The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Texas employs a significant number of women who offer diversity and expertise to the agency. In honor of the 2023 Women’s Equality Day, NRCS Texas is highlighting several employees from across the state.
On August 26, 1920, after decades of hard-fought advocacy, the 19th Amendment to our Constitution was ratified, giving millions of women across the country the right to vote. “Women’s Equality Day,” which has been celebrated annually since 1973, commemorates the adoption of the 19th Amendment and also calls attention to women’s continuing efforts toward full equality.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Texas employs a significant number of women who offer diversity and expertise to the agency. In honor of the 2023 Women’s Equality Day, NRCS Texas is highlighting several employees from across the state who are bringing such expertise to the NRCS Texas ranks.
By Elizabeth Chilson, Zone 5 Federal Women’s Program (FWP) representative
Although she didn’t grow up on the ranch, NRCS Texas Soil Conservationist Daphne Kast said she was out at her family’s two cattle ranches in Gillespie County, Texas, every chance she got.
Kast spent years helping her father run cattle and take care of the land and saw the importance of conservation and how the proper utilization of resources can affect an operation.
Because of her lifelong love for agriculture, Kast knew a career in the conservation field of work was a must, and that NRCS would be a good fit. She attended Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, and earned a degree in Rangeland Ecology and Management. While in college, she gained conservation experience while serving as a Pathways Intern at the NRCS field office in Bryan, Texas, right near the A&M campus.
Upon graduation, Kast started her full-time career with NRCS. For just over a year now, Kast has been serving as a soil conservationist out of the Graham Field Office. Most often, she can be found working with local agricultural producers on conservation practices such as range planting, prescribed grazing, brush control, pasture and hay planting, and cross fencing.
She said she enjoys learning how different ranchers run their operations based on their personal goals and making sure customers feel their voice is heard. And she wants future generations to have careers in conservation.
She offered advice for those who are starting their conservation career journeys.
“Don’t be so worried about making mistakes that you are afraid to try anything new,” Kast said. “Always ask questions if you are unsure – that’s how you learn.”
Outside of NRCS, Kast enjoys woodworking, cooking, playing guitar, and spending time with friends and family.
By Anita “Brooke” McCalip, NRCS Texas Zone 4 FWP representative
Soil Conservationist Brittany Neal works out of the USDA NRCS Texas Lufkin Field Office in Angelina County, Texas. She has worked with the USDA since October of 2018, but has been dedicated to agriculture since 2009 when she started showing market lambs and halter heifers for FFA in high school.
Neal had her first encounter with NRCS as part of the National Land Judging and Homesite Evaluation team. She said that is when she first knew that she wanted a career that included taking care of the land.
She grew up in Grapeland, Texas, and attended Sam Houston State University where she obtained a bachelor’s degree in plant and soil science and a master’s degree in agriculture. She currently lives in Chester where her husband, Tanner Neal, is from. They moved to Chester to help run the family farm where they cut hay, work their 130 head of cattle, and raise their two children Amelia and TW.
Raised by a single mother in a small town, Neal is no stranger to hard work and has always dedicated her days to achieving the goals she has for her family as well as going above and beyond at her full-time career with NRCS. Her days start well before the sun rises and end well after the sun sets. Even though her days are long, hard, and extremely hot around this time of year, she manages to not only keep her faith, but live it and show it through her love for her family and dedication to her career.
Neal has always loved taking care of the land, and as her mother always told her, “They are making more babies, but not more land.” She took this statement to heart and has made it her passion in life to work with small farmers and ranchers to preserve the farmland that is diminishing with industrial and urban development. In her words, “Small farmers and ranchers are still the backbone of the country, so taking care of the land that takes care of us is vital.”
Her advice for anyone wanting to pursue a career with NRCS, or run their own cattle farm, or even both at the same time like she does is: “Do your research.”
“Take small steps, a leap of faith, then pray!” she said.
Neal said nothing beats seeing the cows she’s raised eat cubes out of her small child’s hands. She said she thoroughly enjoys her career with NRCS and has a job she loves that gives her the flexibility to raise her children while working directly with landowners to give technical advice or funds to allow them to reach their management goals.
Anyone thinking of applying for a position with NRCS in Angelina County should have a conversation with Neal. She will treat them the same way she treats her customers and landowners – with respect. Her life and career goals align directly with the agency's in “helping people help the land.”
By Kenyatta Scott, NRCS Texas FWP Special Emphasis Program Manager
After retiring from the Navy following 20 years of honorable service, Nadine Shock began her career with USDA NRCS Texas in 2010 as an administrative assistant in the state office.
During her 13 years of government service, Shock has been promoted to multiple administrative positions within the agency. Her assignments included administrative assistant to the state soil scientist, state resource conservationist, state conservationist, and as a program Zone 5 support specialist.
Currently, Shock is the executive assistant to the state conservationist, where she also assists principal staff and executive leadership.
In addition to her extensive duties supporting for the most senior person within NRCS Texas, Shock serves as the Central Region’s State Wellness Champion, working with the wellness core team to build a comprehensive and sustainable worksite health and wellness program for all NRCS employees. Shock assisted the wellness core team with creating numerous “grassroots” tactics to improve employee participation in the wellness program. She further promoted a culture of wellness, and health outcomes to accelerate employee adoption of the wellness program.
Shock initiated and facilitated daily mental and physical health breaks during the month-long wellness program kickoff and spearheaded state-wide awareness education and training sessions. She also planned and led physical activity sessions for state staff.
Although born in Oakland, Calif., Shock was raised in Franklin, La. She is proud of her southern roots and firmly believes the southern values instilled in her growing up were instrumental with helping her provide great customer service to NRCS employees and customers.
Her military career also helped shape the person she is today. Being in the military instilled in her the desire to complete all assigned tasks, and she believes there are a few key ingredients that ensure success: Using available resources, practicing teamwork, and having a good work ethic.
Shock attributes this combination of ingredients to ensuring agency employees successfully complete the NRCS mission of “helping people help the land.”
Finally, Shock shared her motto, which she holds true to this day: “Treat folks like they are your family,” she said. And, since she’s been married for 31 years and has five children and two grandchildren, Shock knows a thing or two about families.
Outside of work, Shock enjoys spending time with her family, thrift shopping, going to estate sales and traveling to new destinations.
By Cassandra Osborne, Zone 1 FWP representative
Melaina Wientjes started her career with USDA NRCS Texas in February 2023 after her completion of several summer internships with the Student Career Experience Program (SCEP) in Colorado and the Texas Pathways Program.
She grew up on a ranch in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, and saw first-hand how NRCS assisted landowners through her grandparents’ partnership with the agency.
"I always knew I wanted a career with the NRCS,” Wientjes said. “It’s what I wanted to do, work in agriculture and help people just like my family, with their goals in conservation.”
She said she’s inspired when helping agriculture producers become better land stewards.
Wientjes has attended numerous conservation trainings and seminars. During an event, she heard that having a passion for this career will take you places. She has just that – a passion for agriculture and for “helping people help the land.”
Wientjes said her greatest accomplishment is her six-year-old daughter, Quay. Through any obstacles, Wientjes managed to raise a beautiful, strong-willed daughter while completing her degree and beginning her career.
Wientjes said she greatly appreciates her coworkers and the relationships she has formed through her work. Taking pieces from many individuals with years of experiences and great perspectives has helped shape her own ideas and goals.
“Without my parents support, I wouldn’t have been able to have the opportunities I’ve had that lead me to my career with the NRCS,” said Wientjes.