Todd and Michelle Andreson say they never really considered themselves conservationists, but when they stop to think about it, “I guess that’s what we are.”

The couple, who run a third-generation, 2,000-acre beef and grain farm in Hamden Township, say they have a strong interest in “preserving the land, so it’s there for generations to come.”

They want their farm to be successful well into the future so that their three teenage boys — Matthew, Clint and Cody — can have the option of taking over the family business one day.

“It was always our goal to have a farm family,” Michelle says. “So we want to make sure we have something here for them.”

The best way to do that, they say, is by employing conservation management practices around their farm now, to keep the land’s nutrients from depleting and to “maximize its potential.” About six years ago, they started implementing some new farming techniques, with soil health and longevity in the front of their minds.

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Little by little, they began to make important changes around their farm, and today, they engage in — and benefit from — conservation crop rotations, residue and tillage management, rotational grazing, cover crops, nutrient management, field windbreaks, pasture improvement, and other tactics designed to create and sustain strong, healthy farmland for years to come.

“Short-term, it’s just to slow down some of the erosion issues that we really have, and to utilize the ground we have in more ways than just one crop,” Todd says. “Long-term, it’s so there’s a future for our family, our boys … So there’s something there for them to have.”

“You can only take so much out every year, until eventually there’s nothing left,” says Michelle, referring to nutrients in the soil. “You have to learn how to put back in, rather than just taking out. You have to preserve the environment. If we don’t do it, who will? We are the stewards of the land.”

With sentiments and actions like those, it’s little wonder the Becker County Soil and Water Conservation District named the Andresons this year’s Outstanding Conservationists of the Year.

The honor is bestowed annually on landowners, ag producers, lake associations, civic organizations and others in Minnesota in each of the state’s 89 Soil and Water Conservation Districts. Honorees are chosen for their efforts to preserve rare or declining habitats, incorporate new management techniques, conserve resources, and reduce the amount of runoff of sediment and nutrients to surface water.

Michelle says she and Todd were “surprised and honored” to receive the recognition, and Todd adds, “It kind of gives us a boost to do more, and to spread the word. We have to be advocates of our own industry.”

“It’s not always the easy way, doing it the way we do, but it’s sustainable,” he says of their conservation practices. “As opposed to doing the same thing year after year after year.”

This isn't the first time the Andresons have been recognized for their work. In 2017, the couple and their sons, who play an integral role at the farm, were named Farm Family of the Year in Becker County. And in 2008, Todd and Michelle were selected as the Becker County-Lake Agassiz Emerging Leaders for their commitment to leadership and the community.

Todd started running the family farm in 1997. He and Michelle married in 1998, and they've been farming together pretty much ever since. In addition to a 140 Red Angus cow herd, they grow corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa. They also grew strawberries together for about 11 years, up until 2014.

For a long time, they operated with “one big pasture,” they say, until they started working with the Soil and Water Conservation District. That relationship opened the door to some funding for fencing for a rotational grazing program. When that program went even better than the Andresons expected, it led to more changes around the farm, and then more. Today, 70% of their pastoral ground is grazed on a rotation, and their ultimate goal is to get to 100%.

“I can’t say it was my idea to move cows around,” Todd says, laughing. “I didn’t know it was going to go so well. It’s been very good … From there, we’ve done more and more.”

Peter Mead, district administrator for the Soil and Water Conservation District, says the Andresons’ efforts have been possible in part due to funding from the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentive Program as well as the state’s Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment.

“The idea is to give a leg up, to get people started,” Mead says of the funding, “with the hope that it (a new practice) becomes their status quo. And it usually leads to more.”

Looking ahead to the future, the Andresons want to continue to make more positive changes around their farm, with cover crops on their tillable ground and rotational grazing mixed into that. The couple is “even interested in no-till now,” Todd says. They want to continue to grow and enhance their operation, by preserving and maintaining the acreage they already have rather than by renting or buying more land.

“For us, it’s not about how big we can get,” Michelle says. “It’s about the quality of what we do. We just want to farm and farm well — and responsibly.”