Rick Douglas is a city kid who has spent the past quarter-century working on behalf of Missouri's farmers.
Now, after retiring this week as district conservationist with the Maryville office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a part of the United States Department of Agriculture, he plans to keep right on doing the work he loves.
Douglas, who came to the Maryville USDA Service Center in 1993, will soon start a new part-time career in Mound City as a mentor with ACES — the Agriculture Conservation Experienced Services Program.
ACES pairs veteran ag agency professionals with the next generation of federal managers and technicians, who get the chance to gain from decades of experience and insight offered by USDA retirees.
Douglas fell in love with rural life during summer vacations while growing up in the south end of Kansas City. He had family who farmed near Fairfax in northwest Missouri, and spent time there when school was out doing farm chores.
"I did all the lower-level stuff," he said. "I cleaned out the hog and chicken houses and put up hay, and I decided I just liked being out in the country."
That initial exposure to farming led Douglas to major in soil science at Northwest Missouri State University, where he went on to pick up a master's degree. During the summer, he worked at the Richard Neal dairy farm near Maryville.
After joining USDA he began his professional career at offices in the Bootheel, Jackson County and Mound City before winding up in Maryville nearly 20 years ago.
His agency, NRCS, provides the technical and field support used to implement various conservation initiatives and financial assistance programs, such as those administered by USDA's Farm Service Agency.
In the beginning that meant helping farmers adopt such techniques as no-till cultivation and field terracing using paper maps and charts and early-generation electronic calculators.
Today, the same job takes advantage of a range of high-tech gadgets from lasers to smart phones to GPS systems.
But Douglas said the biggest change he's witnessed in the last three decades was philosophical rather than technological and came in 1985 when USDA made certain conservation practices mandatory for farmers seeking FSA loans and other assistance.
"That's when they tied conservation to program eligibility," he said. "We went from being a voluntary program to quasi-enforcement. That was a big hurdle, not only for the agency but for the farmers as well."
Through years of evolving approaches, regulations and technology, however, Douglas said the thing he enjoyed most about his job never changed.
"Working with and helping the landowners," he said. "That's what I always liked the most."