Califonia Bountiful

Rominger Brothers win the 2019 California Leopold Conservation Award

January/February 2020 California Bountiful magazine

Award recognizes farmers for environmental stewardship

Loading video player...

The Leopold Conservation Award is presented annually in California by organizations including the California Farm Bureau Federation. Photo: © 2020 Paolo Vescia

With millions of acres of land to care for, farmers, ranchers and foresters across California demonstrate an unwavering commitment to protecting the natural resources they've been entrusted with. And each year, the Leopold Conservation Award celebrates voluntary conservation, honoring those who have worked tirelessly to improve the land they live and work on.

Named for renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, the 2019 award was presented to Rominger Brothers Farms of Yolo County.

"We've been trying to do the right thing for our environment and for our family for as long as I can remember, so it's nice to be recognized," Bruce Rominger said.

Philip Verwey Farms of Kings County and Burroughs Family Farms of Stanislaus County were finalists. In California, the award is presented by the Sand County Foundation, California Farm Bureau Federation and Sustainable Conservation. Additional sponsors are American AgCredit, Farm Credit West, The Harvey L. & Maud C. Sorensen Foundation, The Nature Conservancy in California, McDonald's and California Leopold Conservation Award recipient alumni.

Brothers Rick, left, and Bruce Rominger manage their farm with the goal of improving the land for future generations. Photo: © 2020 Paolo Vescia

Leaving the land better than they found it

There is no handbook on how to be a pioneer. You just do it because you recognize the potential for improvement and want to be the one leading the way for others. With an eye toward the future, the Rominger family has focused on enhancing the land that has sustained them for generations.

"The preservation of agricultural land is very important to my family," Rick Rominger said. "Always has been and always will be."

Rominger Brothers Farms is a diversified family farm and ranch near Winters, run by fifth-generation Yolo County farmers Bruce and Rick Rominger. The two, along with their late brother, Charlie, took over the farm from their father, Rich, who served as California director of food and agriculture and deputy U.S. secretary of agriculture.

On more than 6,000 acres, the brothers produce a variety of crops, including winegrapes, walnuts, almonds, processing tomatoes, rice, wheat, corn, sunflowers, onions and oat hay.

In an ongoing effort to preserve resources for future generations, the Romingers pursue sustainable agricultural practices such as incorporating cover crops on their fields, which helps improve the soil by increasing water retention, decreasing erosion and raising the level of organic matter. They have also planted hedgerows along their properties to attract beneficial insects, and have restored more than 5,000 feet of stream corridors to connect riparian areas and wetlands to aid a variety of species.

As a steward of the land, Bruce Rominger said he believes it's his duty to leave it better than he found it.

"I do all of this for future generations," he said. "I want them to enjoy it and appreciate the land as much as we do."

Cow comfort and health are among dairy farmer Philip Verwey's top priorities. Photo: © 2020 Paolo Vescia

Caring for the land, animals and people

"If we don't set an example, who will?" is a sentiment Philip and Shelley Verwey not only believe, but demonstrate daily.

The Verweys run their 9,500-cow dairy in Hanford with three important and intertwined principles to guide them: Take care of the land, take care of the animals and take care of the people. In doing so, Philip Verwey Farms practices sustainability, conservation and innovation.

"We hope to be staying ahead of the curve with the technology," Philip Verwey said. "If we can do our part for future generations, then we're going to do it."

The couple's commitment is evident the moment one steps onto their dairy. The Verweys have a 10-acre covered lagoon manure digester that generates renewable electricity, which in turn powers the dairy and irrigation wells on 2,300 acres of surrounding cropland—as well as the local community. In addition, they have replaced their diesel-powered feed mixers with electric mixing stations, which have increased efficiency and decreased emissions.

Cow comfort and health are priorities at any dairy, but here it's taken to another level. The animals are housed in a freestall barn, where they have round-the-clock access to food, water and mattresses.

When it comes to employees at the farm, the Verweys consider them team members building a career. One example is Juan Castellanos, who began cleaning water troughs at the dairy and now manages the digester while taking classes to earn a degree in computer science.

"We just feel lucky to contribute a healthy product that feeds the local community and beyond," Shelley Verwey said.

Rose and Ward Burroughs, seated center, manage several farms in partnership with their adult children and their spouses, including Brian and Christina Byslma, standing left, and Benina and Heriberto Montes, standing right. Photo: © 2020 Paolo Vescia

A sustainable balancing act

To tour Burroughs Family Farms is to experience a seamless merger between food production and wildlife habitat.

"We're always open to learning," Ward Burroughs said. "And when it comes to sustainability, that's when our real passion for learning comes out."

For four generations, the family has served as models for environmental sustainability and economic viability on their 2,600-acre farm near Denair.

In partnership with their children, Ward and Rose Burroughs own and operate California Cloverleaf Farms, Vista Almonds, B and B Pastures and Full Circle Dairy in the rolling hills west of Yosemite, and produce products including free-range eggs, organic milk, cheese, almonds and, their most recent venture, olives.

While nourishing a nation, they are also nurturing a healthy soil. During the past 17 years, they have transitioned all of their operations to meet certified organic standards. In addition, rotational grazing of their cattle and chickens in their orchards has reduced the need for mowing or burning and is just one example of the holistic approach they have to farming.

Burroughs Family Farms has hosted a variety of research projects, including one on the benefits of reincorporating almond hulls back into orchards after processing for improved soil fertility. They also irrigate crops and pasture with solar-powered well pumps, and their orchards feature diverse cover crops and hedgerows to capture carbon and attract good bugs that prey on bad bugs.

"There is no greater joy than driving around our farm every day and seeing life, thanks to the regenerative practices our family has done together here," Rose Burroughs said.

Tracy Sellers

Follow us on: Facebook Twitter YouTube Pinterest Pinterest