John and Dorothy Priske receive Wisconsin Leopold Conservation Award

Casey Langan
Sand County Foundation
John and Dorothy Priske of Fall River have been selected as the recipients of the 2021 Wisconsin Leopold Conservation Award.

John and Dorothy Priske of Fall River have been selected as the recipients of the 2021 Wisconsin Leopold Conservation Award®.

Given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, the award recognizes farmers and forestland owners who inspire others with their dedication to land, water and wildlife habitat management on private, working land.

In Wisconsin the $10,000 award is presented annually by Sand County Foundation, American Farmland Trust, Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, and Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin.

“John and Dorothy Priske exemplify conservation and economic resilience, and DATCP is proud to partner with the Sand County Foundation to recognize their efforts,” said Randy Romanski, Wisconsin Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. “The collaborative conservation work being done all over the state is an example of how, together, we can invest in soil and water health while strengthening our economy. Thank you to the Priske family on their commitment to lead the way on practicing conservation and supporting the next generation of Wisconsin farmers.”

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 Wisconsin landowners nominated for the award were finalists: Mike Berg of Lafayette County, and Charlie Hammer and Nancy Kavazanjian of Dodge County.  

More than just soil

John and Dorothy Priske liken their fields and pastures to sons and daughters.

They’ve worked shoulder to shoulder to improve their farm’s environmental and economic resilience with conservation practices and direct marketing.

Both were born on Wisconsin farms, but their path back to farming was hard won. They worked off-farm jobs out West before saving enough for a down payment on 280 acres in Columbia County in 1986. After growing asparagus with John’s brother, their first years of raising livestock and row crops were met with struggle due to low commodity prices.

A visit to a grass-fed beef and sheep station in New Zealand convinced them to change course.

The Priskes began transitioning their crop fields to pastures. Deep- rooted grasses benefit soil health by accumulating soil organic matter, infiltrating water, and sequestrating carbon. A continuous living cover reduces the risk of soil erosion.

The Priskes began transitioning their crop fields to pastures to support their herd of Scottish Highland cattle. The couple devised a rotational grazing system that would benefit the cattle and the landscape.

They chose a breed of cattle, Scottish Highland, that could eat an oak savanna’s rough forage. They devised a rotational grazing system that would benefit the cattle and the landscape.

By the early 2000s direct marketing their beef became the backbone of the farm. They supplied choice cuts to high-end Madison restaurants, and sold beef at the Dane County Farmers Market. It was at their market booth where they would show customers a notebook detailing their conservation practices.

“They’re not just buying our beef. They’re buying our farming practices,” Dorothy said.  

The Priskes also shared their lessons learned with other farmers by hosting field days and seminars on profitably managing land and direct marketing beef.

They built relationships with their customers and conservationists as well. In 2004 they were selected to attend Terra Madre, a gathering of 5,000 farmers from 130 countries committed to sustainable farming methods. The Priskes helped train district conservationists on working with farmers, and leased land for Madison College’s Institute of Sustainable Agriculture.

In 2017, in collaboration with University of Wisconsin researchers, the Priskes planted 12 acres of Kernza, a perennial grain with an extensive root system. Two years later they hosted an international Kernza conference, attracting researchers from across the globe to view their fields of the deep-rooted wheatgrass species. Their grain was sold to Patagonia Provisions that made the world’s first beer from Kernza, aptly named Long Root Ale.

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.

Over the years the Priskes restored 30 acres of tall grass prairie, and 30 acres of prairie wetland previously drained for cultivation. Such efforts earned them the “Leopold Restoration Award of Excellence in Ecological Restoration Practices” from the Friends of the University of Wisconsin Arboretum.

Now retired, the Priskes remain active in promoting responsible land management and agricultural sustainability. They’ve sold all of their Scottish Highland cattle, and rent their pastures to other graziers. They maintain land enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program with prescribed burnings.

To protect their legacy, the Priskes placed an agricultural conservation easement with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection on the farm that restricts development in perpetuity.  

The Priskes tell visitors that viewing their farm is like “seeing a piece of their souls.”

It’s a fitting remark from the newest recipients of the Wisconsin Leopold Conservation Award; It was Aldo Leopold who wrote, “The landscape of any farm is the owner’s portrait of himself.”