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Laverne Hensen considers himself the luckiest person in the world because he was born and raised on a farm. 

"Unless you're born and raised on a farm, you can't really comprehend Mother Nature like we can," said Hensen, of Waunakee. 

After getting married and working in construction much of his life, he "kind of realized in the last years that I wanted to go back to my true love." 

In 1995 he bought his first farm of 320 acres that had about 100 acres covered with black walnuts and white fir, part of a Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) started by a couple from Chicago. About 1,400 acres and 100,000 trees later, Hensen is one of three finalists for the Leopold Conservation Award in Wisconsin. 

Sand County Foundation presents the Leopold Conservation Award to private landowners in 14 states for extraordinary achievement in voluntary conservation.

“The three Leopold Conservation Award finalists exemplify that conservation stewardship is as profitable as it is responsible for all kinds of agriculture, whether cash crops, dairy, or forestry,” said Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association Executive Director Matt Krueger, in a press release. “These farmers consider the various environmental conditions unique to their area, knowing that their investment in the health of their land and water is an investment in the sustainability of their operation for years to come.”

Like any farmer, Hensen realizes the importance of land conservation and improving the value of the land. 

Taking the 320 acre farm, Hensen rolled the 130 acres in the CRP program into forestry, "so there were no penalties or anything like that," and started clearing land to plant about 100,000 trees in 1996.

"In '96, I didn't have the equipment to really know what I was going to end up doing," Hensen explained. " Once I got my hands in the dirt with the trees and clearing the land, I just couldn't quit." 

Planting white fir, black walnut and red oak, 33,000 of each, 90 percent of the black walnut has grown, and about 50 percent of the red oak. The white firs were planted for a windbreak with about a 70-75 percent success rate. 

Once the trees were planted, Hensen sprayed between the rows of trees to kill weeds. There was pruning in the beginning, but black walnut trees are "kind of a self pruner as they grow," losing bottom limbs, explained Hensen. Black walnut also stands a better chance against deer since deer "love red oaks more than they love black walnut, so that's what takes a toll on the red oak — deer." 

"The black walnuts — I have trees out there that are 35 to 40 feet tall," Hensen said. 

About 480 - 490 acres are wooded of the 1,400 acres Hensen owns, with about 800 in corn and beans. 

It took Hansen eight to 10 years to put together the farmland the way it is now. 

"One farm really needed a lot of work, so we took out all the fences and recontoured everything, regraded, set in two roads on that 300 acre farm and ran grass waterways off of that," Hensen said.

More than 30 grass waterways were installed for that project. While some of the work Hensen has done on the farm involved cost sharing through government programs, the waterways did not, but were something he "had to do to make that farm produce right." 

"There is always some kind of program where you can get some kind of revenue from it," said Hensen. 

When he rolled the wooded land in the CRP program to forestry, "it was cost share at 50 percent, so if you spent $10,000 you'd get $5,000 back," Hensen explained. 

Hensen also created a 2.5 acre pond for a wildlife habitat.

"The wildlife is part of what I do," said Hensen. "Our land is one of the biggest hunting areas in Wisconsin."

With all the farmers in the state who are good stewards of the land, Hensen said, "To me it's a huge honor just to be selected as one of the (Leopold Conservation Award) finalists."

This year’s recipient will be revealed at the Nov. 15 meeting of the Board of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection in Madison. The award will be presented Dec. 2 at the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation’s Annual Meeting in Wisconsin Dells.

For more information on the Sand County Foundation and the Leopold Conservation Award visit https://sandcountyfoundation.org/.

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