Seth Watkins wins the initial Iowa Leopold Conservation

Pinhook Farm of Clarinda has been selected as the recipient of the inaugural Iowa Leopold Conservation Award®.  

Pinhook Farm’s owners, Seth, Christy, Spencer and Tatum Watkins were presented with the $10,000 award at The Big Soil Health Event in Cedar Falls. 

The Watkins family owns 320 acres and rent another 2,790 acres to grow the grass, hay and corn needed to feed their herd of 600 beef cow-calf pairs. Seth also manages about 900 acres of crops, prairie, and forests for other landowners across Page, Taylor and Adams counties. 

Given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, the prestigious award recognizes farmers, ranchers, and forestland owners who inspire others with their dedication to land, water, and wildlife habitat management on private, working lands.  

Sand County Foundation and national sponsor American Farmland Trust annually present the Leopold Conservation Award to farmers, ranchers and forestland owners in 24 states for extraordinary achievement in voluntary conservation. In Iowa, the award is presented with state partners: Conservation Districts of Iowa, Farmers National Company, and Practical Farmers of Iowa

“Pinhook Farm is a worthy first recipient of this award in Iowa,” said Sally Worley, Practical Farmers of Iowa Executive Director. “All of Iowa’s inaugural class of applicants are inspiring examples of conservation in action on farms. We’re grateful to the Sand County Foundation for bringing the Leopold Conservation Award to Iowa. It’s important that we continue to recognize and lift up the Iowa farmers and ranchers who are prioritizing conservation on their working lands.” 

“The landowner plays a critical role in the conservation of America’s farmland resources. Sustainable practices not only benefit the local environment and community, but also improves the quality and value of the land as an asset for the current owner and future generations,” said Clayton Becker, Famers National Company President. “This is why Farmers National Company is honored to sponsor this prestigious award recognizing hard work and commitment to conservation.”  

“All of the nominees for the inaugural Leopold Conservation Award in Iowa truly exemplify family farming and caring for the land. One look at what the Watkins family has done provides an impressive goal for other farmers,” said John Whitaker, Conservation Districts of Iowa Executive Director.  

“Recipients of this award are examples of how Aldo Leopold’s land ethic is alive and well today. Their dedication to conservation shows how individuals can improve the health of the land while producing food and fiber,” said Kevin McAleese, Sand County Foundation President and CEO. 

“As the national sponsor for Sand County Foundation’s Leopold Conservation Award, American Farmland Trust celebrates the hard work and dedication of the Watkins family,” said John Piotti, AFT President and CEO. “At AFT we believe that conservation in agriculture requires a focus on the land, the practices and the people and this award recognizes the integral role of all three.” 

Earlier this year, Iowa landowners were encouraged to apply (or be nominated) for the award. Applications were reviewed by an independent panel of agricultural and conservation leaders. Among the outstanding Iowa landowners nominated for the award were finalists: Vic and Cindy Madsen of Audubon in Audubon County, and Loran Steinlage of West Union in Fayette County. 

The Leopold Conservation Award is given to farmers, ranchers and forestland owners across the U.S. in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold. In his influential 1949 book, A Sand County Almanac, Leopold called for an ethical relationship between people and the land they own and manage. 

The Iowa Leopold Conservation Award is made possible through the generous support of American Farmland Trust, Conservation Districts of Iowa, Farmers National Company, Practical Farmers of Iowa, Sand County Foundation, Soil Regen, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Nancy and Marc DeLong, Iowa Corn, Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance, and Iowa Farmers Union. 

In his influential 1949 book, A Sand County Almanac, Leopold called for an ethical relationship between people and the land they own and manage, which he called “an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity.” Sand County Foundation presents the Leopold Conservation Award to private landowners in 24 states with a variety of conservation, agricultural and forestry organizations. 


Seth Watkins was 10 years old when he nursed a cold, muddy calf back to health in the warmth of the family farmhouse with a shot of Bourbon. It was a formative event for a young caretaker who now uses cattle to help heal his farm’s landscape. 

The land Seth farms with his wife Christy, and children Spencer and Tatum, has been in his family since 1848. His ancestors inherited deep, rich soils on the Southern Iowa Drift Plain, but that changed over time. Prairie was plowed under to grow corn. Erosion from gullies and ditches increased while biodiversity diminished. 

When Seth inherited and bought parts of what would become Pinhook Farm in the 1990s, he had a different vision. He would emulate how Native Americans once stewarded the land by not tilling it, and return much of it to grass to rotationally graze livestock rather than grow row crops. 

Yet Seth knew he couldn’t attain sustainability without profitability. Early in his career he created a business plan that convinced Fontanelle Hybrids to buy enough land in Iowa to graze 450 beef cattle that he would manage. Today, Seth manages about 900 acres of crops, prairie, and forests for other landowners across Page, Taylor and Adams counties. The Watkins own 320 acres and rent 2,790 acres to grow the grass, hay and corn needed to feed their herd of 600 beef cow-calf pairs. 

Early on, Seth seeded new pastures for rotational grazing, and used cover crops and a no-till cropping system to reduce erosion while increasing the soil’s capacity to infiltrate and hold water. He relied on geospatial technology to determine which conservation practices would benefit different parts of the farm. 

Seth removed ditches, built 14 ponds and established a wetland to naturally drain hundreds of acres of his farmland. Another 42 ponds have been built on land under his management. To diversify his farm’s income and provide wildlife habitat, Seth regularly plants nut and fruit-bearing trees around ponds that are restricted from livestock. 

Seth credits his conservation ethic to having artistic parents, and to his own love of learning. Although the 1980s farm crisis denied him a college education, he’s as an avid reader and regular participant in on-farm research projects related to growing cover crops and integrating prairie strips into crop fields. 

Seth will be first to tell you his neighbors think he’s crazy. That doesn’t stop him from doing right by the land, and talking about it to anybody who will listen. That includes his advocacy for getting more marginal farmland enrolled into the federal Conservation Reserve Program for environmentally-sensitive areas. 

The 100 acres enrolled in CRP at Pinhook Farm are restored prairies and windbreaks, shallow water habitats, and riparian buffers. All of these areas have seen in influx of songbirds, Monarch butterflies and beneficial pollinators. 

In looking to the future, the Watkins entered into a permanent conservation easement that ensures Pinhook Farm will always be protected from the plow. 

As for the calf that was nursed with Bourbon. Seth named her Scotch, and she lived to the ripe old age of 15. 

Just as Pinhook Farm’s landscape has evolved, Seth says he always thought cattle were what he loved about agriculture, but he’s come to see it’s the land he truly loves.

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