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Farmers win Leopold Conservation Award

Nov. 22, 2012 | 0 comments

The Leopold Conservation Award, a collaboration between the Sand County Foundation and Wisconsin Farm Bureau, recognizes farmers who embody the goals of land stewardship and a land ethic made famous by Aldo Leopold, for whom the award is named.

Last week, Jim and Valerie Hebbe, who farm in Green Lake County, were chosen as the award's third recipient in Wisconsin for their voluntary achievement in conservation.

The Hebbes were chosen from a group of four finalists and given the honor during the meeting of the board of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection in Madison Nov. 14.

Jim Hebbe said he was encouraged to apply for the competitive award by his Badgerland Farm Credit advisor, with whom he has a great relationship. "We have a great line of communication and I encourage every farmer to have that."

Hebbe said he is so honored to be chosen from among the finalists whose farming operations all have a special uniqueness.

After he graduated from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls he knew he wanted to farm, but at that time in 1983 the farm recession was in full swing so he got a job in his home county of Green Lake as a watershed technician.

Later farmers encouraged him to apply for the job of county conservationist and he has held that position ever since. Today he is the county's Land Conservation Director.

"One thing I've learned is that you have to have a conversation before you can have conservation," he said.

Hebbe said farmers have to live with the decisions that are made on their land and he hopes he can share with them that it just feels good to do good things for the land.

At the same time he was beginning his conservation career, he began renting land from his father and building his own farming operation. After a couple of years of conventional tillage and poor yields, Hebbe purchased a no-till drill in 1986 and was happy with the results.

He felt the no-till system helped him build organic matter and conserve moisture in his soils.

Today, he and his wife, along with daughter Ashley, operate 1,100 acres, growing corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa - all with no-till systems.


Through the years Hebbes have also implemented conservation projects to protect their soils from erosion and keep more vegetation covering their land.

One of these was a water and sediment basin they built to help reduce field runoff from a significant slope that drains into Snake Creek, the Class 1 trout stream that runs through the farm.

They planted native prairie grasses in a field that borders the creek and have planted 25 acres of evergreen trees as part of a Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) contract where their soil was light and sandy.

The Hebbes often hold field days to show others what they have learned about how conservation and agriculture can work together.

As the Green Lake County Conservationist for nearly 30 years, Hebbe helped enact an ordinance requiring environmentally sound manure storage structures. That ordinance set a statewide standard.

Valerie is a native or Peoria, IL but has learned about farming through her 15 years of marriage to Jim. "I'm a city girl, and I've never known anything other than no-till," she said.

She willingly helped plant the 10,000 trees on the farm and says the conservation practices that have been implemented have become so important for the farm to stay vibrant for the future.

Stan Temple, a board member with the Sand County Foundation, just retired from the University of Wisconsin-Madison position once held by Aldo Leopold himself.

He said the Leopold Conservation Award is designed to encourage scientifically sound environmental practices exemplified by the Hebbes and the two previous winners of the award.

It is based on Leopold's ideal that encouraging a land ethic is more effective than any other kind of program, Temple said.

Leopold spent the first half of his career in the U.S. Forest Service and witnessed the Dust Bowl and erosion problems first hand. "He realized that regulation wasn't the way to get private landowners to do the right things."


During the 1930s when government programs offered payments to get landowners, Leopold saw that even this failed to "create the moral compass" needed to instill a land ethic.

That sort of ethic means that farmers and landowners will do the right things regardless of regulations or government payments.

"This award is designed to recognize exemplars of that land ethic."

Wisconsin Farm Bureau President Bill Bruins said that about three years ago he was approached by the Sand County Foundation about the possibility of partnering on this award.

"The more I learned about it, the more I saw how it overlaid the things that are good that are happening in the Wisconsin landscape," Bruins said. "I took the proposal to my board and they unanimously approved it."

Aldo Leopold, said Bruins, was a preservationist in the early part of his career and later his conservation efforts were applied to working lands - farmland.

"I think this is a perfect partnership."

Other finalists this year included Justin and Lynn Isherwood, Plover; Steve and Patricia Kling, Taylor; and Mark Riechers, Darlington.

"The nominees, all of them, were very, very worthy of this award, said state agriculture Secretary Ben Brancel.

The Leopold Conservation Award is a competitive award that recognizes conservation practices and is awarded in a number of states in addition to Wisconsin.

In 2012 Sand County Foundation will also present Leopold Conservation Awards in California, Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.

It is the third year the two organizations have sponsored this award in Wisconsin. The first winner was Joe Bragger and last year's winner was John Koepke.

The winners of the award receive a Leopold crystal and a check for $10,000.

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