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Leopold Conservation finalists restore soil health on farm

Gloria Hafemeister
John and Dorothy Priske are innovative farmers who enjoy experimenting with new things, especially if it will contribute to the health of the soil.  Their most recent venture has been raising Kernza, a perennial grain with numerous benefits.

FALL RIVER – When John and Dorothy Priske established their 280-acre Fall River farm their goal from the start was to leave their farm in better shape than it was when they moved onto it.

In the years since they have established a wide range of conservation practices both for the benefit of their soil and for birds and wildlife in the area.

Their efforts have not gone unnoticed and they have received numerous honors including state Conservation farmers of the year in 2011.

Now for the second consecutive year the Priskes have been nominated as one of the finalists for the prestigious Wisconsin Leopold Conservation Award.

Given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, the award recognizes farmers and foresters who inspire others with their dedication to land, water and wildlife habitat in their care.

The award is given each year by the Sand County Foundation, American Farmland Trust, Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation and Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin.

The Priske’s interest in the Leopold concepts goes back long before they bought their farm in 1986.  The Leopold quote on their social media page is a clear indication of whose principals they have applied to running their farm: "The landscape of any farm is the owners portrait of himself".

When they bought their farm it was entirely planted in corn. They immediately set out to improve the soil’s organic matter and create and environment that would not only be good for making a living on the farm but would also provide the beauty that comes with wildlife and nature.

Their first year of farming they took samples and found much of their soil’s organic-matter content was just about 2 percent. By implementing conservation practices they’ve seen their silk-loam soil’s organic matter more than double.                               

Priske sees it as a natural progression. Each year they made changes that would result in improvements.

One of their early projects was to restore a 60-acre prairie wetland that previously had been cropped. They removed invasive cattails that had been choking the wetland and posing challenges to water quality. They converted land to tallgrass prairie. And they enrolled their erodible land in the Conservation Reserve Program. Going beyond standard compliance with that program they’ve planted species to attract pollinators and wildlife.

In fact, one of their more recent projects was to work with the inventor of a cattail mower to cut invasive cattails in their wetland and combine the chopped cattails with manure from their cattle to create a unique compost mix.

Like all of the projects they take on, they carefully monitored the procedure and did test strips in their garden together with taste tests of produce raised with the compost and produce raised on soil without the compost.

In their early years they found that their switch to rotational grazing produced the most significant results. They chose the Scottish Highland cattle, in part, because their horns worked well in the pastures by keeping invasive trees from getting established.  The cattle were also known for providing a nice marbling meat.

For more than 20 years their farm provided rotated pastures for their beef cattle and did not include any row crops. With this system their cattle did the fertilizing and harvesting, not the people.

At one point the Priskes grazed a herd of 550 cattle. Those numbers dropped gradually over the years as they tried a number of ventures intended at gradually allowing them to get out of farming and into retirement.

During their peak years of farming they direct marketed the meat from their cattle to high end restaurants and specialty markets. Their last year of actively farming they marketed 170 animals. 

They hosted numerous tours and built their customer base through connections made by operating a bed and breakfast with guests staying at their very spacious Victorian style home that they completely restored.

After participating in sustainable farm-to-table farming all these years they scaled back and looked at ways to give back and help the next generation of sustainable farmers.

For two years they rented part of their farm to Madison College where students had the opportunity to come out for hands-on learning.

They sold the majority of their remaining Scottish Highland herd to Michael and Angeline Choudoir who live just five miles from their farm. The Priskes kept a few animals back to continue to develop the genetics and show and market some animals. 

The Choudoirs eventually rented the entire Priske farm and now John and Dorothy are able to enjoy the comfort of their own home and look out at the beauty of the farm they worked so hard to develop.

Priskes' also remain very interested in a project they started in 2017 – the development and testing of Kernza, a trademarked name of an intermediate perennial wheatgrass that can be used as grain as well as forage.

While some farmers raise the grain by itself they established theirs with clover to make it better suited for grazing their cattle.

Before they got involved experimenting with the crop had been done at research stations. They were one of several farmers who agreed to see how it would fare in “real-world” conditions. Because the Priskes had always carefully monitored their experiments and conservation practices it was determined they would be good partners for testing the new crop on their farm. 

Like the other conservation practices they have established, they have willingly shared what they learned about Kernza with others. Last year they hosted other interested farmers at the International Kernza Conference where they shared what they learned about the environmental benefits of this crop and the grazing challenges of the long-rooted perennial.

Besides the Priskes, four other finalists have been chosen to compete for the Leopold Conservation Award. These include Mike Berg of Blanchardville; John and Melissa Eron of Stevens Point; Charlie Hammer and Nancy Kavazanjian of Beaver Dam and Brian Maliszewski of Independence.

This year’s recipient will be revealed later this year.

“Recipients of this award are real life examples of conservation-minded agriculture,” said Kevin McAleese, Sand County Foundation President and Chief Executive Officer.  “These hard-working families are essential to our environment, food system and rural economy.”