Whether it's meeting the challenges of soil and water conservation or wildlife preservation, the four regional winners featured here are standouts. They're innovative and creative producers who recognize the value of good conservation for their own operations and the communities in which they farm and live.

As Bart Ruth, ASA president, puts it: “Finding profitable environmental solutions is critical to surviving and thriving in today's farm economy. And that's just what these producers have done.”

In addition, says Gary Margheim, special assistant at the Natural Resources Conservation Service, “This program is another step forward for private lands conservation.”

The four regional winners and spouses/guests will receive all-expense-paid trips to the Commodity Classic convention, Feb. 21-23 in Nashville, TN. An overall winner from this select group, who will also receive a plaque and yard sign, will then be announced during the convention's ASA awards dinner on Feb. 21.

Representatives from the soybean industry, government agencies and environmental groups make up the selection committee for the awards program, sponsored by Monsanto.

Western Region Cedar Ridge Farms, Ashland, NE

When it comes to conservation, Jerry and Bobbie Newsham have been on top of it — for a long time. Located in eastern Nebraska, the Newshams have constructed over 44 miles of tile outlet terraces on their 3,000 acres of highly erodible land. In some cases, old non-parallel and parallel terraces have been converted to tile outlets. Today, only two miles of conventional terraces remain.

In addition, 56 acres, or 5.8 miles, of 80'-wide CRP buffer strips have been established. Vegetation on those strips collects sediments and pollutants and also provides wildlife habitat.

To complement the buffer strip efforts, the Newshams have implemented no-till practices since 1985. Today, no-till represents 100% of their row-crop acres.

The Newshams annually plant 500-700 acres of winter wheat along with their corn-soybean rotation. Besides trapping snow for water conservation during winter, Jerry says wheat provides a financial incentive many growers overlook.

Planting wheat also allows them to apply manure from a local feedlot to reduce commercial fertilizer inputs. In addition, wheat rotation provides habitat for birds and helps control problem weeds from a corn-soybean rotation.

Recently, the Newshams have used their farming operation as a local pesticide container collection site, recycling 2,995 pesticide containers. Containers were then chipped on the farm for recycling purposes.

Bobbie sums up their conservation philosophy: “We only have one earth, so we better take care of what we have.”

Northeastern Region Watkins Farm, Kenton, OH

Watkins Farm, established in the late 1800s, is operated by Mark Watkins and family. In addition to the 3,100 acres of a mostly corn-soybean rotation that he, his brother and father manage, the two brothers and a partner also finish over 30,000 market hogs a year.

The Watkins have used Natural Resource Conservation Resource guidelines in locating water wells and have been diligent to protect them from surface runoff as well as pesticide and manure contamination. They've also plugged and capped many abandoned water wells.

They've installed manure containment structures at three hog production sites that provide one year's storage, allowing nutrients to be applied and used more efficiently.

The farm has moved to 90% no-till soybeans, with 30% no-till corn. The remainder is minimum-tilled. The Watkins plan to increase no-till corn acres to 75% in the next two years. “This approach reduces soil erosion and input costs while maintaining productivity,” says Watkins.

The farm also uses GPS mapping and grid soil sampling to better manage manure and commercial fertilizer usage. “We've used split application for our corn nitrogen program to reduce applied nitrogen below 1 lb/bu,” Watkins says.

Buffer strips along creek banks and grass waterways have been added to many parts of the farm. Also, over 100 acres of woodlands have been left intact to provide wildlife habitat. Planted windbreaks surround hog production units to reduce off-site odor and to improve the farm's appearance.

The Watkins have hosted an environmental assurance program with the help of Ohio State University (OSU) and the Ohio Pork Producers, and have held an OSU manure management field day.

“For us, conservation is important for the long-term productivity of the farm,” Watkins says.

Midwestern Region SanMarBo Farms, Inc., Tracy, MN

Sandy and Peg Ludeman seem to thrive on practicing conservation. Sandy's father and grandfather actually had conservation plans drawn up for SanMarBo Farms over 50 years ago. For generations, the family mantra has been: “Learn it, understand it, believe it, teach it and pass it on.”

A walk around the 2,730-acre Minnesota farm shows a farm pond dug by Sandy's father in 1958, one of the first in Lyon county. You'll also find two larger water retention projects built in 2000. There's even a small wildlife pond, dug by Sandy's son with a skidsteer as part of a 4-H wildlife project in the early '90s.

The Ludemans have planted over 2,000 trees and shrubs on their three farmsteads. In 1997, over 650 trees were planted around their Saratoga Pork operation, which produces 15,000 market hogs a year. Two years ago, they added 4,000' of living snowfence.

Five water impoundment structures have been built, three used for livestock watering and two for wildlife ponds. The largest was stocked twice by the DNR with bluegill and smallmouth bass.

“We had decent summer and ice fishing, but the floods of 1993 took the fish out,” Sandy says.

Turkeys have re-established in existing stands of older trees. Deer, pheasant, red-tailed hawks, blue herons, mallards and wood ducks use the ponds.

The Ludemans have practiced minimum tillage since the 1960s. Today, corn acres are disk-chiseled in fall. In spring, they're passed over once with the field cultivator/chemical application prior to planting. Soybean ground is untouched in fall. In spring, it's field-cultivated once, then planted. Manure from the hog operation is tested (30-25-35) and applied to about 400 corn acres each fall.

SanMarBo Farms has hosted delegations from over 20 countries. “We hope our conservation efforts are an example to others of good stewardship and encourage others to do the same,” says Sandy.

Southern Region Heads Planting Co., Leland, MS

Southern region winner Marc Curtis says when it comes to conservation: “What we have in this life is ours only while we're here. When we're gone, the land should be left in better condition than when we got it.”

Curtis plans to live up to his own expectations by paying special attention to conservation and by providing leadership to others.

For example, of his 2,500 acres of farmland in Leland, MS, 80% is surface-irrigated. On one 1,300-acre farm, there's only a 3' elevation change. That restricts drainage and limits production, especially during the more than 50” of annual rainfall that mostly comes in winter.

“We begin slowing down water by keeping the ground covered with either residue or natural vegetation after harvest,” says Curtis.

He's also built raised pads around irrigated field edges with drainpipes through them to slow water flow and prevent head cutting. Many fields are kept flooded all winter, which allows sediment to settle, keeps stream flows down and provides habitat.

“We try to irrigate in the most efficient manner possible,” Curtis explains. “We're now developing a plan to implement reuse of tailwater.”

Curtis is also experimenting with grid sampling and precision application of nutrients.

Bulk fertilizer is no longer stored on the farm. During application season, the local retailer places a poly tank in each field to be fertilized. Whenever possible, water is trailered to the field and chemicals are mixed directly into the sprayer.

Curtis has also left many small, wooded plots of low-lying, non-productive land scattered around the farm to produce wildlife habitat.