Thirty years ago, a contractor at USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center hired a man who could speak French—in a strong Quebec accent—to introduce people in West Africa to remote sensing techniques and software.
Jim Rowland Is Retiring from USGS EROS, But His Workplace Stretched to Africa
He Spent Much of 3 Decades Training and Guiding FEWS NET Countries
He had a master’s degree in geography and a strong interest in travel. He had lived in Philadelphia, Cincinnati and New Orleans in the United States and Ottawa, Quebec City and Montreal in Canada, taken lengthy trips to Europe and hitchhiked across the Sahara Desert on a trek that would be inconceivable now.
On paper, Jim Rowland was perhaps not a candidate likely to stay long in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, a city that in 1992 lacked diversity, “a good croissant” and “a good Eastern European sausage.” With a pattern of moving every seven years or so, Rowland himself certainly didn’t expect to spend decades there.
But the work kept him at USGS EROS. It evolved through time; he retired as principal investigator at USGS EROS for the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET). The work continually focused on people’s well-being and survival. It also allowed him—paid him—to keep traveling internationally. The COVID-19 pandemic turned trainings and meetings into virtual events, but since July 2022, even with retirement ahead, Rowland partly made up for that with three trips abroad.
November 30 was Rowland’s official retirement date. But people may still see him at USGS EROS now and then —only on a nice day, of course—because he will continue to work less than half time for a while. Longtime colleague and friend Mike Budde, who will assume Rowland’s duties temporarily until a replacement is hired, is grateful for the help, and no doubt for the chance to keep working with his friend.
Budde and several other colleagues were happy to reminisce about their experiences with Rowland in honor of his retirement, and Rowland reflected about the career and relationships he forged at the USGS.
‘Real Money, Real Job, Involved Travel … Sure, I’ll Come’
Rowland had worked at jobs before—farms, orchards, fast food—but not yet a career when he earned his master’s degree and then took coursework for a Ph.D. in atmospheric sciences at McGill University in Montreal. At that point, in 1992, when he was in his early 40s, a friend from McGill who had started working at USGS EROS told Rowland about a job opening for a scientist in the International Program that required someone who could speak French.
The position, in a USGS EROS project with the AGRHYMET (Agriculture, Hydrology and Meteorology) Center, supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), involved traveling to countries in the Sahel region of West Africa to hold two-week workshops in French, training people to use satellite remote sensing technology to monitor the condition of crops and rangelands.
“Real money, real job, involved travel, involved geography, remote sensing-related, satellite images. That was real exciting. I said, yes, sure, I’ll come. So I moved to Sioux Falls,” Rowland said.
He started traveling right away, on trips that could take up to six weeks if they involved a couple of countries. They usually also involved time at the AGHRYMET Regional Center in Niamey, Niger.
Rowland’s first trip from Africa back to Sioux Falls emphasized the contrast between his new home and the larger cities of his past. “I remember flying into Sioux Falls and saying, ‘We can’t be landing. There are no lights.’ We’re descending, and there are no lights, then finally there would be a few lights.”
Gray Tappan had started working in the International Program before Rowland, with a focus on West Africa, and tested Rowland’s French skills before he was offered the job. “He was really good in French, but very strong Quebec French,” Tappan said, likening the difference in accent to American and British English. “So we always made fun of his Quebec French, and his African colleagues said, ‘Wow, where are you from?’”
In his quiet way, Rowland proved to Tappan and others his excellence as a scientist, so after several years, a new opportunity came up. USAID needed someone to run a project in French-speaking Madagascar that looked at land use and land change around protected areas like national parks, especially monitoring forests and fires. Rowland lived in the capital, Antananarivo, for a year.
“Being in Madagascar was really intriguing,” Rowland said, mentioning the unique species that make up the vast majority of flora and fauna there. “I wish I had traveled more. That’s an amazing country. … It’s not the tourist destination it could be, but if you lived there, you found out where to go. They have beautiful places to go.”
