Brian Pillsbury was in his element during a recent pasture walk at Schoepp Farms near Lodi. He maintained the recommended 6-foot social distance from others attending the event but could still talk with them to share his passion for grazing.
The pasture walk was one of the last such events he’d attend in his official capacity as grazing-lands specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Wisconsin. He’s retiring July 31.
Pillsbury has held the post since 1997 – but he’s been a grazing enthusiast since childhood. He was raised on a 40-cow dairy farm near Shelburne, Vermont. In 1979, he earned a bachelor’s degree in plant and soil science.
After graduating he worked for the USDA in western Iowa. There he helped to build terraces to reduce erosion on the area’s sloping cropland. He then managed a USDA office in northern Iowa before pursuing a master’s degree in entomology at the University of Idaho.
After earning that degree in 1986 he returned to Vermont to be closer to family. The Natural Resource Conservation Service also was just starting a grazing program in Vermont. “I started the grazing program there; grazing was my love,” he said.
Then in 1997, an opening became available in Wisconsin for the state’s first Natural Resources Conservation Service grazing-lands specialist.
“I knew there was a good network of rotational graziers in Wisconsin,” he said. “During that time the USDA was hiring a number of grazing specialists across the country because there was a lot of concern about highly erodible land.”
“They said someone with real grazing experience,” she said. “Brian was from Vermont … the same home state as Bill Murphy, the author of ‘Greener Pastures on Your Side of the Fence.’ It’s the best grazing book ever published.
“Brian is a dear friend, a skilled grazing planner, a tactful federal employee who went to great lengths to support and promote the benefits of grazing. He did that for conservation of clean water and healthy soils but also profitable beef, dairy and other livestock farms.”
Paul Daigle, director of the land and water program for Wisconsin’s Marathon County Conservation, Planning and Zoning Department, said, “Brian brought his knowledge of managed grazing to Wisconsin from the Northeast, which was a great asset. But more importantly he brought his passion for managed grazing. He explained how it could be incorporated into most any type and size of livestock farm if the land was available and the farmer desired to do so. People who make a difference are invested in what they do. Brian cares about the land, and people and their livelihoods.”
Kevin Mahalko is a grazier from Gilman, Wisconsin, and serves as president of GrassWorks. “I met Brian in the late 1990s,” he said. “We hosted a pasture walk at our farm and I was happy he made the effort to visit. Since then I’ve seen his passion to help people by sharing his knowledge about grazing.”
Pillsbury held grazing schools for farmers and other agricultural professionals, who in turn shared what they learned with other farmers and farming organizations. Pillsbury found many ways to help farmers, for example, to apply for Environmental Quality Incentives Program assistance.
“At the peak of state and federal support for grazing, he helped administer an agreement between NRCS and the Wisconsin Dept. of Agriculture and Consumer Protection (DATCP) with leadership from the State Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative Steering Committee which provided $8 million, over 12 years, in federal and state funding for a Wisconsin Grazing Grant Program. “The funding was for education, technical assistance, and research by local counties, non-profit resource conservation and developments councils and the University of Wisconsin”, Anderson said. “Those dollars were distributed via a competitive grant program and benefited the entire state of Wisconsin,” she said.
Laura Paine is an outreach coordinator for Grassland 2.0. It’s a group of producers, researchers and public- and private-sector leaders working to help producers achieve increased profitability. The groups also works to improve water and soil quality, biodiversity and climate resiliency through grassland-based agriculture. The project is housed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Paine has known Pillsbury since he started his job in Wisconsin. “I’ve worked closely with him on grazing issues,” she said. “We’ve organized and taught grazing-education programs. We co-coordinated the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative steering committee. We’ve both served as advisers to the GrassWorks board. And we’ve worked together on policy issues related to grazing.
“He’s brought unwavering support for farmers. Even as he took on more administrative duties he made it a point to continue working with individual farmers and continue advocating for grazing support. He’s been a great colleague and friend. I’ll miss him and the state will miss his knowledge and leadership.
Pillsbury said, “My job has been gratifying and I’ve been blessed. It’s been fun to watch producers succeed and be happy with what they’re doing.” His plans for retirement include travel to Alaska and consulting work in the grazing arena. “I’d like to keep my hand in it,” he said. “Graziers do so much for the environment. We really need to show them appreciation for feeding us and taking care of our land.”