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By Amber Hayden
BOYCEVILLE — On behalf of Lake Farms, April Lake nominated her dad, Jeff Lake, for the Leopold Conservation Award presented each year by the Sand County Foundation and Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation.
The award is named for Aldo Leopold, who was an environmentalist, forester and conservationist, as well as a professor at the University of Wisconsin and is best known for his book, “A Sand County Almanac.”
The award recognizes agricultural landowners actively committed to a land ethic. The Sand County Foundation presents the honor, which consists of $10,000 and a crystal award that will be presented to one of the three nominees in December.
For fifth generation farmers, Jeff and Kelley Lake, the journey to becoming farmers was not an easy one. An accident and a death in the family in 2006 left them wondering how would they go on without the help they had been hoping for.
“We’ve always been involved with the family farm as far as that goes,” Jeff said, “but when my dad died was when we decided to take over the farming part of it because we didn’t want to sell it.”
“His brother and sister-in-law have also helped any time we needed it with no questions asked,” Kelley added.
Jeff and Kelley took over the farm in 2006, and that summer, began the construction of an irrigator, which was the first piece of equipment to go in. The rush to get it put together was on the Lake family as a drought sat in.
“We had to sit back and watch as the crops started to wither, and we kept trying to get the irrigator together,” Kelley commented.
One day after getting the irrigator together, according to Jeff, the rain started and didn’t stop. But that year, the crops were terrible for farmers because of how dry it had been.
Jeff, along with his son Jake have worked since then, with the help of two separate agricultural programs, to gain the best yield from the 1,500 acres of land they operate between Boyceville and Colfax.
The purpose of the programs allows them to determine which areas produce and which areas are failing to produce. Anything in the red are areas on the grid where the two farmers focus most of their efforts to see what the issue is and how to correct it.
“It’s so you know what is lacking or deficient in certain nutrients so you can identify that,” he explained. “So say if this part of the field isn’t doing very well then we cut the seed way back so hopefully you don’t have as many inputs into the land and can see the reason it isn’t doing so well.”
The first step in the process is to identify what the area lacks, examples such as sandy soil, fertilization, or is the wildlife destroying the crop. If the crop struggles to produce, the Lakes have learned to plant other crops, hoping the wildlife will stick to that area and leave the bigger crops alone.
For the Lakes, a big reason for farming the way they have been is to focus on keeping the soil healthier.
“When you have healthy soil, it seems like you have healthier, stronger water,” Lake stated. “It’s always been pretty huge to the whole family, big things for us as farmers, we want to leave our land better than when we got it. That’s our goal.”
“We take big responsibility as the land runs along two rivers. The Hay River meets down on the land that we and his brother own. So taking care of the quality of that water has always been the utmost importance, to make sure the banks aren’t eroding.” Kelley chimed in.
Jeff and Kelley also practice no-till farming, which reduces soil erosion and reduces the need for fertilizer.
“The soil is healthier and the angle worms like it, the little cell microbes in the soil makes the microbes healthier,” he said.
He also expressed the importance of farmers becoming part of a Farmer-Led watershed, explaining that the more involved farmers are the less the politicians are getting involved. A Farmer-Led watershed is a group of farmers organized within a defined watershed and willing to play a leading role in addressing the shared concern.
The more farmers volunteer to do things on their own and take steps in the right direction they are able to keep the power over their farms and keep politics out of it, he said.
“There is a lot of anger and finger pointing and that is the biggest problem. Everyone needs to learn to work together and figure out what we need to focus on” explained Kelley.
Their son Jake also expressed that a lot of the contribution of pollutants that feed the algae blooms comes from sewer drains on parking lots and those on the river banks who fertilize their lawns.
The issue becomes that the water is not absorbed in and the pollution comes from parking lots and buildings, even though they are needed and a community should embrace it to fix it, she said.
“To know there is that push out there against farmers on a whole different level. We are struggling to keep our small farms alive, healthy and wild,” Kelley commented.
Jeff has gone about helping other farmers on how to appropriately run their farms and on what kind of cover crops they can use.
For Jeff, it is a big honor to be nominated for the Leopold Conservation Award, explaining it is an elite group that is chosen and that a lot of good people are out doing the same as the Lakes are. In February, Jeff and Kelley accepted an award for Precision Farmer of the Year from Pheasants Forever as well.
“To know the family has really been struggling doing this for years without any acknowledgment and now it starts coming around,” stated Jeff.
“There is a saying that Aldo Leopold said, ‘Ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one else is watching — even when doing the wrong thing is legal.’”