When Keila Sherman inflates the Earth Balloon, it generates a lot of attention. The 19-foot-tall inflatable balloon is used to educate students about environmental issues such as deforestation, loss of coral reefs, weather changes and erosion. It’s just one of the tools the 105 conservation districts across Kansas take to schools, county fairs and ag days to teach children about the importance of soil, water and natural resource conservation.
“The natural resources we have are the only ones we’ll ever have, and we have to take care of them,” says Sherman, district manager of the Greenwood County Conservation District. “Education is the key to that.”
Conservation districts also use tools like the soil tunnel trailer, an enclosed trailer that takes students “underground” to learn about soil and natural resources. They also use an augmented reality sandbox, a high-tech tool that provides a 3D perspective of a topographic map to provide hands-on learning opportunities.
In addition to inspiring a passion for the environment, program leaders hope that the lessons spark interest in careers relating to natural resources.
Annual competitions encourage children to learn about the environment and share what they’ve learned by creating informative posters. Holland Shirley, a student in the Marshall County Conservation District, made Kansas proud by winning second place in the 2019 National Association of Conservation Districts poster competition on the theme of Life in the Soil: Dig Deeper.
Ranchers and farmers also benefit from the services that conservation districts provide.
Farmers can rent specialized equipment like seed drills, learn to set up their spray rigs, or participate in workshops and field days that cover topics such as cover crops and noxious weeds.
Additionally, conservation districts work alongside federal and state agencies such as the USDA Farm Service Agency and the Natural Resources Conservation Service to oversee cost-share programs to help farmers and ranchers improve and conserve soil and water resources.
“We need to figure out how to get the land back to functioning the best it can,” says Leslie Holthaus, district manager of the Marshall County Conservation District. “Farmers are coming in to see if we have programs to help because if they can’t restore the land, they can’t farm. Our goal is to make sure we have good, healthy soil and water for future generations.”