TOWN OF FOUNTAIN PRAIRIE - A few moments after John and Dorothy Priske came in from the cold late Wednesday morning, a friend dropped by their 110-year-old farmhouse to ask a quick question.
He knows someone, he said, who's interested in starting a direct-market beef operation like the one that the Priskes have established on their 280 acres in southeast Columbia County, named after the township in which it's located - Fountain Prairie Farm. Could a visit to the Priske farm be arranged? Do the Priskes have any advice?
John and Dorothy Priske frequently get (and grant) requests like this, not only from friends and neighbors, but also from Columbia County, state and federal agriculture officials, and from farmers all over the United States.
Their multifaceted work in conservation - from their soil-saving grazing operation for their Highland beef cattle, to the restoration of a prairie and a wetland, to the 50-kilowatt wind turbine that they recently installed on their farm - has resulted in the Priskes being named the 2010-2011 Wisconsin Conservation Farmers of the Year.
The Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association will officially bestow the honor at its annual meeting Dec. 9 and 10 in Wisconsin Dells.
Kurt Calkins, Columbia County's director of land and water conservation, nominated the Priskes for the statewide award not long after they hosted a summer tour in July for area county conservation organizations.
"It really highlighted the great things they've been doing," Calkins said.
When the Priskes acquired their farm in 1986, they operated it for several years as a conventional row-crop operation - struggling, like many of their neighbors, to make a financial success of growing corn and soybeans.
A few things happened to cause them to shift their direction.
Calkins said their soil was eroding at an alarming rate. And, John Priske recalled, two of their dogs died, of different types of cancer, in a six-month period.
The Priskes knew, from hearing fewer and fewer songbirds, that the chemicals they were using on their farm probably were harming avian wildlife.
The dogs' deaths were, to John Priske, "like the canary in the mine shaft."
About that time, John read an Aldo Leopold essay, "The Farmer as a Conservationist."
Leopold's message flew in the face of the "get big or get out" mentality that had governed farmers since Earl Butz, secretary of agriculture under President Richard Nixon, gave that advice, in those words, to farmers across the nation.
Instead, Priske said, Leopold wrote in the 1940s of farmers who were good to their land; the land, in turn, was good to them.
Another epiphany that Dorothy Priske recalled was a trip to New Zealand, where they visited a sheep station at which the animals fed on the grass that grew in their paddocks.
"The meat was unlike anything we'd eaten before. It was really, really good," she said.
So, the Priskes thought, why not raise grass-fed beef?
With a cover crop of brome, timothy and other grasses, the long-haired Highland cattle served as both the harvesters of the grass and as its fertilizer. But, as John Priske discovered, one change on a farm inevitably leads to another.
Before long, the Priskes had restored, in 61 acres, the prairie that was the source of the town's name.
They also restored a wetland that had been drained for planting crops.
Through the Wisconsin Purchase of Agriculture Conservation Easements program, they ensured their farmland would continue to be used for agriculture in perpetuity.
They took a leadership role in Columbia County's effort to promote locally produced foods. Their beef is sold to Madison-area restaurants, and it's available to the public most Saturdays at the Dane County Farmer's Market.
Most recently - in fact, after Calkins had already nominated them to be Wisconsin Conservation Farmers of the Year - the Priskes became the first farmers in Columbia County to acquire their own electricity-generating wind turbine through Madison-based Seventh Generation Energy Systems. The 140-foot turbine, purchased with grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development program and the state's Focus on Energy program, generates enough energy to run the farm, with excess energy available to be purchased by Alliant Energy.
From a computer in their kitchen, John and Dorothy can monitor the minute-by-minute activity of their turbine, including wind speed and electricity generated. As of Wednesday morning, the turbine had generated more than 20,800 kilowatt-hours of electricity since it went online this fall.
For the award, Priske said, he owes a debt of thanks to people like Calkins, and U.S. Department of Agriculture officials who have pointed him and Dorothy in the direction of programs designed to encourage conservation.
"We are caretakers, as opposed to mining the farm for money," John Priske said. "We do what we can to improve the soil that is where life comes from - so we can leave it better than we found it."