Learn more about speakers for the upcoming Profit Through Conservation: Supporting Farmers for Conservation Outcomes event.
Rich Biske is the Resilient Waters Director for The Nature Conservancy in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. As Director, Rich leads the freshwater policy development, conservation strategy, watershed protection and builds capacity of partner organizations. Biske collaborates with public and private sector leaders to advance freshwater protection for people and nature. He leads a team of talented scientists, regional program managers and project managers that implement conservation action throughout the 3-state chapter.
Rich also leads the Chapter’s Providing Food and Water Strategy and Mississippi Headwaters Fund. In 2021 Governor Walz appointed Rich to the Clean Water Council directing the use Clean Water Funds and development of Minnesota water policy.
Troy Daniell has served as the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s State Conservationist for Minnesota since 2018. He began his career as a Range Conservationist and moved through roles including District Conservationist, Assistant State Conservationist, and State Financial Assistance Program Manager in Oklahoma, Illinois, and his home state of Texas.
Mr. Daniell has also been active in his family’s North Texas cattle operation throughout his life. He has always had a passion for agriculture and a close connection to the producers who manage private land. Growing up and working in the heart of “Dust Bowl” country, Mr. Daniell understands the importance of conserving our resources for the Nation’s future generations and appreciates the role NRCS, along with its vast partnerships, play in this effort.
Leif Fixen is an Agriculture Strategy Manager for The Nature Conservancy. Leif leads TNC’s North America Farmer Advisor Strategy, as well as agricultural initiatives in Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. He works closely with the agriculture sector on issues related to water quality, soil health, and natural climate solutions. Prior to joining TNC, Leif worked for American Farmland Trust in the Pacific Northwest where he focused on devising and implementing strategies and programs for increasing the voluntary adoption of conservation practices by farmers and ranchers
Dennis has been the Stearns County Soil and Water Conservation District administrator since 1996. Dennis leads a team of 19 professional Stearns County SWCD staff and works with a five-member Board of Supervisors, and partners to accomplish the SWCD’s mission: to enhance the soil, water, and natural resources necessary for productive and profitable agriculture; safe and affordable drinking water; and wildlife habitat for all Stearns County residents, businesses, and visitors.
Vivian Georgalas, Program Lead, AgSpire. Originally from a farm in Norway and with a bachelor’s degree in Renewable Energy, she moved to Wyoming to pursue her MBA in Energy Management. After working in sales at two indoor farming startups, she moved into economic development for the State of Wyoming. The experience gained through her education and professional career has propelled her to continue her engagement and passion for sustainable development and agriculture, leading her to her current role at AgSpire.
Drew Kessler, PhD, is a Project Manager and Principal with Houston Engineering, Inc. (HEI) where he focuses on common sense solutions for water quality and conservation with agricultural producers. Drew has been with HEI since 2014, where he leads both the Water Quality and Agribusiness sectors. Drew works with landowners and farmers to facilitate communication of work being done in their watersheds, giving them the tools to participate in the process from planning to implementation. He has developed user-friendly handbooks to share information and organized farmer-led councils to drive these important conversations within farming communities, leading to win-win results.
Mark Lefebvre is the Conservation Planning Manager at the Stearns County Soil and Water Conservation District. He works with agricultural producers and private landowners to develop comprehensive plans to address natural resource concerns affecting soil and water quality and quantity. He provides direct technical assistance for nonstructural land management practices as well as nutrient management, irrigation management, and other practices. He also works with landowners and producers to become certified through the MN Ag Water Quality Certification Program.
Ben Mergen is a Stearns County farmer who raises a small beef heard and grows corn, soybeans, alfalfa, and spring wheat on 500 acres. Mergen is a fifth-generation farmer who moved back to the farm 10 years ago after working for Gavilon Grain in Indiana. He first tried cover crop five years ago through NRCS’s Conservation Stewardship Program. He has continued since then with the goal of getting half or three-quarters of acres covered in cover crops. He is also working on moving acres away from full tillage to strip till and no-till.
Cassie is a Dairy Industry Specialist at Compeer Financial. Cassie works with mid-sized and commercial dairy operations who have grown or expanded their business in understanding their needs to structure financing solutions to meet the goals of each dairy operation. Her primary focus has been on Dairy Expansion, Robotics and Automated Dairy Milking Systems. Cassie was raised on a dairy farm near St. Cloud, Minn; and operated the family dairy business after graduating college and working off farm for a few years. She is an active member of MN Milk and continues to stay aware of the changes and innovative ideas in this evolving industry, as it pertains to dairy.
