Ohio’s top conservation farm families seemed particularly significant during this year’s awards ceremony at the Farm Science Review Sept. 22.

That’s because more than one official who spoke warned of impending environmental regulations if the farming community doesn’t step up to the plate voluntarily.

Among the families honored were the Billenstein family from Hardin County, Kevin and Sarah Swope of Columbiana County, Mike and Amy Fair of Holmes County, Brent and Christine Pence of Clark County, and Samuel and Anne Byars from Ross County.

Ohio conservation farming winners


‘Critical Juncture’

Scott Zody, interim director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said the state is at a “critical, critical juncture” in terms of addressing environmental issues like phosphorus loading and algal blooms.

“These are issues we have to be ‘all hands on deck’ to solve,” Zody said, adding that it’s not just an agricultural problem.

Urban and rural residents, and farm and nonfarm residents need to say, “I have a responsibility,” Zody said. “That’s the type of attitude we need to have to move this problem forward.”

Zody said the state is feeling federal pressure to implement statewide nutrient management standards, in the wake of ongoing problems in the Grand Lake St. Marys Watershed, and the western basin of Lake Erie.

“We all have to be part of the solution, or we’re going to be objects for the experiment.”

“Now is the time we all have to commit, or recommit” to implementing farm conservation measures, he said, “and once again, become the example for others to follow.”

Dave Banachowski, sales representative for Hancor Inc., which has sponsored the state conservation award since its creation in 1984, put it plain and simple: “We must have conservation, because if we don’t, we’ll have regulations.”

The annual award is sponsored by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Soil and Water Resources, Ohio Farmer magazine and Ohio Farm Bureau Federation. Since 1984, the program has recognized 146 Ohio farm families.

Conservation Awards

Billenstein family

Billenstein & Sons farm more than 3,900 acres in Hardin County. Major crops include corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa. They also raise cattle.

Conservation techniques utilized include no till, cover crops, and crop rotation, grass waterways and filter strips. Their farm was a tour stop on the Celebration of Conservation Success in Ohio in 2010, which featured the farm’s fertilizer containment efforts and a covered manure structure.

Swope Family

Kevin and Sarah Swope farm 80 acres in Columbiana County, and raise bison in a rotational grazing system. They direct market the bison meat, vegetables and fresh flowers at farm markets.

When they first began operating, the farm’s topsoil and soil fertility was depleted. The Swopes have worked over time to build and conserve the soils by seeding the fields to pasture.

Their farm has been the site of several tours where visitors learn about soil health, proper grazing management and opportunities for small farms and specialty crops.

“It [conservation] has really become a passion of mine,” said Kevin Swope, who also serves as the district conservationist for the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Carroll County.

Mike and Amy Fair

Mike and Amy Fair raise corn, soybeans and cattle on a 190-acre farm in Holmes County.

Conservation practices implemented include crop rotation, no-till, cover crops nutrient management and waste utilization. The Fairs, who have been district cooperators for more than 30 years, have hosted multiple cover crop meetings.

Mike Fair has also served a term as a district supervisor with the local soil and water conservation district.

Brent and Christine Pence

Brent and Christine Pence farm more than 2,800 acres of corn, soybeans, and wheat in Clark, Champaign, Greene and Miami counties, and also raise cattle.

They’ve installed subsurface drainage, grass waterways, buffer strips, and practice no-till. They have also volunteered to be involved with a carbon sequestration study done by Colorado State University.

Brent serves as chairman of the Clark SWCD and is also a district director for the Ohio Federation of Soil and Water Conservation Districts.

Byars Family

Samuel and Anne Byars, who currently live in Texas, have recommitted their 420-acre Ross County crop farm 420 acres to use conservation techniques like no-till, cover crops and crop rotation.

To combat gully erosion, more than 8,000 feet of grass waterways and 10,000 feet of sub-surface drainage were installed, and more than 60 acres of buffer strips and riparian tree plantings were done along ditches.

The Byars farm has hosted numerous farm tours to local farmers to illustrate the importance of conservation programs especially in cover crops.