Donald Kavan isn’t about to stop advocating for the conservation of Nebraska’s natural resources, especially soil and water that make a farm economy possible.
But Kavan, 80, and still residing on his farm south of Morse Bluff, is ready to step off of the Lower Platte North Natural Resources District Board of Directors. He was first elected in 1972, making him the senior member on the board and one of the two longest serving NRD board members in the state.
Last week he wrote a letter to area newspapers, urging voters to support Nancy Meyer of Cedar Bluffs who has filed to run for the Sub-District 7 seat, representing an area that stretches from Bruno and Abie on the west to Leshara on the east. The filing deadline for incumbents is Thursday.
It’s time for some new leadership, he said, people with new ideas and new energy. While he’s in good health, he said, he didn’t want his age to become a hindrance.
“It’s just time to (step down) and you just as well do it when you are capable of doing it,” he said.
District General Manager Eric Gottschalk said Kavan's input will be missed.
“Don Kavan has been with our District from the very beginning and has always offered positive and forward-thinking direction to our board," Gottschalk said.
“Don’s knowledge of the NRD system and his direction regarding conservation efforts have been tremendous assets to our District since its inception.”
Assistant Mangager Tom Mountford agreed: "Don has displayed his dedication as a LPNNRD director during his 46 years of service by very rarely missing a board meeting or a committee meeting that he has been assigned to. Don has been a strong advocate that “It is the job of every elected official to attend regularly scheduled meetings to address important issues for the people they serve.”
Kavan said that as a young man he wanted to be an extension agent, but his father got him into farming. His career spanned the many developments of the 1950s through the 1970s. Along with the extra tillage of land came erosion. In the early 1970s the former conservation districts merged into larger NRDs with more taxpayer funding to focus on conservation of resources. Nebraska is the only state that has NRDs to concentrate on resources of land, rivers and streams.
“We need to thank the Legislature,” he said. “For giving us the taxing authority to exist where we could have some money and do some work,” he said.
Landowners and farmers are keenly aware of the Lower Platte North’s impact on their livelihoods, while many people drive by farm terraces and retaining dams without realizing how they stop erosion and flooding. People use recreation lakes without much thought of their flood prevention value.
Kavan, however, remembers floods of the early 1960s, when Sand Creek near his farm flooded from 11 inches of rain one August. “I drove down there and all we could see was the tassles on top of the corn,” he said. “We thought, we can’t allow this to keep happening. There is something we can do to slow this down.”
Now the district has seven flood retaining structures in place to slow down the runoff from hilly areas.
Progress has been steady over the decades, as the district’s number of partners has grown, from Extension and USDA to Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited. Then there’s the many farmers who are “cooperators.”
It’s all about soil.
“What do we do if we don’t have soil?” he said. “If we don’t have soil and water we don’t have anything.”
Some farmers and landowners resisted the district’s efforts over the years, he said, but attitudes are changing toward better conservation. Kavan said the district has to also consider the tax impact of its work.
“I think they are understanding the more conservative we get with our soil, the better,” he said. “We are holding the water back and that water is recharging the groundwater.”
Farming continues to see advances, as it must, to feed a growing world population, he said. Farms are larger and bigger equipment is changing the business.
“We have to contribute a lot of benefit to seed development and being able to do a no till planting process without doing any tearing of the soil and growing without weeds,” he said.
The recreation side of the flood prevention is also rewarding. Kavan and his wife Karan walk the trails at Czechland Recreation Area northwest of Prague.
“I just marvel when I get down into the valley,” he said. “That is why we did it. People needed a place to relax and camp and go fishing.”
Kavan said the district also has the role of helping its residents with water resources. One such project was the water line carrying David City’s treated groundwater to Bruno, built a decade ago.
Closer to home, the Kavans made sure they conserved the soil and water on their farm. They also have had a half-acre garden which helped to feed their blended family of 10 children from earlier marriages. The district has hosted field days at the garden to promote growing food.
Karan Kavan said the couple is downsizing the garden now, since the family members have their own gardens and getting together to handle the harvest is a challenge. While Donald spent many evenings off on district business, she also got interested in conservation and the success of the district. That was how they met, after all.
“That was kind of the first thing he shared, what he was growing. He was making dill pickles,” she said.