Freeborn County Soil and Water Conservation District looks to the future after celebrating 75 years

Published 9:39 am Wednesday, February 28, 2024

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By Ayanna Eckblad

Minnesota is a state full of natural beauty and resources. With lakes, forests, farmland and other terrain, it is important to keep the land healthy and productive for both the people currently living and working in the area as well as for future generations.

In Freeborn County a group of dedicated staff work to inform the public about what resources are available to them. This office, the Freeborn County Soil and Water Conservation District, has served the area for 75 years. District technician Senja Viktora talked about how the district came to be.

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Shortly after World War II, farmers in Freeborn County became concerned about the amount of erosion that was taking place on their fields and on the land they owned. They wanted to know what effect this erosion would have on their crops. The people came together and had a referendum vote to make a special service dedicated to preserving the territory around them. The organization’s first board meeting took place in August 1928. Originally, it was called the Soil and Water Conservation Service.

A lot of the work that the Freeborn County district conducted when the office first opened is still continuing today. The service has a large focus on preventing unnecessary erosion of soil and helping landowners and farmers protect their properties accordingly.

According to Viktora, the Soil and Water Conservation District offers options in engineering assistance, species selection of cover crops, providing trees at low costs to implement conservation practices, renting out special equipment and more. They also lead programs to show landowners and farmers how to convert spaces back into wildlife habitats like prairies or wetlands.

The district celebrated the huge milestone of 75 years in May 2023. The office celebrated by hosting an event at Three Oak Winery in Albert Lea. Staff and visitors took a bus tour around the northeast corner of Freeborn County to look at wetland restorations, grass waterways and other projects that the district has done over the years.

“The bus was full, so that was awesome,” Viktora said. After arriving back at the winery, food was provided by Erin’s Street Bistro, and the district’s staff spent the remainder of the evening talking to guests about restoration questions they had. Viktora said she had gotten used to seeing many of the same faces that come into the district office on a regular basis, but at the 75-year anniversary celebration, she saw a lot of unfamiliar faces.

Viktora has worked at the Freeborn County Soil and Water Conservation District for six years. Her work focuses on education, outreach and “getting conservation on the ground.”

One of Viktora’s favorite activities is Envirothon, an annual activity for middle school and high school students. Teams of five students gather to compete with other southeast Minnesota teams.

There are five environmental learning stations that focus on preserving resources and current environmental issues. Natural resource professionals conduct a short presentation on their respective topics, and the students are tested on the information they learned. The team that scores the highest goes on to compete at state and national levels, where they compete for scholarships and other prizes, according to the Freeborn County Soil and Water Conservation District website.

“I’m working on trying to get the Albert Lea school district to try and get a team together and Glenville-Emmons,” Viktora said.

Another favorite activity for Viktora is the tree sale that the district holds every year. People can come and order trees at a low cost to implement conservation practices such as wind breaks around their properties.

Jan. 31 was the district’s “tree open house.” Throughout the day, people came by the office to drop off tree order forms and talked to staff, who helped them estimate the cost and steps needed for various projects. Those who stopped by also got to snack on cookies.

“Right now we’re in tree season,” Viktora said. She is excited for springtime when the physical trees will arrive and people will be able to pick them up to take home.

Chair members of the Freeborn County Soil and Water Conservation District have always been elected by the public. All services provided are voluntary, meaning that no one is mandated to implement cover crops, restoration projects, etc. One exception to this is the Minnesota Buffer Law, which requires perennial vegetative buffers of up to 50 feet along lakes, rivers and streams and buffers of 16.5 feet along ditches, according to the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources’ website.

The Freeborn County Soil and Water Conservation District continues to provide information and resources to the community and hopes that people recognize and take the opportunity to learn more.

“We have a lot of resources here,” Viktora said. “If you’re a farmer or a landowner that’s concerned about your soil, come in and visit us. We have a lot of options out there. … We want to get conservation on the ground, so if it’s no till, strip till, cover crops, grass waterways … trees, come visit us.”

The Freeborn County Soil and Water Conservation District office is at 1400 W. Main S in Albert Lea. More information can be found at