Chilton farmer wins Leopold Conservation Award

Jan Shepel
David Geiser (center) is shown at his Calumet County dairy farm with wife, Deb Reinhart, and son, Joshua.

MADISON - For the 11th year, a Wisconsin farmer has been singled out for utilizing conservation practices and a land ethic that fit with those established by one of the state’s revered conservationists — Aldo Leopold.

Chilton area dairy farmer David Geiser has been selected as the recipient of the 2018 Wisconsin Leopold Conservation Award. The announcement of Geiser’s honor was made at the November meeting of the citizen policy board of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP).

The award will officially be presented next month at the Wisconsin Farm Bureau annual meeting. At that time he will be presented with a $10,000 award and a crystal depicting Aldo Leopold.

The Sand County Foundation created the Leopold Conservation Award to recognize exceptional farmers, ranchers and foresters and inspire others. The prestigious award, named in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, is given in 14 states. During the ceremony at DATCP, Sand County officials said that they are working with organizations in Montana and Pennsylvania to get the award program started there next year.

They are also forging relationships in New York and New England that will likely lead to the award program being offered there.

In Wisconsin, the monetary award is presented annually by Sand County Foundation, Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, and Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association.

The selection of David Geiser of Gold Star Dairy in Calumet County, as winner of the Leopold Conservation Award was announced at the Nov. 15 meeting of the state board of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. He is pictured with his wife Deb Reinhart, left, a partner in the farm. Secretary Sheila Harsdorf marked the announcement with a proclamation from the governor's office recognizing the achievement.

In presenting a citation from the governor’s office to the Calumet County farmer marking the honor, Secretary Sheila Harsdorf said that there are many times farmers get noticed for creating an environmental calamity or some kind of pollution and that’s a reason why this award is so important – it shows the public that farmers are good stewards.

“It highlights farmers who are proactive in taking care of our land and water,” she said. “David has led by great example as a student and as a teacher, researching best practices and then taking them one step further and sharing that knowledge with others.”

While the award is being given to Geiser, the Secretary said she knows their farming operation is a true partnership and called on his wife Deb Reinhart to share in the presentation. Both of them share their knowledge with others. Harsdorf said that as a farmer who had been part of the selection process for this award she knows “it is very competitive.”

Leaving more than you take

“I am so honored to be associated with such an award,” Geiser said. “I’ve always believed that you should leave more than you take.”

Geiser and Reinhart are owners of Gold Star Dairy in New Holstein, a 450-cow farm near Chilton between Lake Winnebago and Lake Michigan. His family has been farming the karst topography and glacial soils of the region for more than 100 years.

Sue Schultz, a personal friend of the couple (and a former dairy farmer) nominated Geiser for the award. “I looked at the quality of the past winners and I just thought that David emulates what they have done and what Aldo Leopold stood for,” she told Wisconsin State Farmer.

Geiser recalled the evolution of his family’s farm. “My grandfather built the stone fences and Dad took them out. I’m a no-till and cover crop farmer.” Because their business is dairy, he focuses on forages, including corn for silage. He carefully farms the land that is “stone and ground-up rock” thanks to its glacial moraine soils.

The selection of David Geiser of Gold Star Dairy in Calumet County, as winner of the Leopold Conservation Award was announced at the Nov. 15 meeting of the state board of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. He is pictured with his wife Deb Reinhart, left, a partner in the farm.

Their farm comprises 300 acres but succeeds in supporting the larger dairy herd with the help of working relationships with neighbors who have partnerships with Geiser to grow forages for the Gold Star cattle.

Geiser said his great-grandfather came over from Germany and his grandfather began investing in land that included cedar swamps from which to take cedar lumber that kept lime kilns operating. His grandfather bought the farm in 1912 and began milking cows on the farm where Geiser is now operating. His Dad took over the farm in 1939 when he married Geiser’s mother, who still milked cows by hand.

Geiser says he was not always destined for the farm. He left in 1970 and joined the Air Force, but got married and came back to the farm in 1975 when it included an 80-cow herd. His Dad and younger brother needed his help. “I definitely fell in love with it,” he told Wisconsin State Farmer last week.

As he made changes to the farm, the dairy facilities evolved to a walk-through parlor and then a pit parlor which allowed the herd to continue to grow. His second son Joshua is involved on the farm today, taking the greatest interest in the engineering aspects of farm operation, says his dad.

Today the farm also has two non-family partners —– a herdsman who has been there for over 17 years and a Lakeshore Tech graduate who is passionate about dairy, Geiser related.

When he took over the farm Geiser put emphasis on conservation practices from the start. When he installed a Natural Resources Conservation Service-approved manure storage facility in the 1980s it was a huge undertaking, but was the right thing to do. He established a successful rotational grazing system for his 100-cow herd in the 1990s. He witnessed how grazing allowed plants and soil to retain water rather than running off and how it protected water quality on his fragile soils. He was a founding member of the Calumet County Forage Council and received the Midwest Forage Council’s Pacesetter Award.

Driven by conservation, education

In selecting him for the award, the Sand County Foundation noted that Geiser has always been driven by conservation and education. He listens to others and learns about innovative practices before putting them to work at Gold Star Dairy. His reputation as a respected farmer and conservationist stems from his devotion to improve the health of soil, water, plants and cattle.

The farm has had its challenges. In 2000 straight line winds destroyed the farm’s barns. Like other dairies in the area, they had been growing their herd’s size to adapt to changes in the dairy economy. Decisions had to be made about the farm’s future.

Grazing paddocks gave way to a freestall barn for more than 400 cows, but the acres of grass that surrounded the farmstead remained as a prudent way to minimize runoff and soil erosion. Geiser grows cover crops to feed his cattle and protect the soil. He has hosted outreach and research efforts that examine how water moves through fractured bedrock systems and the unique geological features of karst.

Fields with shallow bedrock are identified and carefully managed. His conservation practices include vegetated buffer strips and no-till cultivation practices. Paved ditches and leachate storage areas transport and collect runoff responsibly.

Geiser was one of the first Calumet County farmers to obtain a Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan through the NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). His conservation practices have been passed on to the farmers that grow Gold Star Dairy’s feed. Gold Star Farms received the Calumet County Land Conservation Award in 2004.

Geiser has gone the extra mile to ensure a legacy at Gold Star Farms. His younger business partners and family members have bought into the conservation enhancements found on their piece of rolling Wisconsin landscape.

Among the many outstanding Wisconsin landowners nominated for the award were two other finalists: Laverne Hensen of Mineral Point in Iowa County, and Jeff Lake of Boyceville in Dunn County.

The 2017 recipient was Brickstead Dairy of Greenleaf in Brown County.

The Leopold Conservation Award in Wisconsin is made possible thanks to the generous contributions from Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association, Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, Compeer Financial, American Transmission Company, USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, Wisconsin Soybean Marketing Board, Wisconsin Corn Growers Association, Wisconsin Corn Promotion Board, Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association, and We Energies Foundation.

For more information on the award, visit