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AUXVASSE — A local family farm has been named the 2019 recipient of the Missouri Leopold Conservation Award.

Brinker Farms, of Auxvasse, operated by Kenny and Susan Brinker, was recognized during the 2020 Missouri Natural Resources Conference on Wednesday. This $10,000 award is presented annually by Sand County Foundation, Missouri Farmers Care, the Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

It's named for renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold and recognizes farmers, ranchers and foresters who inspire others with their dedication to land, water and wildlife habitat management on private land.

"It's kind of our philosophy: If you're going to farm for a living, it's kind of your sacred (duty) to make that farm, when you leave it in a pine box, better than when you found it," Kenny Brinker said Friday. "Otherwise, your children are going to get something even more degraded."

The Brinkers

The Sand County Foundation and Missouri Farmers Care cited sustainable practices on the Brinker farm, such as recycling manure as a fertilizer for crops, restoring a 6-acre wetland and no-till farming. The Brinkers operate a farrow-to-finish hog operation (Harrison Creek Farms) and a processing and marketing operation (Brinker Farms Pork), and grow row crops.

"Diversity is the key to success when balancing natural resources and the need to make a living. There is no better example of diversity in an operation than exhibited by Brinker Farms," said Grover DePriest, acting Missouri State Conservationist. "The Brinkers are an exemplary illustration of how we can live in harmony with the land."

In 1998, the Brinkers relocated to their Callaway County farm and began designing new hog facilities to address existing environmental constraints.

"When we first moved to this farm, we asked our neighbor why no one was farming the land," Brinker recalled. "He told us, 'Frankly, we thought it was ruined. It'd been farmed for 30 years, depleting it at as it went.'"

The Brinkers, who now farm with their children, were one of the nation's first farm families to adopt the National Pork Board's Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan, according to Missouri Farmers Care.

Their conservation journey began long before that, however.

"Our parents taught us by example the importance of taking care of the land and our animals," Brinker said. "We give the best care to our pigs because they are our livelihood, and we are their stewards."

Brinker Farms' efforts to become more eco-friendly are many and varied.

With Environmental Quality Incentives Program funding for irrigation equipment, nutrients from the operation's manure storage lagoon are distributed to hundreds of acres of cropland, supplying crop nutrient needs while reducing input costs for fertilizer. That corn goes on to feed the next batch of hogs.

"In agriculture, our greatest resource is the land, and as farmers, it is our duty to be good stewards of that land for future generations," said Robert Alpers, chairman of the Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council. "Sustainability is a top priority for the Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council and key to our mission of supporting a bright future for soybean farmers."

The Brinkers use a variety of conservation practices including no-till, grass waterways, terraces, and variable-rate technology on their corn and soybean fields to improve soil health, fertility and water quality. In the past five years, they incorporated cereal rye as a cover crop to improve the soil's infiltration rate and further reduce erosion.

"We never till our soil anymore, and it really cuts down on erosion," Brinker said. "Cover crops help build up organic matter, key to absorbing more nutrients and holding more water."

With these changes, the farm's wildlife population has flourished, he said. The Brinkers, working with a state deer biologist, developed a plan to enhance the quality of the whitetail deer herd with a state deer biologist. Their crop fields are bordered with warm season grasses, alfalfa and forbs. Food plots of wheat, clover, sunflowers and grain crops provide habitat for quail and rabbits.

Brinker said fellow farmers curious about implementing similar sustainability measures are welcome to come visit his farm — in the last year, he's had groups from Japan, Korea, Denmark and "one country I can't even pronounce" — or stop in at their local NRCS office. Through the NRCS, farmers may even find cost-share incentive programs to help them get started.

"It's a big step for a lot of farmers: Like any segment of society, we do it that way just because we've always done it," he said. "But maybe the way you're doing it isn't the way it should be done."

The award

"Leopold Conservation Award recipients are at the forefront of a movement by America's farmers and ranchers to simultaneously achieve economic and environmental success," said Kevin McAleese, Sand County Foundation president and chief executive officer.

Other Missouri finalists for the 2019 award included Oetting Homestead Farms, of Concordia, in Lafayette County, and Joshlin and Addie Yoder, of Leonard, in Shelby County.

The Leopold Conservation Award Program in Missouri is made possible thanks to the support of Missouri Farmers Care, Missouri Soybean Association, Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Sand County Foundation, Missouri Cattlemen's Association, Missouri Corn Merchandising Council, MFA, Inc., the Missouri Department of Conservation, Missouri Soil and Water Conservation Program, Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives, Missouri Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, McDonald's, Missouri Soil and Water Conservation Districts, and the Nature Conservancy in Missouri.

In his influential 1949 book, "A Sand County Almanac," Leopold called for an ethical relationship between people and the land they own and manage, which he called "an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity."

Sand County Foundation presents the Leopold Conservation Award to private landowners in 20 states with a variety of conservation, agricultural and forestry organizations. For more information on the award, visit leopoldconservationaward.org.

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