Mapping Dwaine Schettler’s 37-year career with the Farm Service Agency (FSA) is relatively straightforward; it’s the side trails that are unexpected.
Schettler is a program specialist at the Washington state FSA office, focusing on geographic information systems (GIS) and compliance. He was born and raised in Waterville, Wash., and graduated from Spokane Community College with a degree in biomedical electronics. He didn’t get very far down that trail before returning to Douglas County in 1981 and going to work for a local farmer, Don Ogle, instead.
“Originally, when they were selling us on biomedical electronics at school, the idea was we’d be working in a hospital environment, maintaining electronics that are used in a hospital. In the late 70s, early 80s, many hospitals owned their own equipment. Then, rather than purchasing equipment, hospitals began basically leasing equipment,” Schettler explained. More and more, the leased equipment was being serviced by company representatives who traveled from place to place. “That just wasn’t appealing to me, living out of a suitcase.”
As a farmhand, Schettler worked on Ogle’s 3,000 acres, which was primarily in a wheat summer fallow rotation. Ogle was nearing retirement age, and the pair were working on a process for Schettler to take over the farm. In 1985, the Douglas County FSA office contacted Schettler and asked him to do some part-time fall/winter fieldwork. In 1986, the county office had a full time position open up. With Ogle’s encouragement, Schettler switched course again.
“I got hired on at the county office full time in March 1987,” Schettler said. “My primary duties were compliance, which I had basically been doing, then I also got assigned to the various disaster programs we had back in the late 80s. I worked in the county office in various roles until May of 2003. That’s when FSA introduced GIS or digital mapping. I got hired at the state office to be the GIS specialist and head the mapping project for the state.”
In 2003, FSA began converting all of their farm records (basically black and white photographs) into digital records. The agency hired contractors to transfer the records from county offices, but then FSA employees had to groundtruth the contractors’ work. Using aerial imagery to calculate the acreage, Schettler said digital records are usually accurate to within one meter. Every two years, FSA gets updated imagery that they compare to previously established field boundaries.
“Especially with CRP (Conservation Reserve Program), this is where we recognize whether or not somebody has established their practice to the line they should have, or if they have inadvertently encroached on CRP lines,” he explained. “We then use that under our compliance process to make sure we are not issuing payments to producers on inaccurate acreage.”
Schettler feels fortunate to have joined the FSA team when he did. At the time, the Douglas County office had four other program technicians, and each of them specialized in a particular program. As new hires were scaled back and the number of FSA programs increased, employees increasingly have had to learn multiple programs.
“We basically have to know something about everything,” he said.
While FSA is his day job, Schettler has found time to explore some side interests. He’s been a reserve police officer, a volunteer firefighter, an emergency medical technician, high school and Little League baseball coach, and a high school and junior college baseball umpire. He and his wife of 38 years, Bobbi, are also quilters, donating many of their quilts to organizations and groups for fundraisers. They have one son, Chad, who works as a 911 dispatcher in Kalispell, Mont.
The conversion to digital files in 2003 is only one of the changes Schettler’s mapped. Another major change that’s currently happening is a switch to an environment where producers will be interacting with FSA electronically instead of going into a county office to fill out forms. It’s a change initiated by COVID-19.
“That is going to be a challenge for both farmer and county office, because the county offices have always been very producer oriented,” he explained. “The other thing that is a huge change is when I first started with the agency, probably 80% of the employees in the state had a tie directly back to the farm. Today, we don’t see that kind of tie back. It seems like more and more of the newer employees have little ag in their background. From that standpoint, it makes it more challenging for producers and employees to be able to talk to each other.”
Schettler says he misses working on a farm, but recognizes that it’s not an occupation for everyone, no matter how rewarding it can be. He still finds his work with FSA challenging and rewarding, even after three decades.
“When we build maps or layouts for display or to give out to producers, there’s somewhat of an artistic element you get to partake in, which I enjoy,” Schettler said. “The software and processes that we use in GIS are very analytical, and I’m a very analytical and numbers-based person. It fits my personality. Once I began as a GIS specialist, it filled that hole for me. I really enjoy what I do.”