Dale and Karen Green’s Winneshiek County farm is all about sustainability.

They raised five girls and still live in a home first built in 1853, in the early days of Iowa’s statehood. They’ve nurtured the family’s maple syrup business which dates back even earlier: to 1851 when Dale’s ancestors first moved from New England to settle in northeast Iowa.

And they’ve put a special emphasis on caring for the land on their hilly cattle and crop operation, called Spring Valley Farms, near Castalia.

"It’s really important to me to leave the land better off for future generations than when I started farming it. I really take pride in that," said Dale who started farming full-time in 1968 after graduating from Iowa State University. "The land has really been good to us, and it just make sense to care for it."

The Greens, Winneshiek County Farm Bureau members, have implemented a wide variety of practices to care for the land, reduce soil loss and improve water quality on their 415 acres of cropland, pasture and woodlands.

They have adopted no-till and farm on the contour to stem erosion. They raise crops on extended rotations which include oats and hay to build soil health. The Greens plant cover crops and have implemented buffer strips and grassed waterways on their farm to protect their fields and reduce nutrient loss.

They run soil tests and use precision fertilizer applications. A rotational grazing program helps to promote pasture health, they said.

The Greens have also used cost-share programs to complete several other conservation efforts, including a major project to stabilize the stream banks along the Yellow River, which runs through their farm. The project created wetland buffers, enhanced timber stands and kept cattle off stream banks.

‘Very deserving’ winners

The Greens’ dedication to reducing soil loss, improving water quality and protecting the environment earned them the 2016 Iowa Conservation Farmer of the Year award. The award, which is sponsored by the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation (IFBF) and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS), was presented Aug. 29 at a ceremony in Altoona.

For earning the statewide conservation award, the Greens will receive free use of a John Deere 6D Series Utility tractor for up to 12 months or 200 hours. The tractor award is sponsored annually by Van Wall Equipment of Perry and John Deere. The Greens will receive their tractor from Bodensteiner Implement Co.

In addition, the Green’s Spring Valley Farms was one of 94 farms around the state to earn a 2016 Iowa Environmental Farm Leader Award. That award, which recognizes farmers who are environmental leaders in their communities, was presented during the state fair by Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey and Iowa Department of Natural Resources Director Chuck Gipp.

The Greens are very deserving of the statewide conservation and environmental awards they’ve earned, said Corey Meyer, coordinator of the Yellow River Headwaters Water Quality Project.

"The Greens are really keystones of our project, and are very active in conservation and water quality projects," Meyer said. "Their work, such as their work to stabilize the stream banks, provides a great example to all farmers in the community."

The streambank stabilization project, which covered more than 5,000 feet along the Yellow River, included planting riparian trees, building areas to protect the banks from heavy livestock use and three miles of fencing to keep cattle away from the river bank.

"The Yellow River was once one of the most polluted in the state," Dale said. "But thanks to the work by farmers in the area, it is now supporting trout."

Working to reduce soil erosion and protect the environment has become second nature to the Greens. They put together their first conservation plan in 1974 and have updated and enhanced it more than a dozen times over the years.

They’ve been using cover crops, no-till and other practices for years.

"They just work really well in this landscape and with our operation," Dale said.

Fits well with livestock

Raising cattle has been the key to the farm’s conservation work and the key reducing soil loss from their hilly landscape. "Their conservation work just fits in well with livestock, they said.

"It just makes a lot of sense to do them together," Dale said.

The Greens’ primary focus is a cow-calf operation. They sell performance-tested bulls and females. Most of their crops and forage are used to feed their herd of purebred Angus, which they began selling in 1955, as well as Simmental-Angus crossbreds.

A few years ago, the Greens switched from spring calving to fall calving.

"The fall calving has really worked better for us because of the better weather and pasture conditions then," Dale said.

Tapping maple trees

The Greens are also known all around northeast Iowa for their annual maple syrup festival, which is held in late March and early April. It draws several thousand visitors to their maple sugar camp, called Green’s Sugarbush, not far from their home.

"We bring several thousand people to our farm every year when we host our annual maple syrup festival. It’s not only fun for them to go on horse-drawn wagon rides through our forests, it’s a learning opportunity for them to see our connection to the land and the ‘big picture’ in preserving it," Dale said.

Members of the Green family have been tapping maples, making syrup and selling it since the farm was first settled in 1851. "We think that it may be one of the oldest continually-operating businesses in Iowa," Dale said. "We use horses and wagons to gather the sap and have a wood-fired evaporator. It’s still about as old-fashioned as you can get."

Before earning the 2016 statewide award, the Greens earned the regional conservation award for region 4 in northeast Iowa.

Other regional winners are: Torray Wilson, Paullina; William Drury, Clarion; Mike and Lori Nelson, Greenfield; Wade Dooley, Albion; Larry and Gini Van Ersvelde, Grinnell; Larry Griffin, Grand River; and Veri Jr. and Judy Jackson, Hedrick.