Cates Family Farm, a grass-based beef farm in the driftless region of southwest Wisconsin has been honored with this year's Leopold Conservation Award.
Kim and Dick Cates, who operate the farm, were named as award winners at the Nov. 13 meeting of the policy board for the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, on which Dick Cates serves as vice chairman.
He is also known to many as the head of the University of Wisconsin's School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers on the Madison campus. Kim Cates is a former aide to Wisconsin Sen. Herb Kohl.
The Leopold Conservation Award is given by the Sand County Foundation and the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation to honor landowner achievement in voluntary stewardship and management of their land and natural resources.
The Sand County Foundation also offers similar programs with various partner organizations in other states based on the recognition that what happens on private lands also affects the general public.
Given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, who honed his conservation ethic in Wisconsin and the upper Midwest, the award recognizes extraordinary achievement in voluntary conservation.
"This award honors leaders who love the land and that really captures the heart and soul of the Cates family," said Wisconsin Agriculture Secretary Ben Brancel.
"We've worked with both Kim and Dick and they have a glorious enthusiasm for protecting the resources and they've shared that with others through all kinds of venues."
"This has meaning beyond words. We stand on the shoulders of giants," said Dick Cates. "My whole life I've been aware of and inspired to be part of agriculture in Wisconsin."
Dick's brothers John and Bob and sister-in-law Linda were also present for the ceremony, and all were overcome with emotion as their family farm was honored.
"This is the proudest moment of my agricultural career," Dick Cates said with deep emotion.
The farm, near Spring Green in Iowa County, includes 700 acres of managed grazing land and 200 acres of managed forests. Dick Cates said he was happy several of his brothers could be at the ceremony because they have all helped plant trees, cut trails and work on the farm over the years.
His brother, Bob Cates, is a physician in Brodhead and owns part of the land. John, an attorney, has helped with contracts for the farm. Another brother David is in Montana and a sister Chris lives in Kentucky. "They have all supported our efforts," said Dick Cates.
His parents lived in Madison when their children were young, Cates told Wisconsin State Farmer but their father bought this farm in Iowa County in 1967 so his children could experience what it was like to do hard work and play out in the country. Their father had been raised on a farm in Maine and came to Madison to earn a law degree.
Experience farm life
He wanted his four sons and daughter to experience farm life in addition to their suburban life in Madison.
Of all his siblings it was Dick who took to agriculture and stayed with the farm. He and his wife Kim at one time grazed 800 head of cattle on 700 acres of grass. These days they raise a couple hundred head of cattle each year for the grass-fed market.
Some of that production helps beginning farmers sell products through his value chain, he said. The meat from Angus and Jersey steers is marketed under the Cates Family Farm label to grocery stores, restaurants, cafeterias and households around southern Wisconsin and in the Chicago area.
Since 1987, the Cates have worked to make the family farm more environmentally sound and profitable. They adopted rotational grazing practices and created a managed grazing system that includes sub-divided paddock fencing and stream crossings for livestock.
They encouraged the revitalization of a native oak savannah and care for Lowery Creek, a trout stream that runs through the grazing acreage.
"I keep having to pinch myself," Cates said. "I'm just so overwhelmed by the entire experience and we feel there are so many wonderful family farm producers in Wisconsin who are equally deserving.
"We're proud to be able to carry the torch for so many others."
The Cates family is the fourth winner of the Leopold Conservation Award in Wisconsin. It's an honor that comes with a $10,000 prize and Cates said his family plans to use that money to help beginning farmers and conservation efforts as well as local school projects related to conservation and agriculture.
The Cates farm was nominated for the award by the Iowa County Land Conservation Department and Iowa County UW-Extension and Cates said none of their farm progress would have been possible without these partners.
"The Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation is pleased to sponsor this important award and to recognize Dick and Kim Cates as this year's recipients," said Jim Holte, Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation president.
"Cates Family Farm is an excellent representative of the farmers across Wisconsin who care for their land and natural resources through proper conservation."
The award is intended to inspire other landowners and provide a forum where farmers, ranchers and other private landowners are recognized as conservation leaders.
In his influential 1949 book, "A Sand County Almanac" Leopold called for an ethical relationship between people and the land they own and manage, which he called "an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity."
The Cates will officially receive the 2013 Leopold Conservation Award Dec. 8 at the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federationâ€™s annual meeting in Wisconsin Dells. The award includes a crystal depicting Aldo Leopold and the check for $10,000.
This year's other finalists for the award were Katie and Hans Breitenmoser Jr. of Merrill, Jack and Pat Herricks of Cashton and David and Angelita Heidel of Random Lake.
The Leopold Conservation Award in Wisconsin is made possible through support from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Alliant Energy Foundation, American Transmission Company (ATC), Rural Mutual Insurance Company, UW-Extension, We Energies Foundation, Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation and the Wisconsin Corn Growers Association.
For more information visit www.leopoldconservationaward.org.
In a video presentation before the Cates were named, last year's Wisconsin winner Jim Hebbe said "winning that award was like winning the Nobel Peace prize."
The Sand County Foundation, a private, non-profit conservation group, presents Leopold Conservation Awards in California, Colorado, Kentucky, Nebraska, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
The foundation works with private landowners because the majority of the nation's fish, wildlife, and natural resources are found on private lands.