MADISON — When Angela Biggs accepted the position as state conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, she felt it was almost like going home, even though she had previously lived in Iowa and not Wisconsin.
Her grandparents had a dairy farm near Guttenberg in northeast Iowa, not too far over the Wisconsin border, so she was familiar with the Badger State.
“Wisconsin is a beautiful state, and I’m very excited to be here,” Biggs said. “There’s so much to learn about Wisconsin because of the different types of topography and land forms. Even the crops, there are quite a few I’m not familiar with yet, like cranberries, that I’d like to learn more about.”
Biggs became Wisconsin’s 10th state conservationist in May, about four months after the departure of the previous conservationist, Jimmy Bramblett, who served in the position for about four years. Bramblett was named NRCS deputy chief for programs in Washington, D.C.
Biggs will oversee 55 local NRCS service centers across the state and more than 200 employees. Employee numbers are down by nearly 50 from when Bramblett accepted the position in January of 2013.
Biggs moved back and forth as a child between Guam, where her mother’s family is from, and Iowa, where her father grew up. She attended the University of Guam, where she earned a degree in biology, and then attended graduate school at Iowa State University.
She took a job for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship Soil Conservation Division as an environmental specialist focusing on water quality, and was later recruited to work for the NRCS in Iowa.
Over the years she has worked in NRCS offices in Vermont, Hawaii, the Pacific Islands and Washington, D.C. She most recently worked in Illinois for seven years as an assistant state conservationist for management and strategy.
Biggs said she saw the position posting for the Wisconsin conservationist position and applied.
“I’ve been with the NRCS for 15 years, and during that time, I’ve found myself ready for new challenges to see what else I can do and what greater impact I can have,” she said. “While I miss being in the field and working directly with farmers, I feel I can have a greater impact at this level being able to help our folks in the field be able to function more efficiently.”
Biggs said she has always had a passion for conservation and learning about the land.
“Once I learned about the mission of the NRCS and what it is that we do as an agency, it just appealed to me, so I wanted to get into that line of work,” she said. “I really enjoy seeing what we can accomplish when we work in partnership with others.”
Biggs has only been on the job in Wisconsin for a short time, but she said she is working hard to educate herself on the NRCS programs that are important to farmers and landowners here.
“I’m learning there’s a large interest in grazing and getting more grass on the land,” she said. “That’s an area where there might be a need for some additional technical assistance from our staff, for those who are interested in rotational or intensive grazing or even doing a conversion of cropland into grazing land.”
Water quality issues are also high on the priority list, Biggs said, especially in the parts of the state where ground or surface water are the most threatened with erosion or pollution.
Demonstrations to try more cover crops and alternatives for the timing of when manure is applied are other programs the NRCS might play more of a role in in the future, she said.
The NRCS’s programs are designed to help people reduce soil erosion, enhance water supplies, improve water quality, increase wildlife habitat and reduce damages caused by floods and other natural disasters.
Biggs said she is hoping NRCS employee numbers will stabilize after a steady decline in recent years.
“A lot is going to be dependent on our budget,” she said. “The budget is partially determined by the farm bill, but there’s also a piece of it that is appropriated annually. We’re waiting to find out what the (fiscal year 2018) budget is going to look like.”
Biggs said one of the beauties of the state conservationist position is she will be able to get around the state and see the conservation work that is being done while interacting with farmers.
“In my last position it was much more of an administrative role, so I didn’t have that direct interaction with farmers,” she said. “Now I’m able to get back out there and meet with the different groups and our partners and find out what their concerns are and what direction we need to be going to be able to help them.”
Biggs said some people still don’t understand what the NRCS is all about and what it can do for farmers.
“There are a lot of people who know who we are and what we provide, but there are always opportunities for us to reach more people,” she said.
She said she will be meeting with various agriculture and environmental groups in the months ahead and encourages people to reach out to her with their concerns.
“I’ve already had several invitations to come out and visit farms,” she said. “We’ll see how maybe we can help out with people’s concerns.”