Keith Olander is the Executive Director of AgCentric, (a MN State Agricultural Center of Excellence). He also oversees strategic agricultural partnerships at Central Lakes College as a Dean of Agricultural Studies. As Executive Director of AgCentric, Keith’s major responsibilities are to augment the capacity and enrollment in comprehensive agricultural education from K-12, through post-secondary to industry. Directing the work of Minnesota Farm Business Management is also a major part of his role for Minnesota State Colleges and Universities with 67 faculty at 7 colleges with nearly 3,000 students (farmers). A key component of this program is farmer well-being and rural mental health. Keith owns and operates a 450 acre crop farm consisting predominantly of a corn and soybean rotation along with a family sized garden. Faith, family, and his passion for agriculture consume his schedule.
Thom Petersen was appointed Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture by Governor Tim Walz in January 2019. Commissioner Petersen is a long-time resident of Royalton Township near Pine City where he lives on a horse farm. Before being appointed Commissioner, Petersen served as the Director of Government Relations for Minnesota Farmers Union (MFU) since 2002, working on behalf of MFU’s farmer-members in both Washington, D.C. and St. Paul.
Prior to his work at the Minnesota Farmers Union, Commissioner Petersen spent most of his life working for his family and his own horse and farm business. He has a wide range of experience in state and federal farm policy, and travels to almost every county in Minnesota each year to fully understand how these policies affect farmers’ daily lives.
Congressman Collin C. Peterson represented Minnesota’s Seventh District from 1991 to 2021. He served as Chairman and Ranking Member of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee from 2005 to 2021 and was instrumental in writing and passing four farm bills. He is a nationally recognized expert on agriculture policy and has a strong reputation for his steadfast commitment to bringing everyone to the table while offering positive and practical solutions to difficult problems.
Mr. Peterson is currently President and founder of his government affairs and public policy firm, The Peterson Group. He also has a partnership with Combest Sell and Associates in Washington D.C. to advise and consult on policies that bolster U.S. agriculture and rural America.
Steve Peterson was the director of sourcing sustainability at General Mills, starting in August, 2010 until his retirement in August, 2015. Apart from his corporate career, Peterson has always been in production agriculture. Steve’s father was one of the founders of the MN turkey industry so he grew up working on the farms and mill. Currently, Steve owns and operates Peterson Farms a crop & beef operation located near Paynesville, MN. Over the past several years, Peterson has combined his decades of experience in food & agriculture to lead key industry sustainability organizations. Steve served as Board Chair of Field to Market 2014-2015 and MN AgriGrowth 2015-2016. Peterson currently serves as Board Chair of the Park Nicollet Foundation. In late 2015, Steve formed SLP, LLC Consulting advising the food & ag industry.
Steve Schlangen is a dairy farmer who milks 65 cows and grows corn, soybeans, alfalfa, and barley on 200 acres in Stearns County, Minnesota. Schlangen has a long history of conservation work that most recently has included cover crops, vegetative buffers strips, grassed waterways, water-and-sediment control basins, reduced tillage, and no-till. He has worked closely with the Stearns County Soil and Water Conservation District and Natural Resources Conservation Service over the years. The farm also became water quality certified through the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program in 2016.
In addition to being an advocate for conservation practices, his work includes serving as chairman of the American Milk Producers Inc. and involvement in National Milk Producers Federation, Headwaters Agriculture Sustainability Partnership, Minnesota Milk Policy Committee, and Minnesota Dairy Initiative.
Born and raised on a dairy operation in central Minnesota, Amy grew up around animal agriculture. While working with Centra Sota Cooperative, Amy founded the Environmental Service department, which focuses on helping producers across Minnesota implement conservation practices on their operations. Her technical skills include navigating the waters of government assistance, nutrient management, and implementing soil health practices on a variety of farm types. Her work centers around developing private and public relationships to drive conservation efforts in Minnesota. Amy was recently recognized by Successful Farming magazine as one of four women across the agriculture landscape whose work is making a difference by serving farmers.
Sagar Sunkavalli joined the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative in 2012 as an environmental engineer and moved to the Manager of Environmental Affairs in 2017-18. He manages environmental compliance across the facility involving NPDES/SDS permit (wastewater management and treatment), Title V Air Quality Permit, Aboveground Storage Tank Permit, Solid Waste, Bi-product Management, permit negotiations, among other compliance activities. Prior to joining SMBSC, Sagar worked on a remediation project for an environmental consulting firm in North Carolina that managed the NCDNR project for remediating groundwater and soil contamination caused by old or decommissioned Underground Storage Tanks.