Resource Conservationist, USDA NRCS Montana

Marni Thompson

Career Sector



BS in Range Management from Montana State University

Briefly describe your career path from college to today.

I grew up on a ranch in Townsend, in southwestern Montana. I loved that. We ended up selling the ranch when I was in high school, but the next best thing to living on a ranch was working with private land owners at the NRCS. After I graduated, I applied for a Soil Conservationist position at the NRCS in Montana. I went to Miles City, in eastern Montana, out on the plains. It is so flat! I hadn’t spent any time out there and probably wouldn’t have not chosen that location, but I loved it right away. I loved working on farms and ranches with producers. And the people were so great. They took us out and showed us farming practices that we didn’t even know existed in Montana – like growing sugar beets. I had an awesome mentor that I am still in contact with today.  He took me all over and we got to see some super cool stuff. This experience really opened my eyes to the NRCS and everything that you can do with private land owners.

After two years in Miles City, I took a Soil Conservationist position at the Sheridan field office on the other side of the state. Sheridan is located in Madison County which is pretty big and has a lot of opportunities for diverse work. I learned a ton.  After a year, I became the District Conservationist.  I worked with lots of different watershed groups and two Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) boards. I did range work and learned about irrigation, grazing, and engineering. I was in Sheridan for twelve years.

In 2010, my career took a change for the better. I watched a YouTube video of Ray Archuleta demonstrating the slake and infiltration test. Both of these tests are used as soil health indicators. It was really mind boggling and inspired me.  That’s when I began having a passion about soil health. In 2011, I became the Resource Conservationist for the Great Falls area in north central Montana. This position dealt more with contracting work, and I missed the technical work and working with landowners. I did that job for seven years. Now, I am the Area Conservationist for Technology, and I was able to get back to what I really enjoy and am passionate about.

What was the best advice you received regarding your career?

Never stop learning. Be willing to move and don’t get stuck in one spot. Challenge yourself. Take risks. Do some things that make you uncomfortable. That will make you better. When I first started, it was hard for me to go out to speak landowners because it is intimidating, especially if you’re a female. But go out there, show interest, and ask questions.  If you don’t know the answer, try to find it and get back to the landowner, they really appreciate it.

Describe the best choices that you have made along your career path.

Moving around the state. It means a lot of traveling, but I have lived in eastern, southwestern and north central Montana, so I’ve almost covered the whole state! You get to see so much and learn the different ways that people do things. Also, learning what you are passionate about because you’re good at what you are passionate about. So when I learned about soil health, I surrounded myself with that and it made me a better employee.

What have you done to continue your education and professional development following college graduation?

In Montana, we have a tristate leadership program with North and South Dakota that I participated in. It is year-long program where you go to Washington D.C., do an internship or a detail, and are assigned a group project. Luck would have it that I got assigned a group project dealing with soil health. I went to Dakota Lakes Research Farm and met with Dwayne Beck. He set me up to ride in a combine with a farmer, and I spent time with a couple of other farmers in their fields. They showed me what they have been doing. I also went to Bismarck, North Dakota to their SWCD farm and met with landowners there. Then you get to go to Washington D.C. and learn how the NRCS works on that level. We learned how to give presentations and met with a leadership coach. The program was an awesome experience. I learned a ton and met a lot of contacts. I have so many people I can call and say, “Hey!” if I don’t know an answer.

How has SWCS impacted your career or contributed to your continued education and/or professional development?

As a Resource Conservationist, I was in a position which was all contracting and nothing technical. That was part of the reason that I got into SWCS. I thought, “Well my job may not allow me to do some of the things that I want to do, so, I am going to join SWCS so I can stay up on the technical stuff and keep learning.”

At our SWCS chapter here in Montana, we do workshops that bring in speakers to help educate farmers and ranchers on soil health. For about eight years, I helped coordinate the soil health workshops that SWCS sponsors. We have brought in soil scientists that do biological testing. We have done tours on farmers’ places. At one of our recent big events, we took a big bus, with 56 Montana farmers and ranchers to North and South Dakota. It was a three day trip, and we got to visit the places I went on my detail. The producers were so excited about that.

What is the job outlook for your current position in the future? Also, what changes in required skillsets do you anticipate?

I think the government is a good option. Many NRCS employees have retired, and we have opened up a lot of positions that have not yet been filled. Now we have a lot of people that are really young and need to learn a little more before they can move up into the positions that were vacated by retirees. I was talking to the FFA group that I help with, and I was explaining to them what I do, and they were like, “Oh my gosh, that sounds so cool!” Maybe these jobs are just not being talked about. They are not the standard computer or business job, it is something different. You just need to get out there and research, use your local community too and learn about these great positions.

What advice do you have for college students or early career professionals who might want to work in a job similar to the one you have right now?

Along with science courses, I think communication is a pretty important topic to cover in college. What I see now with younger employees is that it is hard for them to talk to people. It is so important that you relate to farmers and ranchers and learn how to ask questions and be interested. When you are young and don’t know a lot, it is hard, and it’s intimidating. The more you do it, the better you will get at it. Another thing is just to get out in the field. With any job, a lot of it is just being stuck behind a computer. If you make yourself go out and learn in the field, you’ll be a better professional because of that. Take the risks.  Go out and look around. Get a shovel. Dig in the soil. That helps you to answer questions and find out what’s going on and why it’s going on. Don’t let the position or the location determine what you are passionate about. Continue being passionate about it and looking for opportunities because pretty soon they are going to come to you.