The Illinois Sustainable Ag Partnership was a proud sponsor of the inaugural Illinois Leopold Conservation Award, an award program sponsored by the Sand County Foundation that recognizes and celebrates extraordinary achievement in voluntary conservation by agricultural landowners. The prestigious award, given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, recognizes extraordinary achievement in voluntary conservation and management of natural resources by American farmers, ranchers, and forestland owner in 27 states.
This feature of the 2023 Award Recipient in Illinois, Frey Family Farms, was originally published, and can be viewed, on the Sand County Foundation website. The Freys have implemented several conservation practices to reduce soil erosion, improve water quality, and enhance wildlife habitat at their beef cattle and grain farm in Hamilton County.
Back in 1975, Dennis and Jackie Frey were a couple of newlywed farm kids with modest goals of raising a family and making a living raising crops.
Frey Family Farms started with some land that has been in Dennis and Jackie’s families for generations but has since grown to include acres they’ve purchased and rented as a married couple.
As corn and soybean growers, their initial conservation goals were modest too. Early on, they enrolled in programs available to farmers to help reduce soil loss and control water erosion, but this too would evolve over time.
Conservation practices and the technology and equipment to carry them out have become more sophisticated. So has the Frey’s knowledge base about them.
After graduating with a degree in plant and soil science, Dennis farmed and worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s soil survey team identifying soil types and conducting soil mapping. As a resource conservationist for the Hamilton County Soil and Water Conservation District he later offered training and outreach to fellow farmers.
Back on the farm, his use of minimum tillage across his 1,200 acres of cropland progressed to a no-till system. Dennis found coupling no-till practices with growing cover crops to be a conservation game changer. This combo helps reduce soil erosion, utilize excess nitrogen, sequester carbon, and minimize evaporation to allow crops to better access moisture held in the soil.
When reducing water runoff, cover crops prevent fertilizer and other nutrients from contaminating the water supply. No-till practices require fewer passes over a field with farm equipment, which reduces the use of fossil fuel while saving time.
Technological advancements have been embraced by the Freys to enhance their farm’s productivity. Grid soil testing is completed on all cropland on a four-year rotation. Variable rates of application for fertilizer and lime are used to increase their effectiveness and reduce input costs.
About 240 acres of Frey Family Farms is enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program and has been planted with native prairie grasses and wildflowers. Their extensive root systems have increased microbial activity improving the soil’s health and structure. The tall grasses also provide cover and nesting sites for deer, quail, and rabbits.
Dennis and Jackie’s son-in-law, Brock Holston, is taking over management of the farm. His interest in hunting and fishing has brought an additional dimension to the farm’s conservation efforts. He’s established food plots and constructed ponds and wetlands designed to provide habitat to fish, waterfowl, and wildlife populations. Frey Family Farms has also planted more than 20,000 hardwood trees, and installed several miles of terraces, grassed waterways, and other erosion control structures.
In addition to what they’ve taught their daughters (Lara, Ashley, and Cameron) about conservation, the Freys feel an obligation to educate others in hopes they will understand the role they can play in protecting the environment. Frey Family Farms has hosted field days and tours with audiences ranging from local fourth graders to foreign visitors from Africa and Asia. Off the farm, Dennis has served in a variety of leadership roles in agriculture and conservation organizations.
Dennis and Jackie’s farm has done more than provide for their family in the nearly 50 years since they started out. It has also fostered a conservation ethic in those who have called it home.
In Illinois the Leopold Conservation Award is presented annually by Sand County Foundation, national sponsor American Farmland Trust, and state partners: IL Corn and Illinois Soybean Association. Dennis and Jackie Frey were presented with the $10,000 award at the Farm Progress Show in Decatur on August 31.