvest Public Media. However, this week, the Wall Street Journal (a non-ag publication) finally declared that the bust is here. Why the hesitation to talk about impending economic woes? Is it a function of the typical optimism of farmers?  Is it a function of the PR machine of agri-industry that has a vested interest to encourage large-scale production of low-price corn and beans?  Or, is it simply a human tendency to hide your eyes before a crisis occurs? 

Trepidation or not, the bust is occurring, and we have to talk about it. We have to plan for it.

I've updated the figure on land values from that journal article to post it here.  The trends for states in the Great Plains and Midwest illustrate changes in my metric for assessing booms and busts--comparing current land values to land values 10 years ago.  The use of this metric clearly shows past booms and busts, and 2013 was the peak for most states.  The question now is...when will the slide towards the bottom of the trough stop? 

Here, I'll restate my call to my fellow conservation planners with a focus on the 2018 Farm Bill.  It turns out that 2018 is perfectly positioned to be near the bottom of the trough, most likely--and the innovative farm conservation packages of the 1930's, 1950's, and 1980's came about right at the bottom of the trough. 

Stay tuned.  I'm sure President Trump will have a chaotic effect on events in the next few months, but I'll predict that political will to support the ag economy may surface, just in time for the mid-term elections!  When do those occur? 2018.

January 2, 2017

Landscape forensics

It's the end of the holiday break for the University, which means our family has just completed our round trips to southern Iowa for Christmas spent with family. These road trips are a good opportunity for some landscape analysis--to see what's been happening on farms across southeast Nebraska, southern Iowa, and far-northern Missouri.

Christmas Eve found us driving through some unique fog, and my son and I decided it would be nice to get some photos as the day waned and the fog thickened. We found an old homestead--pretty common in the Midwest as farm size has increased and number of farms has decreased since the 1930s, and we stopped for some photos. 

A unique farm building in southern Iowa.  Photo by Larkin Powell.
Only later did I realize we'd taken a photo of a building that was fairly unique--I didn't know what it's purpose had been. Too many windows to hold grain, and the second story seemed almost useless (no hay storage capacity with so many windows). So, the photo of this building became part of our Christmas dinner table conversations. All discussion ended with uncertainty. My father-in-law called some of his friends. No new ideas, but fun discussion. Later, my parents figured out that they might know someone who had grown up near this farm. I emailed this person, and got a most interesting response that I've posted here. I've removed names, as I didn't ask for permission to post the response--but I really enjoyed the reflections of this farmer from southern Iowa:

That building is just a mile from my folk’s farm and we went by it just about every time we left the farm. It was not particularly new when we moved to the farm in 1950. It is on what was then the [name removed] farm and I remember being told it was originally built as a chicken house.  I remember it being used as a hog house and in later years for small bale storage. It has obviously not been used for quite a while.  Its function can best be thought of as a predecessor to the modern chicken or hog factory buildings with the pens on the sides, the central driveway for delivery of bulk feeds and overhead storage for supplements.  Most of the farms allowed the chickens and hogs free range and the structure would have been a new concept. 

The windows were necessary because REA didn’t bring in electricity to our area until the middle of the 1940’s and the building would have preceded that time and chickens would have needed the light.  Directly across the road was the very large traditional farm barn with a modern (for the times – there was still and outhouse) home building to the west of the barn.  So the smelly chicken/hog building was to the NE, i.e., generally down wind.  Like some many of the Iowa family farms, when the children were gone (four daughters- two older and two younger than myself) and the parents retired/passed, the farm passed into other hands who did not live there and you saw what is left.
If you enjoy reading the history of landscapes, this is a great example of finding clues to dynamics that caused landscape change. This building represents a really important transition in farming--it would be similar (I'll not build this up too much, but you get the idea) of a biologist finding evidence of feathers on a dinosaur (which was announced last month). Here, the building represents a first step toward more production and specialization in commodities produced on a single farm.

Happy New Years all--history continues on our landscapes.

November 14, 2016


There is surprise I suppose,
As one sits, satisfied, in the woods
And feels Fall surround you
With color and warm moments in a 
Sun-soaked morning.

Surprise for the deer hunter 
Or the startled bird watcher 
Who thought they had achieved 
A moment of high tranquility,

Satisfaction, and 
Wholeness with the Earth.

But then a tree lets go of its leaves, 
And the stillness is shattered.
If you were quiet,
And if the wind was low,
You heard the sound behind you.
A single snap, and then another,
Until a shower of golden 
Fineness comes fluttering down
To rest on the forest floor 
To leave the tree standing naked
And alone for Winter,

Until Spring. 

L. Powell, for Laura, 11/13/2016

November 11, 2016

How to get a wildlife job in the Trump years

Post-election turmoil has gripped the minds of many, and I've noticed that my students--both undergraduates and graduate students--are more than a little anxious about what a Trump presidency means for their futures.  This is not a poor question to be asking.  Political climates affect budgets.  Budgets affect jobs.  Jobs affect you. 

So, let me weigh in with some ideas--in an attempt to provide a way forward.  Let's look at some trends.

