Editor’s note: This is the final article in a series featuring three finalists selected for the 2019 Wisconsin Leopold Conservation Award.
FALL RIVER, Wis. – For John and Dorothy Priske, Fountain Prairie Farm is a canvas of changing colors and beauty. The Priskes are farmers. And like other farmers they’re trying to earn a living.
But through decades of conservation practices the Priskes also are artists. Their tallgrass prairie, restored wetland and windbreaks turn various hues with the changing seasons. The couple sees beauty in bobolinks and meadowlarks that have returned to the area. They also see beauty in their Scottish Highland cattle grazing knee-deep in spring grass.
“The landscape of a farm is the owner’s portrait of himself,” wrote renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold. “Conservation implies self-expression in that landscape rather than blind compliance with economic dogma.”
The couple said that’s one of their favorite quotes. Leopold in 1939 conveyed his message in “The Farmer as a Conservationist.”
It’s fitting that between their interest in Leopold’s concepts and their own decades of conservation work the Priskes have been selected as one of three finalists for the 2019 Wisconsin Leopold Conservation Award.
The Priskes purchased in 1986 a 286-acre farm near Fall River. At that time the entire farm had been planted to corn. They took samples and found much of their soil’s organic-matter content was just about 2 percent. By implementing conservation practices they’ve since increased their silt-loam soil’s organic matter to more than 4 percent.
“It’s a natural progression,” John Priske said. “We learn and we grow.”
Dorothy Priske said, “We also learned that the best use of some land is not for farming.”
They restored a 60-acre prairie wetland that previously had been cropped. They removed invasive cattails that had been choking the wetland and posing challenges to water quality. They converted land to tallgrass prairie. And they enrolled their erodible land in the Conservation Reserve Program. Going beyond standard compliance with that program they’ve planted species to attract pollinators and wildlife.
“We’ve planted a lot of milkweed seed for monarch butterflies,” John Priske said. “If we can help increase pollinator numbers we can help everyone.”
Of all the conservation practices they’ve implemented, rotational grazing has been probably the most effective, John Priske said. The Priskes in the late 1990s transitioned from growing crops to grazing beef cattle.
“It was a big change from row-crop farming,” he said.
With the grazing operation the cattle – not people – did the fertilizing and harvesting.
The couple received funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program to help purchase fencing and water lines. They also created a mounded area with a concrete pad and installed eavestroughs on a barn to direct water away from cattle. That heavy-use area is a place to process calves and provide vaccinations, John Priske said.
At one point the couple grazed a herd of 550 cattle. They currently have 20 Scottish Highland cattle. Ninety head of Angus also were pastured on the farm during the summer months.
Nicholas Leete is one of the individuals who nominated the Priskes for the Leopold Conservation Award. He now works as gardens-network manager for Community Groundworks of Madison, Wisconsin. When he met the Priskes in 2017 he was managing field operations for the laboratory of Valentin Picasso, an assistant professor of agronomy at UW-Madison. Leete worked with the couple in testing Kernza, the trademarked name of an intermediate perennial wheatgrass that can be used as a grain as well as a forage. They planted Kernza on 12 acres of grazing land.
Much of the previous research on the crop had been conducted at research stations so seeing how it fared in “real-world” conditions was beneficial, Leete said. Also beneficial to the project was that the Priskes had experience testing different grazing practices, he said.
“One of the reasons I nominated them for the award is that they have a strong environmental ethic,” Leete said. “That’s true of a lot of people, but they’re also experimenters and do a lot of work to do the right thing. Their entire farm is one large conservation practice.”
Joe Zimbric also nominated the couple for the Leopold award. He now works as a crop and soil educator for the UW-Division of Extension in Dodge and Fond du Lac counties. But in 2017 when he met the Priskes he was a graduate student working on the Kernza project at UW-Madison. The Priskes in July 2019 hosted at their farm attendees of the International Kernza Conference. They discussed the environmental benefits and grazing challenges of the long-rooted perennial.
“The Priskes are excellent candidates for the Leopold award,” Zimbric said. “They’re outstanding leaders in their community and are dedicated to improving the health of their land. I think Leopold would’ve liked that.”