Brenda Sermersheim grew up understanding that sound conservation practices make good economic sense. Her father, the late Harold Epple, was an early adopter of no-till in Perry County, Ind. Meanwhile, Melvin Sermersheim was one of the first farmers to no-till in Dubois County, Ind. Later, Brenda married Melvin’s son, Roger, and today, she and Roger typically plant green into cover crops.
“Roger does the day-to-day work, and Melvin still helps,” she explains. “I work full time as an ag loan officer with German American Bank, but I help when I can. I’m also the bookkeeper for the farm.”
With her background in conservation, it’s not surprising that someone asked Sermersheim to consider serving as a supervisor for the Dubois County Soil and Water Conservation District. She was elected in 2008 and is chairwoman of the Dubois County SWCD today.
Sermersheim is the first woman to serve as supervisor in the district. “That’s not important,” she insists. “What’s important is that we work together and get the message out about the value of soil conservation.
“One of the greatest things I enjoy are the people I work with, both employees and volunteers. They’re great people who believe in conservation and in what we’re doing. Our goal is helping get other farmers and landowners to realize what cover crops and improving soil health could do for their farms.”
Successes and challenges
Enthusiastic supervisors and staff have helped the Dubois County SWCD succeed, Sermersheim says. Many years ago, the SWCD established the Land Stewardship Initiative, partnering with Vincennes University at Jasper, Ind. The district developed conservation plans for the farmland owned by the school, and later installed necessary conservation practices.
“The goal is using this demonstration farm as an educational tool to show farmers what can be accomplished through conservation farming,” Sermersheim says. “It continues to be an important tool today.”
Sermersheim believes one of the biggest challenges all supervisors face is getting more people who don’t use conservation tillage or cover crops to try them.
“We really encourage people who haven’t done it to try it,” she says. “Sometimes it’s difficult to get them to a meeting or to get them started. We have cost-share money available through grant programs, and that helps. We try to make sure people who haven’t tried cover crops before have first chance at cost-share. The district also owns a no-till drill, which it rents out so people can try practices.”
Recently, the district successfully offered advanced programs for those already no-tilling and using cover crops who want to learn more. “We’ve had very good response,” Sermersheim says. “We’re also making headway educating people about invasive species and the damage they can cause, especially in woodlands.”
The Dubois County SWCD has several full-time employees funded by the county. That’s no accident. “Several of us make it a point to get acquainted with each member of the county council and county commissioners,” Sermersheim says. “Sometimes we go to lunch, just one on one, a supervisor and elected official. Once they know what we accomplish and how we can leverage funds into value for the county, they’re more understanding when it comes to funding help for our programs.”
The district also invites county officials on tours to view conservation in action, Sermerhseim notes.
Her dedication as a supervisor was recognized when she was named 2019 Supervisor of the Year by the Indiana Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts. Indiana Prairie Farmer sponsors the award.