Lamberts honored with Missouri’s first Leopold award.
As Matt Lambert harvests corn on an overcast early November afternoon, the clamorous combine kicks up more than dust and husks as it churns through the field. A white-tailed buck bounds through the buffer at the field’s edge. A pair of rabbits bounces between stalks into the safety of the next row. A startled covey of quail bursts into the silvery sky.
“We have some conservation strips around the outside of this field, and it’s nice to shell corn and watch the deer and quail,” Matt says. “I’ve been able to do that the past few days in this bottom.”
These sightings demonstrate that decades of dedicated land stewardship have paid off in more than just bumper crops for Matt and his wife, Kate, on their operation, Uptown Farms, near Brookfield, Mo. The farm yields an abundance of wildlife as well as grain, proving that modern-day agricultural production can coexist with conservation successfully.
“It used to be an accepted school of thought that agriculture, by nature, stole from the environment to be productive,” Kate says. “Today, we recognize that farming doesn’t have to take anything away. It can actually work alongside the natural systems for a mutually beneficial relationship.”
By putting that philosophy in action, the Lamberts have achieved a first for Missouri agriculture. They are the state’s inaugural winners of the prestigious Leopold Conservation Award, which recognizes extraordinary achievement in voluntary conservation.
“I thought maybe it would be something we could win down the road, but I never expected to win the first year we applied for it,” Matt says. “We’re honored to receive the award for the first time in Missouri.”
Given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, the award provides a forum where farmers, ranchers and other private landowners are recognized as conservation leaders. Considered by many to be the father of wildlife management, Leopold was a forester, philosopher, educator, writer and outdoor enthusiast. His collection of essays, “A Sand County Almanac,” was published in 1949 and is one of the most respected and influential books about the environment ever written.
His namesake award has been presented annually since 2003 by the Sand County Foundation, which was established by a group of private landowners in 1965 to preserve the property north of Baraboo, Wis., where Leopold did his writing and research. The organization has since expanded to support and promote voluntary conservation on working lands across the U.S., presenting the Leopold award in 12 states.
Missouri Farmers Care (MFC), a coalition of agricultural organizations that represents the state’s farmers and ranchers, partnered with the Sand County Foundation to bring the Leopold award to the Show-Me State this year.
“Missouri is a challenging state to farm in,” Kate says. “Our weather patterns are different; our soil profiles are different. I think that’s made a different breed of farmer here. We’ve had to be a little more innovative, a little more adaptive. That’s why I feel like this award is something that belongs here in Missouri. It’s a way to recognize farm families who are implementing conservation practices. A lot of good will come from simply highlighting the things Missouri farmers are doing already.”
Among Leopold’s best-known ideas is the “land ethic,” which calls for an ethical, caring relationship between people and nature. The Lamberts are true examples of farmers who embrace that ethic, says Ashley McCarty, MFC executive director.
“The Lamberts embody the best values of Missouri agriculture,” McCarty says. “Working alongside multiple generations, their family has prioritized innovative conservation practices to ensure productivity for years to come. Their goal is a more productive farm in 15 years than they have today, and their skilled management and implementation of stewardship practices such as no-till, cover crops and grazing will make that possible.”
The couple attended Northwest Missouri State and married in 2009, settling down near Matt’s family farm. They now have two sons, 6-year-old Mace and 3-year-old Meyer.
“When I graduated from high school, I still had a very romantic idea of what modern agriculture looked like,” Kate says. “I thought I was relatively knowledgeable on the industry, but I really didn’t have much of an idea at all.”
As a young, newly married couple returning to the farm, it quickly became apparent that the best farms weren’t within reach, the Lamberts say. That’s when an innovative, conservation mindset served them well, as they described in their nomination narrative:
“The farms that were available to us were often located in challenging spots, smaller acreage and poorer-quality soils. But we grabbed on to everything we could, and year after year, we found ways to farm responsibly and profitably.”
Cover crops, no-till and precision farming are among the practices that have allowed the Lamberts to adapt to those challenges as well as shrinking margins in today’s farm economy.
“Dad was the first to no-till in Linn County, and he’s always had a good mind about conservation,” says Matt, who harvested his 10th crop this fall. “I guess it’s carried down into my generation. We started the cover cropping after I got out of college. At first, it was mainly to help increase our grazing acres, but after a couple of years, we were seeing some of the benefits in the actual crop itself — weed suppression, less soil erosion, moisture retention and better yields. So we’ve started incorporating cover crops into all our acres now.
“As farmers, we always try to be innovative,” he adds. “You can’t be afraid to try something new that might work and give you an edge.”
More important than their ag industry involvement or management practices, the Lamberts say, is how their actions today will impact the future of their farm.
“I hope someday, my dad will hand me his farm, and I plan on doing the same thing with our boys,” Matt says. “Our goal is to leave the farm in better shape than when we purchased it. That’s the one common denominator among farmers. You’ve got to have ground. It’s not like a piece of machinery. You can’t just go out and buy a new one. You’ve got to take care of the land your whole life and for the next generation.”