Tappan said Rowland had a position of great responsibility and called him a “one-man office.” “He represented USGS EROS well. He knew what USGS EROS could offer in terms of technology and training.”
Joining the FEWS NET Mission
A couple of years or so after that, Rowland started working on a project within the USGS EROS International Program that would remain his focus for the rest of his career. USAID’s FEWS NET expanded his scope in Africa beyond the west and added other countries throughout the world facing food insecurity because of issues like drought, flooding and conflict.
FEWS NET has evolved since Rowland started working on it. Rowland initially monitored vegetation with large-area remote sensing in food-insecure countries with his colleagues to provide predictive data that helped USAID determine how to plan for humanitarian crises and distributed aid to prevent an event like the 1980s famine in Ethiopia. They used a lot of Telex, FidoNet and DHL to send information to the Sahelian countries.
“USAID had asked us to support them with local people that are close by in the region rather than expats in the region or staff way back here in the U.S. We found some really good people. I think it’s amazing to know that none of them have left,” Rowland said of people who started in the early 2000s. At least 20 countries monitored by FEWS NET now have their own offices.
Working with colleagues in Africa has been one of Rowland’s favorite parts of international work. “They’re so smart. They know their stuff. They know their region,” he said.
Developments Amid Droughts
Rowland served as a FEWS NET leader on the contract side of USGS EROS before switching to the federal government side in 2010. He took over as the FEWS NET principal investigator five years ago. Through the years, FEWS NET has developed drought-monitoring tools and products beyond the vegetation index (NDVI), which, like many of the tools, considers the anomalies rather than simply an amount: How does this greenness compare to last year, or to the short- or long-term average?
Those developments include rainfall estimates, developed in partnership with the University of California Santa Barbara, and evapotranspiration (ET) modeling, developed by fellow USGS EROS scientist Gabriel Senay to reveal how much water is lost to evaporation and transpiration and to serve as a crop biomass indicator. Online tools provide food security analysts with visualizations of these estimates and measurements, as well as the status of livestock water points throughout the region. “We know they use them because if it ever breaks, we hear right away, ‘Something’s not working,’” Rowland said.
Rowland added, with a hint of pride, that FEWS provides “evidence-based, independent information” that’s highly respected. “I think this project has made a big difference. USAID tells us how much money they save by funding FEWS because it gives them early warning. Every time we have a meeting, they very sincerely express how much they rely upon FEWS data.”
The need for this information only increases as the gap grows each year between the appeals for humanitarian assistance and the $6 billion or so in aid available.
Rowland’s retirement comes amid the worst drought in parts of East Africa in recent memory. Four failed growing seasons in a row have led to crop and livestock losses, water shortages and rising food prices. FEWS NET’s extended outlooks point to two additional poor growing seasons, the current season through the end of 2022 and the upcoming season in March to May 2023.
“I feel for the people” in crisis-stricken FEWS NET countries, Rowland said. “There’s a perception that most food insecurity is from conflict rather than natural disasters or drought. Drought is the big killer. Floods disrupt things, but they don’t affect food insecurity near as much as droughts do. And this ongoing drought now … it’s really bad."
But the conflicts trouble Rowland, too. “That’s human-induced. We can’t do much about that.”
Blossoming Into a Leader
Budde, who will temporarily take Rowland’s FEWS duties, credits Rowland with helping shape a new career that led Budde to USGS EROS. Budde had worked at jobs including TV journalism and served Rowland and his former USGS EROS colleague Brad Reed when they frequented Minervas Restaurant in Sioux Falls.
“I would pick their brains a little bit on geography. … I was always intrigued by Jim talking about his international travels, so it was really some influence on my going back to school and getting a master’s degree in geography,” Budde said.
Budde started at USGS EROS as an intern for Reed in 1997, but a couple of years later, he began working with FEWS NET. Budde estimated that he and Rowland have traveled together three or four times a year, internationally and domestically, for more than 20 years since then.
