The third time was the charm for John and Dorothy Priske of Fall River, Wis. After being finalists three years in a row, they were selected as the winners of the 2021 Wisconsin Leopold Conservation Award.
Given in honor of renowned Wisconsin 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 the Sand County Foundation, American Farmland Trust, Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation and Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin.
John and Dorothy were named as this year’s award recipient at a meeting of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection board in Madison in mid-November. They received $10,000 and a crystal award for being selected. A video celebrating their conservation success was premiered during the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation’s annual meeting held on Dec. 5 in Wisconsin Dells.
“It is very gratifying to have our conservation efforts recognized,” Dorothy says. “We didn’t do it to get recognition, but it is nice to receive the recognition. We feel incredibly honored.”
Dorothy says she and John have a lot of people to thank for the award, “including our meat customers who bought our meat,” she explains. “We have worked with NRCS for 35 years on conservation projects on our farm. It is difficult to do some of these projects. You have to cost share these projects, and they helped us be economically viable, which allowed us to be able to farm the way we farm.”
The Priskes 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. 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 explains.
John and Dorothy also share the lessons they’ve 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, John and Dorothy 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, which made the world’s first beer from Kernza, aptly named Long Root Ale.
Over the years the Priskes have restored 30 acres of tallgrass 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, John and Dorothy remain active in promoting responsible land management and agricultural sustainability. They’ve sold 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 DAPTC 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.”
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 Mike Berg of Lafayette County, and Charlie Hammer and Nancy Kavazanjian of Dodge County.
In Wisconsin, the Leopold Conservation Award is made possible thanks to the generous contributions from American Farmland Trust, Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, Sand County Foundation, Compeer Financial, Culver’s, McDonald’s, USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, We Energies Foundation, Wisconsin Corn Growers Association, Wisconsin Corn Promotion Board, Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association, and Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association.
“John and Dorothy Priske exemplify conservation and economic resilience, and DATCP is proud to partner with the Sand County Foundation to recognize their efforts,” says Randy Romanski, Wisconsin DATCP secretary. “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.”
“Wisconsin Farm Bureau is proud to partner with the Sand County Foundation to recognize farmers for their conservation efforts,” says Wisconsin Farm Bureau President Kevin Krentz. “We extend our congratulations to the Priske family on their outstanding dedication to conservation.”
“As the national sponsor for Sand County Foundation’s Leopold Conservation Award, American Farmland Trust celebrates the hard work and dedication of the Wisconsin recipient,” says John Piotti, AFT president and CEO. “At AFT, we believe that conservation in agriculture requires a focus on the land, the practices and the people, and this award recognizes the integral role of all three.”
“Recipients of this award are real-life examples of conservation-minded agriculture,” says Kevin McAleese, Sand County Foundation president and CEO. “These hard-working families are essential to our environment, food system and rural economy.”
The first Wisconsin Leopold Conservation Award was presented to woodland conservationist Gerry Mich of Appleton in 2006. The 2020 recipient was John and Melissa Eron, farmers from Stevens Point.
In his influential 1949 book, “A Sand County Almanac,” Aldo Leopold called for an ethical relationship between people and the land they own and manage, which he called “an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity.”
Sand County Foundation presents the Leopold Conservation Award to private landowners in 21 states with a variety of conservation, agricultural and forestry organizations. Sand County Foundation presents the award in California, Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin and in New England (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont).
For more information on the award, visit leopoldconservationaward.org.
Langan is communications director for Sand County Foundation in Madison, Wis.