Volunteers help USDA soil scientists collect data in remote Minnesota

Farm Forum

A group of dedicated volunteers helped make it possible for soil scientists with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to collect soil samples in remote parts of Minnesota.

Last week was National Volunteer Week, and NRCS celebrated the hard work of Earth Team volunteers like the seven people in Minnesota who aided in the soil survey.

Earth Team volunteers, the agency’s volunteer corps, make a big difference, said Larissa Schmitt, a soil scientist with NRCS. “The volunteers’ wilderness skills were a huge time savings to the soil scientists,” she said.

Seven volunteers logged 510 hours of service in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for assisting Schmitt and other NRCS staff on five expeditions last year. The volunteers included Aaron Janz, Dennis Meinert, Timothy Nigh, Kyle Lilly, Kim Steffen, Jeffery Albers and Meghan Zenner.

The area is composed of a million acres in northeastern Minnesota and is managed by the U.S. Forest Service. NRCS and the Forest Service partnered to collect soils data for 595,000 acres with more than 200 sample points.

“One of the biggest challenges is the remoteness of the area that can only be reached by either canoe or on foot,” Schmitt said.

The expeditions ranged from five to 10 days with average work days of 10 hours. Earth Team volunteers assisted NRCS soil scientists by navigating, paddling canoes, bushwhacking to sample points, carrying soil sampling tools, digging soil pits and recording soil data. After work hours, volunteers cooked by campfire, chopped fire wood, hung bear bats and kept the camp clean.

This soil sampling project is a national pilot project for digitally mapping soils to create digital soil survey products. As NRCS moves ahead with more soil products, lessons learned from the project are invaluable, Schmitt said. This is all part of NRCS’ Web Soil Survey, which provides free soils information online.

This group of dedicated volunteers won Earth Team’s Group Volunteer Award for their region. Read about the other award winners.

Individuals from all walks of life donate their time to NRCS. These diverse skill sets help NRCS with its mission of “Helping People Help the Land.”

Volunteers can help with almost any task that an NRCS employee does as part of his or her job duties. From soil sampling in the wilderness to preparing accounting paperwork, volunteers help NRCS get conservation on the ground. Even virtual volunteering is possible.

In the past fiscal year, more than 22,000 Earth Team volunteers donated more than 330,000 hours of their time to Earth Team. These hours are valued at more than $7.3 million.

To learn more about how you can volunteer in your area or to read about other volunteers, visit