“I owe him a lot,” Budde said of Rowland. “I started without really any international experience. … We interact with a lot of different agencies and groups, so early on, it was doing a lot of training workshops. Oftentimes, we would train in West Africa, for instance. Luckily, I always had Jim to speak French. I don’t speak any French. I can order breakfast.”
He also praised Rowland’s leadership at EROS. “His involvement with FEWS is huge. It’s been one of the largest science projects at the center for several years. He took over managing it from Jim Verdin and has done a great job.”
Tappan finds fascinating Rowland’s transition from a quiet, shy scientist at the beginning, “working in his little cubbyhole” and happy to let Tappan take the lead in conversations on trips to Africa, to someone seeking out a managerial role.
“I couldn’t believe it. He would stand up to differences of opinion. He would stand up to some of the senior people in science, particularly in the international group. It was really an interesting change to see that. He blossomed,” said Tappan, who ended up under Rowland’s supervision while they were both contractors.
'A Science Enabler’
Jess Brown has been at USGS EROS slightly longer than Rowland, and while she hasn’t worked directly on a project with him, their interests have intersected in the use of frequent, coarse resolution data from AVHRR, MODIS and VIIRS. Brown came up with a description of Rowland’s leadership style: “a science enabler.”
As a manager of a complex program that involves multiple agencies, countries and other partners, Rowland has had plenty of administrative work—“the non-fun side of it,” as Brown put it. “I always felt like Jim has helped people get that part of it done, and he takes care of checking the boxes so that exciting stuff can get done, like Gabriel Senay’s (evapotranspiration) work.”
Senay agreed. “He has helped me navigate through project budgets and contractor task order-related activities. He did not have to do this but was kind enough to help me.”
Brown added that Rowland’s steady-hand strategy—“no nonsense, stick to what’s necessary, apply common sense to solving problems”—seems to have worked well for FEWS NET. “They take on new things all the time, so they also are inventive and have a great reputation all across science in the user community.”
Jim Verdin started at USGS EROS the same year as Rowland as the deputy manager of the International Program, headed FEWS NET at USGS EROS and now works at USAID. Verdin valued Rowland’s skills in their international work.
“He’s got a real good manner and skill working with teams that are composed of people from different countries, different cultures, different backgrounds. Despite those initial superficial differences, he really can establish a rapport and get good work done as a consequence—teamwork and building teams,” Verdin said.
‘I Still Don’t Believe I’m Retiring’
When someone has spent so much time traveling for work, does travel sound as appealing for retirement? In Rowland’s case, he’ll cut back on the foreign travel. He does have some U.S. destinations in mind, though, that appeal to him with a mix of interesting geography, culture and, of course, breweries. Vermont and Maine are high on his list. Both coasts. The hill country of Austin, Texas. Florida, too, to visit a friend. “Florida sounds weird because it’s just full of retired people, right?” Rowland said.
“I still don’t believe I’m retiring. It’s not, what am I going to do? I know I have plenty to do, both work and outside of work. It’s just like, that kind of means you’re old when you retire,” he said.
Rowland’s not an angler or golfer, so he won’t be taking up those hobbies, but he would like to bicycle more. “I tell people I’m going to take up yoga, but we’ll see if that comes through. I did it in a past life.”
Of course, Rowland also will continue meeting old colleagues, too—friendships that started at USGS EROS but remain long after the titles and paychecks end.
“I think his ‘friend family’ is important to him. I’m glad to be part of that,” Brown said.
Tappan agreed. “He’s a great friend as well as a colleague. … The friendship has always been first and foremost.”
Of Course, There Are Travel Stories
Here is a sampling of the tales Rowland and his colleagues could tell about his time abroad.
