Some farmers talk about conservation and some walk the walk. This year's Conservation Legacy Award regional winners do both. They not only epitomize what it takes to safeguard their soil, but they're also not bashful about telling others.
The four regional operations featured here have long histories of conservation compliance and have the numbers to back up how it's improved the productivity of their land and environment.
The final selections were made by a committee of conservation professionals.
All four regional winners and spouses or guests will receive all-expense-paid trips to the Commodity Classic in Austin, TX, on Feb. 24-26. The overall winner receives a plaque and yard sign in recognition of the award.
The Conservation Legacy Award program is sponsored by the American Soybean Association, Monsanto and The Corn And Soybean Digest.
Northeastern Region Bill and Elizabeth Miller Terre Haute, IN
You know you're all about conservation when you name your farm Conservation Acres. That's just what Bill Miller and wife Elizabeth did in the 1960s when they finished subsurface drainage and terracing on their 325 tillable acres at Terre Haute, IN.
Before instituting drainage practices, the farm yielded about 80-90 bu./acre corn and 30 bu./acre soybeans. Now, with the conservation practices set into place, he has increased yields two or three fold after correcting his drainage problems. He's now hitting 150-180 bu./acre corn and 40-65 bu./acre beans.
The Millers used minimum tillage practices on about 275 acres of their farmland until the mid-90s. Today, their farm is 100% no-till.
Miller says: “No-till maintains and conserves more of the soil's nutrients, while keeping the integrity of water quality by disturbing less soil and less water runoff from fields.”
Keeping well heads higher than surrounding land prevents any surface water, including pesticides or hazardous wastes, from penetrating into drinking water. Miller also keeps hazardous waste and chemicals in safe containers and disposes of all wastes according to federal guidelines.
Since the Millers' farm borders a 35-acre lake that's surrounded by more than 40 homes, he's especially sensitive to conservation issues. “The lake benefits from my conservation practices by controlling silt runoff,” he says.
By planting native grasses and food plots, the Millers' farm is a home to wildlife such as geese, deer, quail, coyotes and rabbits.
“Conservation preserves the land from depletion,” Miller says. “Each acre of farmland should be used for its topography and its suitable, intended use.”
Southern Region Joe and Miriam Derrick Johnston, SC
Joe Derrick is a living testament to keeping the farm in the family. He's the third generation of Derricks on the 90-year-old farm in Johnston, SC, and his son Christopher will likely be the fourth. Keeping land in better shape than you got it has special meaning to this family.
The Derricks raise soybeans, corn, cotton, peaches and small grains, plus they have a 165-head cow herd.
“Protecting the soil, water and air will be the future of my operation and other generations for years to come,” says Derrick.
More than 800 acres have now been turned into a strip-till program. “We started four years ago and I wasn't sold on the idea,” Derrick recalls. “Still, we bought a strip-till planter and now I'd say it's the best investment we've made.”
He says strip-till not only helps prevent soil loss, but it also saves time, fuel and provides crop protection from wind damage during the spring while young plants are growing.
Cover crops are also planted on cotton land after harvest to provide protection. He usually uses a chemical burndown in the spring before planting. He's also built terraces on about 80 acres of rolling land.
The Derricks grow 90 acres of peaches and regularly hire migrant workers, and pay special attention to keeping them and their environment safe. All workers dealing with pesticide and fertilizers are given a class on handling and safety, and the proper attire to wear during application.
“I give each worker a green card with their signature and mine stating that they've had instructions. A copy is then filed at Clemson University,” Derrick says.
To keep water safe, especially since he has several employees, well heads are protected by a 4 ft. square concrete slab and are enclosed in small houses to keep contaminants out.
Derrick is steeped in conservation and has been a member of the Edgefield County Soil Conservation District Board for 28 years. “We provide support with money and manpower, teaching students the importance of conservation,” he says.
“With only 1% of the population feeding the other 99%, we need to help educate everyone on the importance of conservation,” Derrick says. “We have a safe and dependable supply now; let's keep it that way.”
Western Region Kent and Valerie Romine Great Bend, KS
“Grain is for the farmer and residue is for the soil. That's the concept I've adopted for the last 17 years to improve soil quality and soil tilth on my operation,” says Kent Romine, Great Bend, KS.
Kent and his wife Valerie are committed to conservation. In fact, some of the acres they farm have been in the family for 100 years. However, 80% of their acres are rented. Of those, they've farmed 90% for 27 years. They grow 1,600 acres of corn and soybeans annually.
The Romine farm was one of the first in central Kansas to introduce ridge-till practices. And since converting the entire farm to ridge-till and no-till, they've been able to improve yields substantially. Now corn yields regularly hit 200 bu./acre irrigated, 100 bu./acre dryland. Soybeans produce 60 bu./acre irrigated and 35 bu./acre dryland.
By using ridge-till and no-till, Romine reports they've cut chemical usage by more than half over conventional tillage.
Terraces and waterways have been added to highly erodible land, plus they use contouring to safeguard the soil.
Protecting the water supply, especially in irrigated areas, is a top priority for Romine. That's why he stores and handles chemicals and fertilizers in a single location on the farm. Excess chemicals are kept locked in a supply shed. Petroleum products are kept in one location and he complies with all Environmental Protection Agency regulations.
Romine constantly preaches awareness of conservation needs and has even hosted numerous farm tours. He also works diligently with his Natural Resources Conservation Service to stay on the cutting edge of conservation.
For wildlife, Romine has a 15-acre walnut tree grove. Plus, he has a 5-acre pond next to the grove to catch runoff from neighboring fields. And he annually plants a food plot for wildlife.
When it comes to spreading the conservation word to his own family, Romine says, “I spend a lot of time with my sons teaching them stewardship concepts. Hopefully, I'm passing my beliefs on to them.”
Midwestern Region Alan Madison Walnut, IL
Talk conservation and you're talking Alan Madison's language. This Walnut, IL, grower dabbled in farming back in 1979 while employed at the Soil Conservation Service (SCS). By 1997 he took the plunge and started farming full time.
“I've been practicing conservation tillage ever since I began farming,” says Madison, who grows 2,600 acre of corn and soybeans. He started using no-till in 1981 and now the operation is 100% no-till and strip-till, except for just a few fields. He uses contouring on 240 acres and has seeded 21 acres of buffer strips.
While at SCS, he helped start the Conservation Tillage Club, which provided information to farmers on the benefits of no-till and how to make it work. For several years, his county led the state in the total number of acres using no-till.
Madison scouts all crops weekly and only applies pesticides for insect problems where there's a threshold level. He calibrates his sprayer at the beginning of the season and every time he changes nozzles.
He mixes all his pesticides in the field, away from wells used for water supplies. He's sealed several old wells to protect groundwater contamination and stores used oil in bulk tanks that are emptied by a recycling company.
On the wildlife front, Madison likes the idea of leaving residue over winter as cover and a food supply. He also leaves waterways unmowed until late July and only mows filter strips if weeds are present.
“It's important to preserve and conserve the topsoil that we make our living from,” says Madison, “especially since it takes more than 500 years to develop one inch of it.
“We're always evaluating new technologies and adopting those that improve our overall efficiency,” he says.