Leopold Conservation award

For their passionate dedication to conservation on their farm, Craig, Nebraska’s Ed and Leta Olson were awarded as the 2020 Nebraska Leopold Conservation Award.

LINCOLN, Neb. — When Ed and Leta Olson, of Craig, Nebraska, were given a copy of A Sand County Almanac by a local wildlife biologist, they must have seen themselves in its pages.

Today, the Nebraska farmers epitomize what it means to be a steward of the land, and for their 20-plus years of dedication to conservation efforts, the Olsons were recently honored with the 2020 Nebraska Leopold Conservation Award.

The Burt County couple will receive the prestigious award, given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold. The award recognizes extraordinary achievement in voluntary conservation by American farmers, ranchers and foresters in 21 states.

“The Olsons are the epitome of the farmer-conservationists,” said Steve Martin, executive director of the Alliance for the Future of Agriculture in Nebraska (AFAN). “They create habitat for wildlife and improved the soil with innovative farming practices. Ed shares his passion for the outdoors as a mentor and instructor. This ensures that future generations are connected to nature and care about conservation.”

The Olsons’ land ethic is expressed by implementing agricultural conservation practices and connecting others with nature.

When many farmers were clearing trees and farming to their fence lines, the Olsons were doing whatever they could to create wildlife habitat, maintain soil health and improve water quality.

Of the 815 acres they farm in eastern Nebraska, 115 acres are enrolled in conservation programs to create filter strips, shelterbelts and pollinator habitat.

The Olsons are firm believers that if every farmer took the least profitable 5-10 percent of their farm and used it for conservation, then all farmers would make more money while planting fewer acres.

“While he may not be the biggest farmer that we work with, he undoubtedly makes the largest impact,” said Andy Bohnenkamp, district conservationist.

Ed has adopted a variety of conservation practices to decrease erosion, protect water quality and increase soil health. Cover crops of grasses, small grains and legumes are planted in the off-season to increase the soil’s ability to hold water and sediment. No-till has been used on his corn and soybean fields for more than 20 years. Terracing has made sloped farm fields more manageable.

In 2017, the Olsons were among the first landowners to participate in Nebraska’s Corners for Wildlife program that established one to three-acre plots of pollinator habitat at rural intersections. Sewn with wildflowers, these plantings benefit bees and butterflies, and they keep drivers safe during summer months when corn fields would otherwise limit visibility.

They have planted about 4,000 trees and shrubs to create windbreaks, and provide food sources and corridors for wildlife. Such efforts earned them a Legacy Award from Pheasants Forever, Quail Forever and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2015.

“The Olson’s integration of conservation into their farming practices is apparent through the many years of developing habitat for wildlife on their farm,” said Sammy Renteria, general manager of Cargill in Schuyler. “We salute their devotion to farming while providing quality habitat for wildlife and their willingness to share these resources with the surrounding community.”

Off the farm, Ed has spent his entire adulthood fostering conservation ethics and a respect for the land among hunters and farmers. He co-founded the Burt County Pheasants Forever chapter and educates landowners on how to enhance pheasant habitat by planting natural food sources on abandoned farmsteads and fence lines. As owner of Olson Pearson Auctions & Realty, he donates his time auctioneering at conservation events.

His strongest passion is sharing his knowledge with youth. He teaches youth firearm safety and outdoor ethics as an instructor for the Nebraska Game & Parks Hunter Education Program, and as a volunteer with Pheasant Forever’s Youth Mentor Hunt. As a former 4-H wildlife habitat team leader he provided hands-on experience to youth building goose nests and wood duck boxes.

Generations of local children have learned to fish in the Olson family pond. The youth he first mentored in the 1990s are returning to fish with kids of their own.

“Ed Olson has been a great spokesman for conservation. He has an ethic like that of Leopold when it comes to his land and its wildlife,” said Mark Brohman, Nebraska Environmental Trust Executive Director.

Ed and Leta strive to keep their farm as aligned as possible with nature, not only to support local wildlife, but to create a vibrant landscape for the community to enjoy.

“Recipients of this award are real life examples of conservation-minded agriculture,” said Kevin McAleese, Sand County Foundation President and chief executive officer. “These hard-working families are essential to our environment, food system and rural economy.”

The Olsons will be presented with the $10,000 award at a public event later this year.

In Nebraska, the award is presented annually by Sand County Foundation, Alliance for the Future of Agriculture in Nebraska (AFAN), Cargill and the Nebraska Environmental Trust.

For more information on the award, visit www.leopoldconservationaward.org.

The Leopold Conservation Award in Nebraska is made possible thanks to the generous contributions from Cargill, Nebraska Environmental Trust, Alliance for the Future of Agriculture in Nebraska, Sand County Foundation, Farm Credit Services of America, Audubon Nebraska, Lyle Sittler Memorial Fund, McDonald’s, Nebraska Department of Agriculture, Nebraska Game and Parks, Nebraska Land Trust, Rainwater Basin Joint Venture, Sandhills Task Force, Tri-State Generation & Transmission Association, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, World Wildlife Fund - Northern Great Plains, and Green Cover Seeds.