- The trip around the world: In 2017, Rowland and Budde held a training workshop for the Afghanistan FEWS NET office staff in the more neutral location of Kathmandu, Nepal. They flew from Sioux Falls east to Kathmandu, with several stops in between. Leaving Nepal, they flew east and spent the night in Seoul, South Korea—“really impressed me,” Rowland said—before stopping in Detroit and returning to Sioux Falls. “Something I never thought I’d get to do is fly around the world.”
- Aerial photography stint: Rowland sometimes traveled to Africa to support Tappan in his projects, and one trip involved Rowland taking aerial photographs in a four-seat airplane at low altitude over specific areas of Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali. “That was a great experience, seeing all the countryside at that altitude,” Rowland said. He remembers a door sometimes being removed to get a better downward angle and also the turbulence that would result about midday from air near the ground warming up and rising. At that point, they would usually land. But the part of the trip Rowland found most nerve-wracking was carrying around a bag full of cash, exchanged at the U.S. Embassy in Niamey, Niger, to pay for the chartered flights. “I was always freaking out—how do I not lose this? How do I keep it from getting stolen? … I’d go to a restaurant, and I’d sit on it or put it by my feet,” he said.
- Road trip: During Rowland and Tappan’s many trips to West Africa for workshops or conferences, they had a few favorites among capital cities and hotels, Tappan said—“We’d both have a beautiful terrace overlooking the Niger River and enjoy beer and steak on skewers.” Once, rather than flying from country to country, they took a daylong road trip from Niger into Burkina Faso. “That was a lot of fun—the variety, to deal with the border crossing, visas, the landscapes, stopping for places to eat. It was pretty easy in those days,” Tappan said. He also admired Rowland’s pre-USGS EROS accomplishment of crossing the Sahara Desert, a hitchhike trek that took him from the Mediterranean Coast in Algeria through Niger and down to the Atlantic Ocean, something Tappan has done only partway. “We could only dream of that. Now it’s not possible because security is not good enough,” Tappan said.
- Bringing the power: Verdin recalled a road trip that took him and Rowland around rural Senegal for several weeks, training people at the agricultural research stations on GIS. Then a training was planned next door in Guinea Bissau, at the weather service offices in the capital, Bissau. To get the computers ready for the start of training on a Monday, they planned to go into the offices on Sunday. However, the pair discovered that the power plant routinely turned off power to the whole city on Sundays. “Somebody tracked down the people who ran the power station, and they turned it on for us,” Verdin said. “So everybody in town got electricity that day, thanks to us.”
- Disruptions in Haiti: Budde remembered disruptions during two different training sessions he and Rowland conducted for FEWS NET in Haiti—one because of protests in the streets, and the other because of a looming hurricane, when their options were to leave that day or plan to stay for more than a week longer. “Most of our travel is much smoother than that,” Budde said.
- Along for the ride in Ethiopia: Senay is originally from Ethiopia, so Rowland really enjoyed a rare chance to travel with him there. “He knows where to go and how to get around and all that,” Rowland said. “We went and saw the shoulder dance (eskista), which is popular there.” Senay remembered Rowland’s reaction to him eating a breakfast dish, firfir. Rowland ordinarily loves Ethiopian food, but the dish that tops the traditional injera bread with more injera “was just too much.” Senay recalled him comparing it to “eating burger with another burger.”
- The coast of Kenya: In 30 years of traveling to Africa, Rowland had never been to Kenya’s coast on the Indian Ocean until he visited there with Budde for a meeting this fall—for their first in-person trip back to Africa since the COVID-19 pandemic began. There, Rowland broke the news to the African regional scientists about his retirement. “I’ve worked with these people for years, so I did want to give them some advance notice,” Rowland said. Budde said, “For one of his last international trips on work, I think it was a good one. It was great to reconnect in a nice setting along the beach.” One thing Rowland won’t miss is the long travel time back and forth—this time, 36 hours for the return trip from Kenya. “I used to like that, but I don’t like it anymore,” he said.