For many, Earth Day is just a day. For Wes and Leslie Burger, it’s much more—it’s a way of life.
Wes, a Kentucky native who grew up in southern Indiana, is Mississippi State’s associate director of the Forest and Wildlife Research Center and the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. Leslie, who grew up in Jeannette, Pennsylvania, is an assistant extension professor in the wildlife, fisheries and aquaculture department in the College of Forest Resources.
The couple, “birds of a feather,” both had a love of the outdoors and a passion for environmental stewardship when they met as biology majors at Murray State University in Kentucky.
After finishing their undergraduate programs, the couple moved to Columbia, Missouri, married, and earned master’s degrees at the University of Missouri. Wes studied prairie chickens of the Midwest while Leslie researched hawks in the Galapagos Islands and habitat fragmentation in midwestern forest and prairie systems. Wes then earned his Ph.D., while Leslie worked for the Missouri Department of Conservation as a research scientist and ecologist.
In 1993, Wes took a position as a quail ecologist at MSU just as the couple was expanding their own flock.
“We moved with two infant sons—one was two weeks, the other was 20 months—plus two dogs and a cat,” Wes remembered.
The family grew to include one more son, and while raising three boys, the Burgers taught them about farming, food and maintaining sustainable working landscapes. That intention led them to buy a 42-acre farm on the outskirts of Starkville, where they raise chickens, quail, and goats. They also have horses, dogs, a garden, forages, and forested land.
“We wanted the kids to grow up playing in a stream and building forts in the woods instead of skateboarding in the neighborhood,” Wes said. “Also, when you have animals that have to be fed and watered every day, there are consequences to not doing the job. Each of the kids had responsibilities growing up, which contributed to both a strong work ethic and connection to the land. As a result, they fully understand that food does not come wrapped in cellophane.”
A conservation camp the boys wanted to attend in 2007 led Leslie, who homeschooled all three boys, to her current career path in conservation education at MSU.
“The camp was kind of expensive for a single income family. With my biology background, I was able to volunteer in exchange for free tuition for the boys,” Leslie said.
She soon applied for an extension associate position while the boys were finishing up their high school education.
Now, Leslie’s emphasis is conservation education, which was the focus of the Ph.D. she earned in 2014. She teaches students, agricultural educators, teachers, and the general public about environmental stewardship.
“My passion is to find ways to better connect people with nature,” she said. “We want to catch kids when they’re young and teach them the connection between food and the land, while also showing them how fun it is to get off your phone and go outside.”
While Leslie concentrates her efforts on the people side of conservation, Wes focuses on conservation at the landscape level. He said his role now is helping scientists and educators—from wildlife, forestry, agriculture and beyond—be successful in research and education. Part of that, he pointed out, is finding ways to improve environmental stewardship in working landscapes.
“I’m interested in helping researchers find ways to improve managed landscapes in food, fiber, and fuel production in a manner that provides more and better environmental services,” Wes said. “We tend to think of row-crop fields as a box of sand that we can grow things in with enough inputs. The reality is that the agricultural field is part of an ecosystem and the non-crop components of that landscape provide essential environmental services that we all depend upon.”
“Much of my work has been developing, evaluating, and measuring the benefits of conservation practices in working lands, where Leslie’s work has been taking that technology and transferring it to people, so they can adopt some of these practices,” Wes said.
Leslie said the goal is for this education to translate into action.
“From an Earth Day standpoint, it’s one thing to change people’s head knowledge. It’s another thing to change the way they live, and as educators, we should be doing both,” she said. “We want to change their head knowledge, but it ought to have an impact on their lives. When it comes to environmental stewardship, everyone can do something.”