Preserving land for future generations drives each of this year's Conservation Legacy Award regional winners. As one recipient put it, “It's our responsibility to be good caretakers of the land and leave it more environmentally stable than when we first set foot upon it.”

The Conservation Legacy Awards recognize outstanding environmental and conservation achievements of U.S. soybean farmers. The winners have distinguished themselves by taking care of the land and at the same time reaping economic returns from their conservation efforts.

Applications from four regions and final picks were judged by a committee of conservation professionals.

All four regional winners and spouses or guests will receive expense-paid trips to the Commodity Classic in Anaheim, CA, on March 2-4. The overall winner receives a plaque and yard sign in recognition of the award.

The Conservation Legacy Award program is sponsored by the American Soybean Association, Monsanto and The Corn And Soybean Digest.

SOUTHERN REGION

Steve Gamble & Sons Farms Sardinia, SC

Define conservation? It's easy, according to Jason Gamble. It's conserving for the future. Simply put, that's how devoted to stewardship Steve Gamble and Sons are about their Coastal Plains region bicentennial farm in South Carolina.

“Our grandfather Norman McFaddin has been teaching us sound conservation practices ever since we were kids,” says Jason, “and it's because of him that our farm stays so dedicated to stewardship.”

Steve Gamble and his sons Jason and Steven farm 2,500 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat, oats, rye and milo. Last year, they no-till drilled more than 800 acres of soybeans double-cropped behind wheat and strip-tilled about 1,000 acres of corn into soybean-wheat stubble. Winter cover crops such as rye have been planted on areas with erosion potential and to improve soil structure.

About 98% of that cropland is rotated annually, with the remaining 2% restricted by terrain, moisture and other barriers. They say this allows for nutrient replenishment and increased fertility from year to year.

The Gambles use a zone soil sampling program along with GPS that allows them to apply fertilizer and lime with variable-rate technology. Ultimately, that helps them reduce leaching and runoff.

With the use of a Raven 440 controller on their spray rig, interfaced with GPS and John Deere guidance, they've been able to reduce the amount of pesticides applied.

For environmental safety, the Gambles store pesticides in a locked storage building to prevent theft, misuse or spills. Pesticides are only handled and mixed by authorized personnel. In fact, Steve, Jason and Steven all hold South Carolina private pesticide applicator's licenses.

The Gambles also have a 1,000-gal. above-ground diesel fuel storage tank that meets Conservation Security Program (CSP) guidelines. They were all enrolled in the CSP program last year. All on-farm lubricants, including hydraulic fluids as well as used motor oils, are stored and recycled.

Thirty acres of food plots are home to a variety of game such as deer, ducks, doves and quail. Plus, they have a six-acre duck pond.

Jason currently is a district commissioner for the Clarendon Soil and Water Conservation District. “His knowledge of ag and business is an asset to the district and the county,” says Matthew Anderson, district conservationist. “This operation is a good example that conservation of our resources can be achieved along with higher yields and more intense production of soybeans and other ag commodities.”

MIDWESTERN REGION

Lawrence and Diane Sukalski Fairmont, MN

Lawrence and Diane Sukalski's dedication to conservation centers around preservation for future generations. “We must take the responsibility as stewards and caretakers of the land to leave our land more environmentally stable,” Lawrence says.

The Sukalskis are 100% conservation and minimum tillage on their 2,400-acre operation in south-central Minnesota. Sukalski has two brothers and three sons that also work on the farm.

“To help control erosion, we plant field rows in strategic directions and use 20-in. rows,” Sukalski says. “We also use tracked tractors and combines which help us reduce soil compaction and promote better water percolation.

“We use a band on the planter to apply phosphorus and fungicides,” he says. “Using fungicide treatment at soybean planting has allowed us to use minimum tillage on corn stubble and keep yields and productivity high.”

The Sukalskis have also planted about 1.5 miles of field windbreaks that help with wind erosion and wildlife protection. They've also sealed two unused wells and put nearly half of their farm into the Conservation Security Program.

On the farmstead, fuel storage is above ground and an old underground tank was removed. They dispose of wastes such as paint, batteries and fluorescent bulbs at a local hazardous waste facility. Used oil is collected and sold locally for re-use.

