McLeod County voters have numerous choices to make on their ballots this year, but one returning feature may leave some scratching their heads. After all, just what is a soil and water supervisor? The seats are a regular feature, but rarely include a contested race.

"It goes back to the dust bowls from the 1930s," said Mark Schnobrich, the incumbent supervisor of McLeod County Soil and Water District 5.

The Southern Plains and Midwest of the United States were stricken with drought, exacerbating the Great Depression and killing livestock, people and crops. The catastrophe highlighted the need for cooperation from the federal to local level to highlight and implement best farming practices and care for the land and soil. Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Soil Conservation Act of 1935, establishing the Soil Conservation Service within the United States Department of Agriculture.

"Each state then had water conservation districts," Schnobrich said. "Right now they kind of are divided by each county, and each political boundary of a county has a soil and water conservation district."

Technicians are trained in conservation work in each county, supervising best practices and connecting landowners to government programs that promote conservation practices in exchange for monetary incentives. Supervisors, who are elected in county races, act as representatives for residents of their district. Schnobrich's district includes the areas of Acoma Township, Hassan Valley Township and Hutchinson. He first joined the SWCD Board in 2008 after a career as a community forester in Hutchinson. He's been challenged this year by William Mose. Mose did not respond to an invitation to comment for this story.

"We assist the technicians in each one of these districts," Schnobrich said, "and participate as a citizen voice for how conservation should be implemented. ... If (landowners) have complaints, they have someone they can talk to directly who can help convey their concerns."

Supervisors review, monitor and provide input on conservation practices. As a board, supervisors offer guidance to technicians. Around the county, they address concerns and disputes regarding water runoff, soil loss, erosion and wind erosion.

"There is a big emphasis on voluntary," Schnobrich said. "We work with landowners on a voluntary basis. ... Once they get involved in state programs and federal programs, then it starts to get into they have to follow certain contractual agreements to be reimbursed for certain practices."

Through the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, board members advocate for improvements to conservation programs at the state Legislature. Lately, board members have worked on the statewide One Watershed, One Plan concept.

Districts are bound by county borders, and one doesn't have a say in what happens in another.

"But that's not how watersheds work," Schnobrich said. "Water runs where it wants to run. What happens here affects Sibley (County). It was thought to be too big a hurdle to work county to county. It took years to get that concept going. It's in process, but it's doing OK."

The SWCD has advocated for cover crops and connected landowners to funding sources for the practice, which aims to reduce soil compaction and erosion.

"We're seeing more and more of that," Schnobrich said. "Interceding parsley between bean rows for instance."

The local SWCD has also taken on a new role in recent years while sharing space and resources with McLeod County. While the county maintains control of county ditches, SWCD staff have taken on inspection.

"Our staff are out there anyways and know how the ditches are," Schnobrich said.