When Marsha Watland took on the role of Becker County’s Agricultural Inspector in 2006, there was an abundance of meadow knapweed — an invasive species — and the plants often grew to be almost as tall as she was.

Today, thanks in large part to Watland’s successful noxious weed management efforts over the past 13 years, what’s left of the knapweed around the county only grows up to her knees: “That’s how stressed they are,” she says.

It’s weed control success stories like this that have earned Watland a reputation around the county, state and nation as a leader in her field. And it’s because of that leadership that she’s been named Minnesota’s Outstanding Agricultural Inspector of 2019.

The honor, bestowed by the Minnesota Association of County Agricultural Inspectors, comes on the heels of a national award Watland won last year, and another state-level award a few years prior to that, both for her work in invasive species management.

“It was surprising, and exciting,” Watland says of winning the Inspector of the Year award. “It was a nice honor.”

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She was presented with an award certificate July 23 at the association’s annual banquet. She has been an active member of the association for several years.

Peter Mead, who works closely with Watland as the District Administrator for the Becker County Soil and Water Conservation District, describes her as “one of a kind.”

“Both her passion and knowledge are real assets to the county,” he says. “You really don’t have to go far — you literally can drive across county lines — to see the difference that her efforts make.”

Watland has worked in various arenas of agriculture throughout her 42-year career, first as a vocational ag teacher at schools in her home state of North Dakota, then in ag retail and wholesale. She even ran her own business for awhile, before moving to Detroit Lakes with her husband and their two daughters in 1991. Eventually she landed at the Becker County Soil and Water Conservation District, or SWCD, and about a year after that, became the county’s Ag Inspector (the position falls under the umbrella of the SWCD).

Since then, Watland’s been a standout in the field of noxious weed management. She established one of the first Cooperative Weed Management Areas in Minnesota, in 2007, and implemented one of the first gravel pit certification programs, in 2009.

She has helped raise awareness of invasives in Becker County and beyond through countless educational programs and media campaigns, and has developed innovative weed prevention, mapping and management programs. She has a talent for bringing together multiple government agencies, nonprofit organizations and landowners to work cooperatively on management efforts.

Last year, she helped lead a first-ever gravel pit certification training for county Ag Inspectors through the state Ag Inspector association, taking what she’s done here in Becker County and spreading that success out among her peers.

“Marsha runs a very active Agricultural Inspector program and has established a solid Weed Inspection and Seed Sampling program in her county,” wrote Aimee Duchene in a letter nominating Watland for the Inspector of the Year award. “She is very successful at encouraging collaboration and achieving positive weed management outcomes.”

Duchene is the Shoreland Specialist and County Ag Inspector for Otter Tail County. In her nomination letter, she also commented on Watland’s leadership skills, commitment and work ethic.

“Most recently, Marsha went above and beyond to chair a North American Invasive Species Management Association committee to develop weed free gravel and forage standards,” Duchene wrote. “These standards have become a foundation to build weed free gravel and forage programs throughout the nation.”

Watland has served on the board of the North American Invasive Species Management Association for a number of years.

What does an Ag Inspector do?

As Becker County’s Ag Inspector, Watland’s job is to inspect land all over the county to identify and then treat invasive plant species, with the goal of effectively managing or eradicating the invasives. To do this, she works in partnership with a long list of people, groups and organizations within government and ag, including the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, among many others.

If Watland discovers a dense stand of Plumeless Thistle along a stretch of state highway, for example, she’ll call up MnDOT and get their help to treat it. Other times, it might be city or township officials she’s contacting, or individual property owners. For small jobs, she’ll go out with her backpack on and do herbicide applications herself.

She conducts field inspections, and one of her less-popular tasks is to mail letters to landowners who are not in compliance with noxious weed laws; her approach is to work with people to help them better manage the invasives on their property, to offer them a plan of attack.

She inspects and treats gravel pits for weeds, leads trainings with community weed inspectors, and meets twice-yearly with her weed management partners to evaluate what’s working and what to do next.

While getting out into the field and working with people in the community is what she loves best, Watland also has her fair share of deskwork. She writes grants, puts together an annual report (which she then presents to county commissioners at a board meeting), keeps track of what’s being spent on weed control, and much more. She has a four-inch-thick binder on her desk full of information about all the things she’s responsible for.

The role and function of county Ag Inspectors has changed in Minnesota over the years, Watland says, and she’s enjoyed watching the state’s inspection program evolve into one that’s more structured and closely tied to local communities.

“I’m happy with the direction this program is going,” she says. “It’s making a difference. There’ll always be weeds, but the reduction (we’ve seen in Becker County) is phenomenal.”