Faculty Spotlight: Leslie Johnson

Leslie Johnson
Meet Leslie Johnson, Nebraska Extension educator in the area of animal manure management.
September 13, 2021

About Leslie 

I grew up on a farrow-to-finish and row crop farm outside of Wakefield, Nebraska where my dad’s side of the family all lived within 3 miles of the “homeplace” except for one family that was more like 6 miles away. I think I had a typical childhood where all the cousins (and some neighbors) rode bikes and played together at grandma’s house most summers and weekends. Our family quit raising hogs shortly after I went to college and while I know it was for the good of the operation, I still sometimes wonder if it was because I wasn’t there to do the chores. I loved the animal part of the farm, so I was very sad to see the hogs go. Family farms, like any relationships, can have their challenges, but I loved working alongside my family, and I wouldn’t change my childhood for anything. It really was the best kind of childhood.  

Because of my love of animals, I went to the university to pursue a career as a veterinarian. I made it part way through before I realized I didn’t want to go to veterinary school and added a wildlife minor to hopefully add more options. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but I finished my animal science degree and moved back to Wayne, Nebraska where my husband’s family farms, started my job search and found the summer worker position at Haskell Ag Lab (HAL) that led me to where I am now.

What is your position at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln?

I am the Animal Manure Management Extension Educator. I have served in a very similar role for approximately the last 10 years but now have officially made the move to an Extension educator position. In this role, I have statewide responsibility for sharing manure information with ag producers across the state. The flagship program of this is the annual land application training events, but the potential for other programs is vast. In the past, I have hosted or co-hosted programs including a manure demonstration day, the North American Manure Expo and several smaller programs that have targeted specific audiences that may or may not use manure, but are in some way impacted by it. I manage the manure.unl.edu website that holds all kinds of manure-related information from Extension specialists, researchers and educators across the state and beyond. Additionally, I am on the leadership teams for both the Livestock and Poultry Environmental Learning Community, which is a national network of Extension folks focused on manure, and the Soil Health Nexus, a regional extension network on soil health. 

What drew you to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln?

I took a very unconventional journey to this position. As an undergraduate student in the 2000s and strong tie to the northeast part of the state, I graduated with a degree in animal science and no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I took a position as a summer worker at HAL in the soils department under Charles Shapiro. I didn’t have any agronomy knowledge, so I moved between programs at HAL a bit that first year. When the Animal Science Research Technologist position came open, I applied for that. After doing that for a couple years, the animal science specialists retired and I slowly moved back toward the agronomy department, becoming involved with Shapiro’s Extension work related to manure management. The manure team welcomed and mentored me, thus leading me to pursue a master’s degree in agronomy and a role in Nebraska Extension.

What aspect of working in an educational setting do you enjoy the most?

I love one-on-one learning. Sitting down with someone and working through a problem they’re having and then seeing the light switch flip on when they understand is so rewarding. I love to teach using hands-on methods. There’s so much that you can learn from people when they work though exercises on their own and it gives me an opportunity to let my creative juices flow.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

My kids and my marriage. I love teaching, but seeing my kids grow up and turn into productive members of society is awesome! And I like to think that they know they have parents that they can count on and look up to as they move out into the world in the next few years. Marriage is hard work, but I hope we’re showing our kids that it’s worth it.

What is something that most people don't know about you?

I would guess that most people don’t know that I grew up in a house that is only 4 miles as the crow flies from my current office at HAL. My standard joke is that “I didn’t make it very far in life”, but I couldn’t be happier to be as close to home and my family as I am. And while I am not a regular contributor to my original family farm, my family and I are still very close.

What is your life like outside of work?

My husband, Brian, and I live on his family farm where we raise two kids, Brett is 16 and Tyler is 12, as well as cattle, hay, corn, soybeans and a few ducks. I spend much of my spare time in the summer in the garden and flower beds. In the winter I enjoy sewing when I have time. I’m also very involved with my church, where I serve as a youth leader and council member, as well as a technology consultant, for lack of a better description.