First, I made this graphic for
Created by L. Powell, 2016
my senior fisheries and wildlife students.  It's an attempt to provide a big-picture, long-term view of some agencies and NGOs that provide jobs for our students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  Point: they've been around for a long time, and will continue to be around for a long time.  Even the oft-maligned EPA was created by a Republican (Nixon) and has survived previous attacks on funding levels.  The majority (even a larger majority than those who voted for Clinton in '16) of the citizens in the US is concerned about the environment, depends upon the environment, and likes to spend time outdoors on vacations.  These agencies and NGO's will remain well past a Trump presidency.

Will jobs be fewer in these agencies?  A Republican administration has always created that fear in the
Ironic source: Downsizinggovernment.org
environmental community--it happened when both Bush gentlemen were elected.  That fear was present when Reagan was elected. Not all of the representative environmental agencies are in the Department of the Interior, but the ones most susceptible to budget cuts are in that agency (Forest Service is in the USDA, for example).  If we look at the budget trends, adjusted for inflation, we see that in the past, there are certainly more dollars for Interior during the Obama administration (in some cases almost 40% more than in the previous administration), but Interior's budget was also prone to lean-year cuts (e.g., 2012). Take-home point: yes, good chance budgets will be smaller and federal jobs may be harder to get. 

The work-around for current students: take advantage of any chance to get into federal employment.  Pathways Program.  Take a non-biologist job to get into the federal system.  I know many current federal employees who tell stories of taking jobs as office assistants or maintenance workers just to get federal status.  They bided their time until a position was open and their federal status gave them a leg up. Do what is needed.  Be geographically flexible--yes, you may have to spend time away from your boyfriend or girlfriend or fiancĂ©.  You may have to move away from family for a few years.  How badly do you want to work in the field (and this has been true even when jobs were a little more plentiful at the federal level)?

How about research careers?  You want to get into graduate school
Source: New York Times
for that MS or PhD?  What's going to happen to research funding?  One type of funding that won't change too dramatically is the funding for wildlife research based on Pittman-Robertson funds--the funds that are derived from gun sales and ammunition.  These funds have been at high levels, as the figure here shows, during the Obama administration because people thought gun regulations were going to limit the types of firearms and ammunition they could own.  So, ironically, every time Obama was elected and every time there was a school shooting, gun and ammunition sales would dramatically increase--and the 11% tax would come back to states for research on game species. 

That point is important--game species.  If you are a student with dreams of doing conservation on bobolinks, consider getting a summer job working with pheasant research (funded by the PR funds).  If you want to have a research career with focus on reptiles, consider a summer job on a white-tailed deer research project.  Learn how to conduct research.  Use the game species funds to your advantage.  Come back to non-game species when opportunity provides--don't sit around waiting for a bobolink project to magically appear.  You'll waste some of the most critical years of your career.

And finally--what about those students who are looking at jobs funded by state government?  Academic positions or jobs in state wildlife agencies?  Both types of jobs are supported by state-level budgets. Although a Trump presidency has potential to affect the economy, there are also longer-term economic trends that are coinciding with the new Trump administration.  Students should be looking at those as they plan where they might work and target their job applications. 

Take a look at this figure of 2015 budgets by region,
Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis
and you'll see that the agricultural states in the Midwest are slumping as ag commodities struggle. Yup--there is a connection to how many of these states voted in the election as well.  But, to the point of students looking for jobs--my suggestion is to not hang all of your hopes on states that are struggling.  Look at states where budgets seem to be doing better and don't leave those off your job searches.  Sure, there will continue to be jobs in states like Nebraska, but if I were looking for state-supported jobs, I'd be looking at the Blue States in this figure...states with increasing GDP.  The point--pay attention to budgets.  People aren't just waiting to hire you because you are an excellent prospect.  They have to have funds to hire you.

Academic work-around: look at smaller state schools and private colleges.  This was my career track during the late 90's when academic positions were also in short supply.  I worked for three years at a private college--it gave me teaching experience and the start to a research career, and I worked what was left of my nights to get manuscripts published from my postdoc and PhD.  After three years, I was more competitive for a large-University position.  Do what it takes.  Students will always go to smaller schools, and there will always be positions there.  Smaller salary.  Yup--my family was $2500 away from food stamp level the first year of my first academic job.  I did what I could to start my career, and we made it.

Another work-around: look to NGOs. Non-governmental sources of employment.  Audubon, TNC, zoos, Pheasants Forever, Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory--and other similar folks.  Especially in states where economy is going well, these groups may have funding for positions in conservation and research that are not dependent (as least as much) on federal dollars.  Their members or supporters provide funds--these donations are dependent on the economy (people donate when they have extra money to donate), so keep your eye on the economy as you look at these organizations.

Last work-around: look to environmental or ecological consulting firms.  These jobs are sky-rocketing, to be honest.  In times of state and federal budget shortages, agencies may have money to do a project but no money to hire the workers to do it.  The solution is to contract the wetland restoration or forest management planning process to an environmental consulting firm.  Start looking at job ads with those firms and see what they require of their employees.  Plan your courses and training appropriately, or spend a summer working for them rather than working on a graduate student research project (as much as that pains me to write it...). 

It's your future--society needs you more than ever.  Our environment needs you more than ever!

Don't panic at the change occurring, politically.  I'm not addressing any human rights concerns of a Trump presidency here--my goal is to specifically work with students on their career options.  I hope these thoughts are helpful. If you have other ideas, feel free to post a comment!