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MADISON - Lake Family Farms from Boyceville in Dunn County has been selected as the recipient of the 2019 Wisconsin Leopold Conservation Award, one which recognizes farmers with outstanding dedication to management of their land, water and wildlife habitat. It has been an ongoing awards program in Wisconsin since 2006.

The announcement that the family was chosen for the honor came at the Nov. 7 meeting of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection board meeting in Madison. The Lake family will be recognized further at the annual meeting of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation in Wisconsin Dells on Dec. 8 when they will receive a crystal award and $10,000 from the Sand County Foundation, Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin and Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association.

The award and honorarium are given in the name of renowned Wisconsin conservationist Aldo Leopold, who wrote the influential 1949 book, A Sand County Almanac and inspired a new land ethic. The awards program aims to build on Leopold’s call for an ethical relationship between people and the land they own and manage, which he called “an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity.”

Jeff and Kelly Lake were in Madison to talk to DATCP staff and board members after their name was announced as this year’s award recipient. Lance Irving, national coordinator of the Leopold Conservation Award — which is given out in 20 states — said the Lakes are great stewards of the land and have voluntarily improved the environmental conditions on their land, as well as improving their business’s bottom line.

“Their work fits with Leopold’s idea of a land ethic,” Irving said, “which is that conservation and production should have a symbiotic relationship.”

As well as using innovation conservation and management practices on his farmland, Jeff Lake also serves as a spokesperson for watershed groups and was given the first-ever Precision Ag Farmer of the Year Award at the National Pheasant and Quail Classic in 2018.

“Dunn County and Wisconsin are better for having Jeff Lake as a farmer,” Irving said.

Randy Romanski, who that same day was named as interim DATCP Secretary, said he was pleased to recognize the Lakes for their achievements in conservation, especially since Gov. Tony Evers had declared this the Year of Clean Water.

“It is an honor to present this award to someone who cares deeply about what this means,” Romanski said.

Jeff Lake said he and his family were quite honored by the award and that they planned to continue to “spread the word on soil conservation.” He told board members that he planned to continue experimenting with different cover crops, even though the weather this year hadn’t proved to be very cooperative.

Some of the things that earned him the honor — the 20 different cover crop trials he has done as well as waterway construction, buffer strips and various ways to measure soil health.

“Clean water is important to us,” said Kelly Lake. “We are so attached to the land and want to feel good about what we do for the land. When I ride along in the combine with Jeff, it just feels like the land is happy.”

When some of the working lands were purchased by the Lakes, she said the soil “felt angry and now it feels like the land is saying it’s happy.” That is shown by the array  of wildlife that make their home on the Lake’s 1,500 acres of farmland — especially in the buffer strips that have become part of the landscape.

“Our son and daughter (April and Jake) are very happy and very proud,” Kelly said, “and they are a big push behind this. We want to keep on doing better. It has been an amazing feeling for me to watch this.”

Jeff has worked on establishing full-season cover crops with four or five different species and has tried methods of planting different cover crops into standing row crops.

Working with his local Natural Resources Conservation Service, Jeff has done the “underwear test” — placing a pair of white cotton briefs in the soil profile as a casual way of determining how much microbial activity there is in the field — and his was “gone within a month,” he said.

Another aspect of his stewardship is monitoring irrigation so it isn’t over-applied. The Lake family works in partnership with Discovery Farms and the University of Wisconsin.

Matt Krueger, Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association Executive Director called the Lake family “model land stewards” who show the accumulated power that conservation practices have on farmland. “From buffer stripping and no-till to pollinator habitats and variable spraying, Jeff and his family show how precision agriculture and conservation work hand-in-hand to improve soil fertility, water quality and crop production.”

Jeff Lake’s philosophy is that he’s borrowing Mother Nature’s resources to make a living as a fifth-generation farmer, and borrowing his ancestors’ land in hopes his children will farm it someday.

He said the farm had a dairy herd until his father retired in 1999. Since that time the land has been used to grow corn, soybeans and alfalfa to feed a small herd of beef cattle. Since taking over the land, Jeff has embraced innovative management and conservation practices.

His eyes were opened to modern land stewardship strategies at a local farmer-led watershed committee meeting. Farm biologists were promoting software that identifies a farm’s unprofitable and environmentally-sensitive areas, and helps guide decisions on alternative uses that can prevent erosion and cut costs. It made him look at his land differently.

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Precision technology helps make each of his acres the best it can be. Variable-rate planting and spraying have cut his seed and fertilizer costs. In addition to perennial borders that surround his fields, unprofitable areas now provide habitat for deer, pheasants, turkey, insect pollinators and Monarch butterflies.

Lake has worked with conservation agencies to care for his farmland by installing buffer strips and adopting a no-till system and utilizes diverse mixes of cover crops on sandy soils that were prone to surface runoff and leaching. The ground cover maintains topsoil by preventing erosion from rain and wind. Cover crops also increase the soil’s organic matter and capture leached nitrates before they can reach ground water.

To improve water quality, especially in the nearby Hay River, Lake takes soil samples to ensure his limited use of fertilizer is appropriate. It’s a strategy that has proven to be productive, profitable and environmentally responsible.

Lake thinks education of others is the most important conservation practice that he can do. He opens his farm to research by agencies and college students. The UW-River Falls has researched the nitrogen efficiency of his corn, and a Discovery Farms project has researched surface water phosphate levels. He has hosted events for his local farmer-led watershed committee to help the general public understand what farmers are doing to ensure safe food and a healthy environment.

Earlier this year, owners of Wisconsin farmland and forests were encouraged to apply (or be nominated) for the award. Applications were reviewed by an independent panel of agricultural and conservation leaders. Among the many outstanding Wisconsin landowners nominated for the award were finalists: Bill Ciolkosz of Clark County, and John and Dorothy Priske of Columbia County.

The Sand County Foundation, which is based in Madison, presents the Leopold Conservation Award to private landowners in 20 states with a variety of conservation, agricultural and forestry organizations. For more information on the award, visit www.leopoldconservationaward.org.

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

Sand County Foundation presents the award in California, Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin, and in New England (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont).

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