Dairy, grain farm from Waupaca wins Leopold Conservation Award

Jan Shepel

Madison — Brooks Farms of Waupaca County was honored last week with the Wisconsin Leopold Conservation Award for achievements in voluntary conservation and stewardship and management of natural resources. The announcement was made during the Nov. 17 meeting of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection board in Madison.
            The award is a collaboration of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau, Sand County Foundation, Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board and the Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association and seeks to recognize farmers for voluntary efforts to protect their land and water resources.
            The Waupaca-area farm is a combined dairy and grain operation with 1,600 acres owned by Ron Brooks and his daughters Zoey, Syndey, Alyssa and Kelsey.
Given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, the Leopold Conservation Award recognizes extraordinary achievement in voluntary conservation. It is intended to inspire other landowners through their example and provide a visible 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.”
            Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection said the announcement of the Leopold winner is an event that everyone looks forward to, adding that he’s pleased that the award’s sponsors choose “this location, this event and this site to announce the award each year.”
            Brancel said Aldo Leopold preferred a system of education, performance and protective ethos for agriculture rather than regulatory oversight.
            Kevin McAleese, president of the Sand County Foundation, said the award is a celebration of outstanding voluntary conservation achievements. The award is presented in 12 states and growing, he said; this is the eighth year the award has been given in Wisconsin.
            “Eighty years ago Aldo Leopold wrote about learning to live on a piece of land without spoiling it. Today we’ve gone far beyond that,” McAleese said.
            The Brooks family has been on their land for 160 years and Zoey – who went back to the farm after serving as the 67th Alice in Dairyland – is the sixth generation to manage the farming operation. The family has protected prairies and savannas, has used conservation tillage to protect the land and has a platinum-certified dairy, McAleese said.
Ron Brooks was named Conservation Farmer of the Year in 2012. He tipped his hat to the late DATCP Secretary Rod Nilsestuen who helped create a program of conservation easements for agricultural land called PACE (Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easements) and to current Secretary Ben Brancel for seeing the program through.
Brooks said that even Aldo Leopold knew there would never be total harmony with the land, just like there would never be absolute justice or liberty but the important thing is to continue to strive for all those things.
His daughter Zoey runs the farm, he said, and his other daughters who are not involved in the farm’s operation, also embrace the family’s long-held conservation ethic. “Character is defined as what you do when no one’s looking,” he said. “Conservation is like that.”
Zoey Brooks thanked the sponsors of the award for the honor but said farmers aren’t doing this to earn awards. “Conservation is important to farmers.”
The Brooks dairy is currently undergoing a significant expansion, from 250 cows to 650, with plans to expand more in the future. Their herd expansion will allow them to take advantage of economies of scale, giving them the ability to invest in manure separation and a wastewater treatment plant.
Depending on the year and weather conditions, 70-80% of their cropland is no-till. The cropland undergoes a 10-year crop rotation between oats, alfalfa, corn, soybeans and wheat. Throughout the 10-year rotation, the fields are only tilled twice with heavy consideration of slope and erosion potential. Earthworms thrive in their reduced tillage fields, indicating a healthy soil biosphere and creating channels to allow for the infiltration of water.
            Zoey Brooks noted that 1,200 acres of their land is permanently protected for agriculture through the PACE program. “For us, after having our family on this land for 162 years, its nice to have that guarantee that the land will be protected from any kind of development permanently into the future,” she said. “Conservation is at the forefront of everything we do.”
            Her dad, she said, always ingrained in her and her sisters that conservation is important. “Every generation is always trying to top what the earlier generation did,” she added.
“Brooks Farms is an excellent representative of the farms across Wisconsin that care for land and natural resources through proper conservation,” said Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation President Jim Holte. “The Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation is proud to recognize them for their outstanding conservation efforts.”
Though the award was announced last week, the official ceremony giving the Brooks family the Leopold Award will come Dec. 4 at the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation annual meeting. At that time the Brooks family will be presented with a crystal depicting Aldo Leopold and $10,000.
“Wisconsin’s dairy farmers are proud to have one of their own receiving this prestigious award – a symbol of the conservation work being done by farmers every day,” said Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications Patrick Geoghegan.
In fact, all three finalists for the award this year were dairy operations. The other two finalists were: Dan Brick, owner and manager of Brickstead Dairy in Greenleaf in Brown County for his many conservation efforts including riparian restoration; and Glen and Susan Wohlk who own and manage Rainbow Valley Farm in Almena. Practices they have put in place protect the headwaters of the Hay River in Barron County, including phosphorus trading.
The Leopold Conservation Award in Wisconsin is made possible through the financial support of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, Badgerland Financial, Alliant Energy Foundation, American Transmission Company, USDA NRCS and Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association.
The non-profit Sand County Foundation, which carries on Aldo Leopold’s legacy of conservation, presents Leopold Conservation Awards in California, Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Sand County Foundation President Kevin McAleese, left, congratulated farmers Ron Brooks and his daughter Zoey Brooks, after announcing they had won the Leopold Conservation Award for voluntary conservation efforts on their sixth-generation dairy and grain farm. The announcement of the award came at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection board meeting in Madison with department Secretary Ben Brancel, right.