Derek Welveart’s occasional childhood work detasseling corn, walking bean fields, and baling hay on the farmland around his hometown of Atkinson, in west central Henry County, was more about money in his pocket than a love of the land or a passion for agriculture.

But it nonetheless planted a seed.

Welveart died June 17 in the early weeks of a new job as one of 40 conservation planners assigned to Soil and Water Conservation Districts around the state to spread conservation information and assistance to farmers and landowners around the state. He was assigned to Jo Daviess County.

He spent several years of uninspiring work in a casino until the spread of COVID and the tribulations of the gig economy took their toll. But the Agroecology + Innovation Matters Initiative germinated that childhood seed and began to unleash a love of the land and passion for agriculture he didn’t even know he had.

“I could tell a difference the minute he started the process of interviewing for this job. He just seemed happier with the thought of starting something new and couldn’t wait to belong again,” said Amber Welveart, Derek’s wife. “He even started talking to some of my family members – my brother and cousin – that work in conservation. He was worried about going into a field that he wasn’t familiar with, but was eager to learn.

“He was excited to delve into it,” agreed Shelby Welveart, Derek’s mother – noting that he talked about the background he was gaining in new and old ideas about conservation.

“Conservation may not have been in his professional training,” said Dr. Michael Woods, Division Manager of the Illinois Department of Agriculture’s Division of Natural Resources and leader of the IDOA Capacity building initiative that hired Derek. “But it was in his heart, and you could see it in his passion for learning all things about the ecology of the agricultural industry.” 

Above all, Woods believes that Derek’s calling to conservation was, as Aldo Leopold stated, “rested upon a single premise: that the ‘individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts.’”

Derek appeared to be joining that community at the time of his passing.

“He talked about the other employees in the office, how they went to lunch often. He enjoyed working with them,” Amber said. “I believe that he finally felt like he belonged. His self-esteem was improving. He smiled more. Laughed more.”

As a Conservation Planner, Derek was a new soldier on the frontlines. But Woods said it was clear from his actions and in his voice that he was seeking to share a vision that “reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this, in turn, reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land. Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal.”

Story by Brian Williams — a freelance writer, consultant, and “Dot Connector” who contributes to AIM Illinois through his association with HNA Networks.

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