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Conservation ethic deeply ingrained in 2022 Leopold winners

Slideshow: Wisconsin Leopold Conservation Award winners Joe and Christy Tomandl milk 525 cows on a grass-based dairy near Medford.

December 6, 2022

7 Slides

Farming with conservation in mind was never something that Joe and Christy Tomandl did as an add-on on their central Wisconsin dairy farm. It has been an integral part of their way of doing business from the day they bought their first farm nearly 25 years ago.

The Tomandls have been honored for their conservation efforts with the 2022 Wisconsin Leopold Conservation Award. Given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, the competitive award recognizes farmers and forestland owners who inspire others with dedication to land, water and wildlife habitat management on private, working land.

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

The Tomandls milk 525 cows on three farms on the border of Taylor and Marathon counties in central Wisconsin. They own 680 acres and rent an additional 595 acres. Nearly all their land is either in perennial pasture or harvested as hay for wintertime forage.

The result of their grass-based operation is virtually zero soil loss, which fits into the ultimate goal the Tomandls set when they began farming in 1998.

“Managed grazing lined up well with our values of protecting the environment while creating something that really works with natural systems,” Joe Tomandl says. “If we can integrate a cow into our management system as much as possible, and allow the cow to harvest the grass, that’s the way we wanted to have it.”

Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship Program

Tomandl has taken his grazing ethic to the next level by heading up the nation’s first registered agricultural apprenticeship program. The Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship Program, started in 2010, is a nonprofit that partners with established grazing dairy farmers, universities, community-based organizations and other stakeholders to provide work-based training in managed-grazing dairy production in multiple states.

As its executive director, Tomandl oversees more than 200 approved training farms in 15 states. The program currently has 36 active mentor-apprentice pairs, 54 journey dairy graziers and 185 apprentice candidates seeking to be hired.

Tomandl was instrumental in the conception, creation and development of the program. He says it is rewarding every time he sees an apprentice matched with a grazier or moving into a career in dairying.

“That’s what this is all about,” Tomandl says. “Anytime we can give a young person a pathway, an opportunity to move into a career in managed dairy grazing, it’s absolutely huge.”

The Tomandls met while students at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls in the early 1990s. They taught agriculture to middle and high schoolers in Mishicot, Wis., in the late 1990s before buying an 80-acre farm near where Joe grew up in Medford, Wis.

Paul Daigle, who retired in April from his position as Marathon County, Wis., land and water program director, worked with the Tomandls on their first grazing plan in 1998 and on many projects since then.

“They just had a vision for where they wanted to go and how they wanted to learn from other graziers,” Daigle says. “Being conservation-minded was just how they did it. They had that conservation ethic from day one.”

Daigle notes that Tomandl’s father, Joe Tomandl II, was a noted conservationist before his son began his dairy career.

“[The elder] Joe was always enthusiastic and wanting to tell his story,” Daigle says. “That rubbed off on Joe III. And then he took it to a new level.

“There is not a farm family more deserving [of the Leopold award] for what they’ve done out there. It’s truly outstanding and a vision for the future.”

At the outset of their farming career, the Tomandls worked with the county land conservation department and the Natural Resources Conservation Service to implement conversation practices on the farm. Travel lanes, pasture seeding, water lines and fencing were completed to create a managed grazing infrastructure that they have carried over to the other farms they have purchased.

The home farm became certified organic in 2015, followed by their second farm in 2017. Their third farm, bought in 2020, is headed on the same path.

The Tomandls even chose to raise a dairy breed known for its grazing efficiency, New Zealand Friesians.

Small-scale model dairy

As their operation continues to grow, Tomandl says the goal is to keep each farming operation separate, so if someday they are divested, they could be sold independently, leaving several small-scale businesses in the rural neighborhood rather than one large one.

“That’s part of the land ethic that Leopold talked about,” Tomandl says. “You’ve got to look at all the pieces of the system, including rural communities and socioeconomic influence. If we can scale at the [175-cow] level and have enough units to still satisfy a market efficiently enough to fill a semiload of milk, that’s the model we need to create.”

Tomandl says expansion of the apprenticeship program over the last dozen years has been gratifying, but that doesn’t mean the path for apprentices to become farm operators is necessarily easy.

“There are still going to be stresses in a transition type of process,” he says. “It still is not easy. These apprentices are not falling out of the sky. It is increasingly challenging for smaller dairies to make the transition out of dairying, and with the cost of land, equipment, labor and inputs, it has become difficult for these apprentices to get into farming.”

Humbled by award

The Tomandls say they are “very honored” to have been selected for the Leopold award, describing it as “humbling.”

“To be acknowledged in the group with the other nominees and past winners — these people are all exemplary in their conservation ethic, their land ethic,” Tomandl says. “It’s incredibly humbling to be included in that group.

“This award is a big deal to us. We don’t take this for granted or expect that we should be here. We don’t look at it like we’ve arrived. We have work to continue doing. We are always looking for ways to be better.”

Looking to the future, Tomandl says it isn’t their goal to add more farms or cows, but they will always keep their eyes open.

“We’re scaled where we can produce that semiload of milk, which is an important spot to be to maintain a place in the market,” he says. “So, we’re pretty happy with where we’re at. But our goal is to stay relevant in this business.”

Kevin McAleese, Sand County Foundation president and CEO, says the Tomandls’ dedication to conservation shows how farmers can improve the health of the land while producing food and fiber.

“These award recipients are examples of how Aldo Leopold’s land ethic is alive and well today,” McAleese said in a news release.

In his influential 1949 book, “A Sand County Almanac,” Leopold calls for an ethical relationship between people and the land they own and manage, which he says is “an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity.”

The Sand County Foundation presents the Leopold Conservation Award to private landowners in 24 states.

Other farmers nominated for the Wisconsin award included Full Circle Farm of Seymour in Shawano County, Joe Hovel of Conover in Vilas County and Nolls’ Dairy Farm of Alma in Buffalo County.

For more information about the Leopold Conservation Award, visit leopoldconservationaward.org.

Massey lives in Barneveld, Wis. Casey Langan, Sand County Foundation communications director, contributed to this story.

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