A view of the world can change your worldview. Dorian Perez tried college, twice. But when the first pass didn’t stick, he tried another route. “When I finished high school, I had zero discipline. I took college calculus for two days and realized it just wasn’t for me,” Perez said. Instead, he served 20 years in the U.S. Army that provided both the discipline and the international perspective that fueled his career change to soil conservation.
“During my second tour in Iraq, we had sewage problems whenever an [improvised explosive device] detonated. The overpressure caused the city sewer system to flood out onto the streets making the citizens’ lives miserable. My platoon started addressing that and got me interested in alternative solutions for hydrological flush systems,” Perez said.
In Baghdad, he observed the heavily compacted soils of the area where it was difficult to grow much of anything. “I started web surfing and came upon soil science. That’s how I ended up at NC State,” he said. “My objective was to return to Iraq, Afghanistan, or Haiti to implement my learning on how to produce food sustainably in these countries.”
Perez graduated from NC State in 2015 with a degree in soil, water, and land use, and a minor in agroecology. With his military experience and accumulated course credits, he was truly a non-traditional student. He even completed a permaculture design certification which he previously started online. Dorian Perez’s career was equipped to grow. He just didn’t know where.
Homer on the Range
“I was looking for internships and found the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). Their Pathways program offered me both an internship and, upon completion, a position for me within the agency.” The kicker? His placement could be at any NRCS office in the U.S. or Guam, including Homer, Alaska.
“My family is from western North Carolina. I was placed in Mitchell and Yancey counties for my first NRCS posting and then transferred to Homer, Alaska. Homer is actually a lot like Asheville, minus 40,000 people. It’s a very in-touch type of farm community.” Perez finds that his unique qualifications make him ideally suited for supporting small farms. “I come with a different mindset. Many people at NRCS are trained for the larger farm operations of the midwest. That’s why my permaculture and agroecology experience benefits me here. I can relate to farmers on small acreage who want to avoid industrial fertilizers and pesticides.”
Perez works with a variety of growers, some operating on as little as one-tenth of an acre. But these small farms produce big results. “We have ridiculous growth patterns because of our summers. Right now sunrise is about five A.M. and it gets dark around eleven P.M. In Dr. Bob Patterson’s class we learned that two-ear corn was our goal. And here, I was told you couldn’t grow corn because of the low soil temperature. But we are growing twelve-foot corn, producing three to four ears in our high tunnels.”
High tunnels are an important component of Alaskan farming and one of NRCS’s key programs in the area. “We have growers producing tomatoes, peppers, berries – even apple and cherry orchards in high tunnels. One grower reportedly yields 40 pounds per tomato plant!” he said. Because of the cooler summers, local growers also have a unique niche market for peonies in the wedding industry.
“A lot of farmers admit to not knowing about our resources. They don’t know they can get trained people to help them evaluate and improve their farms. Plus there is the added benefit of protecting resources for sustainability, like improving water quality and forage production while reducing erosion. We at NRCS deal with forestry, pastures, and anything agricultural. But folks just don’t know the resources exist.”
Field of Dreams
Perez’s clients usually start with high tunnels, but the NRCS also helps growers with nutrient management, crop rotation, micro-irrigation, and pasture planning. The variety is what keeps him engaged. “In the morning you might be in the office doing all programs work – focused on planning. Then in the afternoon, you’re out in the field doing assessments and follow up. We follow our plans from design to installation to make sure they are accurate and working correctly.” he said. He also does off-season outreach on different farm management practices.
“I chose the Soil, Water, and Land Use degree at NC State because of my interest in conservation. I have training in both conventional and agroecology approaches. It’s helpful to have multiple viewpoints. It just gives you more tools in your box.” Perez said. “NRCS is a great place to work. But there is so much opportunity in the soils field. My soil science friends went to work in crop productive services, soil identification, and wastewater management. It’s all beneficial.”
Perez is happy in his current role but retains his original mission. “In the next few years, my goal is to use a week of my leave to work somewhere like Haiti and return to the humanitarian aid I started with.”
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