Though she's enjoying her position as the newest member of the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service's (NRCS) field office in Detroit Lakes, soil conservationist Nicole Schaffer says she's "living a double life."
There's her professional life in Detroit Lakes, where she spends her weekdays helping landowners and farmers to address soil erosion and water quality concerns as well as managing nutrients, and protecting and improving wildlife habitat.
And then, there's her personal life back in Hastings, Minn., where her husband lives in the home they purchased back in April.
"I was just married on Sept. 19," Schaffer says.
Nicole's new husband, Jeff Schaffer, is the fifth generation to be involved in his family's grain and dairy operation at Miesville, Minn., approximately 40 miles south of St. Paul.
She goes back to Hastings to spend the weekends with him and her family, friends and animals.
"I've driven home just about every weekend since I've been here," says Schaffer, who started her job with the NRCS on June 20.
Still, she says, she enjoys her job here in Detroit Lakes. "This is a nice town once you get to know people," says Schaffer.
"I primarily work with agricultural producers and landowners to implement conservation practices on their land... I work with different wildlife habitats, too.
"There are many programs we have available to help farmers and landowners," she says.
One of those is the Conservation Reserve Program, which encourages farmers to take their land out of agricultural production for a few years, to "give it a rest" and also provide good wildlife habitat.
Schaffer was a student intern with NRCS while finishing up her degree at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, where she graduated back in May with a Bachelor of Science degree in soil science and a minor in conservation.
"I grew up in the country," she says of her reasons for choosing to go into the soil conservation field. "My mom's family farmed, and I guess it's something I've always been interested in -- I also recently married a farmer, and this goes hand in hand with his profession."
While in college, Nicole enjoyed soil judging and was a member of the UW-River Falls soil judging team. She competed twice in the national collegiate soil judging competitions, in El Reno, Okla., and Modesto, Calif.
In April of this year, the team traveled to Modesto, where Nicole took first place in the nation with the highest individual score for soil judging -- which she says is one of her biggest accomplishments to date.
In February, she and her husband Jeff are planning a trip to the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, for a belated honeymoon.
"We're really excited," she says.
But for now, Schaffer adds, "We're doing the long distance thing -- it's not easy."
A year or two from now, she says, she'll most likely move on to another NRCS field office, where she'll also work as a soil conservationist. The next step, Schaffer adds, will be heading up a field office as district conservationist.
"I do enjoy my job -- I like the diversity this county has, in its topography, landscape and agriculture," she says. "It keeps me busy."