Filter strips were planted next to drainage ditches to improve water quality, and rock and stones were used to stabilize eroding stream banks. In addition, they plant a food plot and participate in a Minnesota wildlife management plot. In 2003-2004 they even hatched, raised and released 850 pheasants, plus built wood duck houses and placed bluebird houses and pheasant feeders around the farm.

“We believe that educating consumers is more important than ever as people become more removed from farming,” Sukalski says. “When we see that our land management practices can sustain fragile life forms, we can then be confident in our safety for human consumers, too.”

NORTHEASTERN REGION

Richard Kohlhagen Rensselaer, IN

Richard Kohlhagen knows how to juggle the delicate balance of conservation with cropland, woodlands and pastures to fit both his soil types and topography. With that in mind, he's been able to nearly triple corn and soybean yields since his father bought the land in 1951.

Kohlhagen farms 2,750 acres with his two sons, Ryan and Kent. Other family members Brad, Lori, Kyle and Kara help out when they can. Corn, soybeans and cattle are the main enterprises, along with wheat and asparagus. Wife Carol manages the specialty asparagus crop.

Integrated pest management practices help the Kohlhagens keep insects and weeds in check. When spraying is needed after weekly inspections, they use a XLRD-1500 Sprayer Specialty, calibrated for each field using a Raven monitor and low-drift nozzles. Also, using a CenterLine lightbar helps control overlap. They're now in the beginning stages of using GPS technology, too.

Soil samples are taken annually and lime is applied where needed, usually on their sandier soils. Other fertilizers are applied based on soil tests and nutrient credits given for legumes (soybeans and alfalfa). They do not apply nitrogen in the fall and instead sidedress it in the spring.

The Kohlhagens have moved toward no-till since the late 1980s. Now 575 acres are in no-till and the rest is in minimum till. “No-till helps us with less labor, less fuel and fewer tillage trips over the land,” Kohlhagen says.

In some years, they use rye after corn as a cover crop in the fall. It also provides a forage source for cattle.

With 287 acres of buffer and filter strips, the Kohlhagens prevent contamination along waterways and provide cover for rivers, lakes and ditch banks that control erosion. A pasture grass mix is planted on the buffer strips.

To keep nutrients in check, they monitor nitrogen and phosphorus annually, paying special attention to manure application areas.

All wellheads have been capped and sealed to protect groundwater, and locations recorded for future reference.

Chemicals and fertilizers are purchased in bulk for less spillage. In fact, use of pesticide containers has been minimized to save time filling the sprayer and disposal.

Kohlhagen says establishing filter strips, keeping residue coverage on 15 acres of asparagus and his 80 acres of existing woodland areas, keep quail, pheasant, turkey, deer and other wildlife numbers plentiful.

As Kohlhagen puts it: “Conservation helps protect and improve our soil and water resources with economical and sound practices. It's also our responsibility as members of the ag community to educate both farm and the non-farm public about the positive contributions we make to conserve our natural resources.”

WESTERN REGION

Keith Thompson Osage City, KS

Although Keith Thompson and his father Jim began no-tilling back in the '60s, it wasn't until 1991 that all of his 2,000 acres in east-central Kansas were in a full no-till program. “It's improved our soil quality and yields,” he says.

The move to no-till was made partly to keep chemical usage to a minimum while still ensuring maximum weed control and yields. He uses a rotation of soybeans, wheat (double-crop milo), soybeans, corn or milo, corn or milo then back to soybeans. He's now even working with stacked rotations, growing the same crop twice. For example, corn-corn, soybeans-soybeans, wheat (double-crop)-milo or soybeans.

When planting with no-till he often had trouble closing the seed slot in damp soil. That's when Thompson and his son Ben worked on designing a closing wheel that has now solved the problem. The wheel is patented and is being marketed through Exapta Solutions, of which they are part owners.

The Thompsons handle all farm chemicals in one location. Keith and his brother Doug altered a gooseneck trailer to haul water and bulk chemicals to the field. Excess chemicals are kept in a locked shed. They also store used oil and antifreeze for recycling.

Forty-foot buffer strips have been added along Salt Creek on their property to control runoff. And now, to enhance wildlife habitat, they're installing grassed quail strips.

“Observing how the native prairie works has given us clues on ways to adapt to no-till and at the same time maximize conservation on our farms,” says Thompson. “It's exciting to see cutting-edge ideas help improve our farm enterprises.”