Southwest Iowa farmer wins conservation award

Iowa Learning Farms relies on a strong roster of Farmer Partners to reach and engage farmers across Iowa with their conservation programs and activities. Seth Watkins has been one of these partners for more than a decade and was just honored by the Sand County Foundation with the 2022 Iowa Leopold Conservation Award for his long-standing efforts to improve soil health on Pinhook Farms and other lands in southwest Iowa that he leases or manages in Page and Taylor counties. As the first Iowa honoree, Watkins was also recognized as a leading advocate for statewide soil and water conservation efforts.

The award is given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold and recognizes individuals who inspire others with their commitment to the land, water and wildlife habitats in their care. Watkins has embodied this commitment to the land through lifelong choices since he began working his own land in the 1990s. He currently owns, leases or manages approximately 4,000 acres where he has been instrumental in decision making focused on soil health, water quality and biodiversity and habitat regeneration.

Farmer Seth Watkins leads a field day discussion

Farmer Seth Watkins leads a field day discussion on biodiversity and habitat on his pastures.

In nominating Watkins for the award, ILF Director Jacqueline Comito said, “I know of no farmer who embodies the spirit of Leopold’s land ethics more than Seth Watkins. He is distinguished by his exceptional achievements in conservation volunteerism, his inspiration for other landowners through his own efforts, and his eagerness to help the public understand the critical role private landowners play in conservation success.”

“I am honored and honored by this award and the endorsements of peers and peers who supported my nomination,” said Watkins. “There are many deserving farmers in Iowa who are doing incredible things and trying to put the country first. I hope this recognition of my small contributions and efforts will inspire other farmers and ranchers to look at their land differently and focus on setting and achieving conservation goals.”

improvement of the country

Early in his farming career, Watkins took an approach of looking at the land and listening to it. He noted that land, soil and water aren’t all that different from farm animals, because if something doesn’t look or smell right, a change is likely needed. Not only did he convert his land from row crops to rangeland and reserved land, he went one step further and placed the 320 acres of his family’s farmland under permanent protection easement, never to be put back into inefficient use of row crops.

A Field Day Tour in the Pasture by Seth Watkins

FARM TOUR: A day field tour of Seth Watkins’ pastures and prairies to help others understand how he manages his farmland.

“Sometimes you have to stop and take stock of your surroundings – and when you see something that’s not really true, you take the time and make an effort to understand the science and mechanics of what’s happening and what you could do to make a correction” , Watkins said. “For example, if you look at a clear pond or a crystal clear stream and then look at a compromised waterway, you have to work backwards to better understand what has polluted the water and what are the big and small things – like restricting nearby grazing the shore – could make a difference and help restore the crystal clear nature of the water. Sometimes things go the way you think they do and sometimes they don’t. But you have to use your senses and be willing to change if you want to make improvements.”

Watkins’ improvements to the land he manages include the creation or enhancement of 56 ponds and a wetland, which will help improve the quality of water leaving the properties and provide habitat for a wide variety of wildlife. He’s also implemented prairie strips—and was instrumental in helping researchers at Iowa State University transition from test plots to field-scale implementations. Additionally, he is a strong supporter of cover crops and has been responsible for placing hundreds of acres in the Conservation Reserve Program and other conservation programs.

Watkins is recognized as a natural leader and teacher. He has lectured across the country and around the world, hosts regular field days with ILF, is an active member of Practical Farmers of Iowa, and loves connecting with young people and aspiring farmers. His passion is inspiring young people to know and love the country the way he does. He helped ILF develop the Emerging Farmers program and invited a dozen budding farmers to an immersive two-day workshop on his land.

And while some of his neighbors and colleagues may not entirely agree with his approach, Watkins is well respected statewide and nationally, and within the conservation and farming communities, for his passion and willingness to try and share his experiences and knowledge.

In his influential 1949 book, A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold called for an ethical relationship between people and the land they own and farm, which he called “an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity.” Seth Watkins is an Iowa farmer who works hard every day to achieve those opportunities.

Ripley is Manager of Iowa Learning Farms and a Water Rocks! Specialist in nature conservation.

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