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Farming, Conservation Harmonize on NE South Dakota Farm

Brian and Jamie Johnson, shown with their children, received the South Dakota Leopold Conservation Award for their success in balancing farm production with conservation. (Courtesy of Johnson Family)
Brian and Jamie Johnson, shown with their children, received the South Dakota Leopold Conservation Award for their success in balancing farm production with conservation. (Courtesy of Johnson Family)
May 10, 2019

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – Brian Johnson was just a boy 25 years ago when his dad bucked the trend and adopted no-till farming practices. Now, he's approaching 40 and following in his father's footsteps promoting sustainable agriculture.

The Johnson Farm of Frankfort – 1,800 acres of cropland and 500 acres of grassland – recently snagged the 2019 Leopold Conservation Award, given to private landowners who practice an ethical relationship with the land.

Brian's family farm in northeastern South Dakota was first settled by his great-grandparents. It’s now tended by Brian, his parents Alan and Mickie Johnson, and his wife, Jamie.

He says it's one of many no-till farms in Spink County.

"One of the big things with this family is, 'Take care of land, it'll take care of us.' So, you have to change your mentality, going from conventional to no-till, 'cause there's gonna be hiccups,” says Brian Johnson. “But I think there's enough resources and enough people doing it nowadays that it's not like you're reinventing the wheel now."

The Johnson farm was nominated for the award by the local conservation district. The honor is named for renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold.

The farm's roots trace back to 160 acres that Brian Johnson's Swedish immigrant great-grandfather homesteaded more than a century ago.

After the family gave up conventional farming and adopted no-till practices, Johnson says it took about five years to see real improvement in the soil.

"It was the way that we could cut costs but still be productive, but also do what's right for the soil,” says Johnson. “It just works. If you've got the right machinery, and the right mindset, you can make it work. And it will work, it'll be profitable."

Johnson acknowledges that no-till isn't the right option for every farm, but the combination of cover crops and a herd of cattle to graze them is the better option for his cropland.

"By growing cover crops, it's another feed source, but it's also a way to just really invigorate the system on your fields,” says Johnson. “And then, having livestock come through, we're finding that we can almost wean ourselves off of commercial fertilizer after a few years, if we do it correctly."

No-till farming and cover crops were used for centuries before the rise of modern, chemical-based agriculture. The Johnson Farm will be presented with a $10,000 check at the Cattlemen's Association Annual Convention in December.

Roz Brown, Public News Service - SD