“We'll leave our soil in better condition than we received it.” That simple statement sums up the conservation philosophy of this year's four American Soybean Association (ASA) Conservation Legacy Award regional winners.

From a stiff field of competition, these winners epitomize the outstanding environmental and conservation achievements of U.S. soybean farmers.

A national selection committee composed of soybean farmers, conservationists and natural resource professionals evaluated entrants based on their environmental and economic programs.

All four regional winners and spouses or guests will receive all-expense-paid trips to the Commodity Classic in Charlotte, NC, Feb. 27-March 1. The overall winner will also receive a plaque and yard sign to recognize his achievements.

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

Midwestern Region Delbert Price, Alexis, IL

Delbert Price takes a no-nonsense approach to no-tilling on his northwestern Illinois operation. He began no-tilling corn in 1982, had good success and added soybeans in 1986. Today, he's 100% no-till on 435 acres of corn and 507 acres of soybeans.

“No-till builds soil organic matter and humus, which makes a better soil structure for rainfall holding capacity and less erosion,” says Price.

In addition, Price soil tests every four to five years using GPS grid sampling. Lime is kept to a 6.5 pH reading and phosphorus and potassium are applied in the fall on soybean stubble.

He sidedresses anhydrous after corn is up in the spring. “This eliminates the expense of a nitrogen stabilizer and uses less nitrogen,” Price says.

He has 13 acres of waterways, three water and sediment control basins and 2 acres of critical area planting. A 3-acre natural wetland along a bottomland is maintained to improve water quality and provide wildlife habitat. Nine miles of tile have been installed to reduce wet spots and increase crop production.

Price is active in local conservation and no-till events and regularly hosts tours on his operation, which includes 30 beef cows.

“Illinois is a leader in conservation farming and I'm proud to be part of it,” Price says.

Eastern Region Layman Farms, Kenton, OH

What started as a way to expand their operation without adding labor has now become a passion for Jan and Cindy Layman. Their west-central Ohio farm saw its first no-till equipment in 1984, and, since 1994, all 3,000 acres are no-tilled.

“We traded our 4-wheel-drive tractor and most tillage equipment in on our first no-till drill,” Jan explains. “We did this to remove the temptation to work ground.”

Continuous no-till has reduced weed pressure for the Laymans and thereby reduced chemical usage. They apply their own herbicides and soil sample every two years.

The labor, fuel and time savings have allowed rapid expansion for the growers. Since 1997, they've doubled their cropland.

About half their acreage is considered highly erodible land and has led them to establish grass waterways on several acres. They also encourage landlords to install buffer strips along creeks.

They're especially careful when mixing pesticides. All chemicals are mixed from nurse trucks in the field to eliminate exposure to their own wells. They even built a fertilizer and fuel secondary containment dike in 2001 to prevent environmental contamination.

A 2.5-acre stocked lake is a centerpiece at Layman Farms. It provides habitat for wildlife such as whitetail deer, pheasants and wild turkeys. A 19th century log cabin near the lake is used as a shelter and location to host cooperative extension service programs.

Says Jan: “Conservation means using natural resources sparingly and wisely to achieve not necessarily maximum yields, but maximum economic returns.”

Southern Region Hendrix Farms, Raeford, NC

Ask Earl Brown Hendrix what conservation means and his answer is quick and simple: “It's the balance between man and land.” As he puts it, “Our operation is geared to maximum yield and productivity, but never at the expense of the land.”

Hendrix uses a mix of Bt and conventional cotton for pest management, conventional corn and both Roundup Ready and conventional soybeans. He plants 250 acres of corn, 1,800 acres of soybeans, 1,500 acres of cotton, 1,200 acres of wheat and 115 acres of tobacco.

Soybeans are no-tilled into wheat (cover crop) stubble after harvest. About 75% of wheat is no-tilled into cotton stalks. All corn, cotton and full-season soybeans are fall and winter subsoiled and planted into the previous year's crop residue. The only land conventionally tilled is planted to tobacco.

He uses rate controls and acre counters along with GPS field tracking to ensure spraying accuracy. Soil sampling is done every other year based on yield maps. That way, he's able to spot and treat problem areas, then come back with broadcast fertilizer to areas that need added nutrients.

Most pesticides are bought in bulk. Containers from those that aren't are rinsed with pressure nozzles from nurse tanks. All rinse water is then applied to the field.

The farm is 4 miles from the local fertilizer plant, so fertilizer is delivered and picked up on an as-needed basis. All fuel is stored in above-ground tanks with a containment wall and shed.

Waste oil is stored and delivered to the local recycling center. In fact, Hendrix was instrumental in establishing the community hazardous waste program.

Western Region K.U. Farms, Hays, KS

Harold and Virginia Kraus' overall goal on their west-central Kansas operation is zero runoff. Their fields are covered at all times with either growing crops or residue from previous crops. “This keeps soil and water loss to a minimum,” Harold says.

Kraus started farming in 1960 and quickly shifted to stubble mulch tillage two years later. In 1995 he became a Kansas certified crop advisor and switched completely to no-till on dryland crops of wheat and milo. He now farms 2,500 acres and plants no-till corn, soybeans, milo, wheat and sunflowers. Miles and miles of terraces meander throughout the operation.

When spraying, he uses an on-board computer and calibrates depending on field size. Nearly all pesticides are mixed in the field.

The first windbreaks were planted in 1961, shortly after Kraus bought the farm. An historic spring on the operation is fenced along with a 5-acre wetland area. An 8-acre dam was built behind the outflow of the wetland in 1969 and is now used for fishing and neighborhood recreation.

“We have a minimum of soil and nutrient loss,” says Kraus. “And, our organic matter is stabilized and slowly rebuilding.”