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Southern Illinois farmers take home conservation award

The Ulens from Pulaski County received the 2022 Conservation Farm Family Award from the Association of Illinois Soil and Water Conservation Districts.

Holly Spangler, Prairie Farmer Senior Editor

August 18, 2022

3 Min Read
Dale Shumaker, Holly Spangler and Mike Ulen with Ulen Farms sign
WINNER: Mike Ulen (right) is pictured with the sign he received on behalf of his family for their win as the 2022 Conservation Farm Family. The sign is sponsored by Prairie Farmer and presented by editor Holly Spangler (center). Dale Shumaker (left), chairman of the Pulaski-Alexander Soil and Water Conservation District and vice president of the AISWCD, nominated the Ulens.Photos by Grant Hammer

Mike Ulen is like a lot of farmers. He just wants to raise a crop and leave the land better than he found it. And so he has, for 50-plus years. This year, he was recognized for it, along with his brother and nephew.

The Ulens received the 2022 Conservation Farm Family Award, sponsored by the Association of Illinois Soil and Water Conservation Districts and Prairie Farmer. Mike farms with his brother Sammy and Sammy’s son Brian. The three make up Ulen Farms, which operates in Pulaski County near Ullin, Ill.

“It’s an honor to be recognized as someone that’s trying to do a good job on the farm,” Mike says. “One of the things that I’ve talked about all along is that our goal is to leave the land better than when we got it.”

The Ulens raise corn, soybeans and wheat on 2,300 acres and began no-tilling about 20 years ago. About 80% of their acreage is in no-till. About 360 acres are classified as highly erodible land, and they no-till 100% of those acres. They started experimenting with cover crops seven years ago, and today, they plant around 700 acres of cover crops, depending on rotations.

Mike says they farm in creek bottoms and are trying to control erosion into the wetlands. They’ve installed water control structures to limit the places water can leave the field. They’ve also added rock chutes and filter strips to slow the water down.

“We’ve tried to stop erosion and make the water work for us instead of against us,” he says.

Mike Ulen waves to the crowd at the annual Illinois State Fair Ag Day breakfast

Dale Shumaker, chairman of the Pulaski-Alexander Soil and Water Conservation District and vice president of the AISWCD, says the Ulens were one of the first landowners to install filter strips on land near Mill Creek and have helped other landowners do the same. They were also one of the first farms to enroll in the Natural Resources Conservation Service Conservation Stewardship Program and have had an NRCS-approved Nutrient Management Plan since 2016.

“The Ulen family’s passion and longtime commitment to incorporating conservation practices and principles into their operation is very remarkable to me — their passion is infectious,” says Grant Hammer, executive director of the AISWCD. “I review the nominations for this long-standing award each year, and there are always so many deserving nominations, but I am truly moved once I have an opportunity to speak with the award-winning Conservation Farm Family and hear directly about what inspires their conservation efforts, their successes and failures, and the relationships they have developed with others on their stewardship journey.”

About the Author(s)

Holly Spangler

Prairie Farmer Senior Editor, Farm Progress

Holly Spangler has covered Illinois agriculture for more than two decades, bringing meaningful production agriculture experience to the magazine’s coverage. She currently serves as editor of Prairie Farmer magazine and Executive Editor for Farm Progress, managing editorial staff at six magazines throughout the eastern Corn Belt. She began her career with Prairie Farmer just before graduating from the University of Illinois in agricultural communications.

An award-winning writer and photographer, Holly is past president of the American Agricultural Editors Association. In 2015, she became only the 10th U.S. agricultural journalist to earn the Writer of Merit designation and is a five-time winner of the top writing award for editorial opinion in U.S. agriculture. She was named an AAEA Master Writer in 2005. In 2011, Holly was one of 10 recipients worldwide to receive the IFAJ-Alltech Young Leaders in Ag Journalism award. She currently serves on the Illinois Fairgrounds Foundation, the U of I Agricultural Communications Advisory committee, and is an advisory board member for the U of I College of ACES Research Station at Monmouth. Her work in agricultural media has been recognized by the Illinois Soybean Association, Illinois Corn, Illinois Council on Agricultural Education and MidAmerica Croplife Association.

Holly and her husband, John, farm in western Illinois where they raise corn, soybeans and beef cattle on 2,500 acres. Their operation includes 125 head of commercial cows in a cow/calf operation. The family farm includes John’s parents and their three children.

Holly frequently speaks to a variety of groups and organizations, sharing the heart, soul and science of agriculture. She and her husband are active in state and local farm organizations. They serve with their local 4-H and FFA programs, their school district, and are active in their church's youth and music ministries.

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