Leopold Conservation Award honors 106-year-old Cronin operation

Farm Forum

Just east of the Missouri River, one will find a third-generation farm, established in 1910.

Cronin Farms is now owned by brothers Monty and Mike Cronin, who operate the farm with the help of its manager, Dan Forgey.

Cronin Farms won the state’s 2016 Leopold Conservation Award, an acknowledgment of the holistic approach the men use when farming.

“There hasn’t been a piece of ground worked at our place since 1992,” Monty Cronin said, regarding the farm’s no-till policy.

The Cronins began experimenting with no-till in the late 1980s, he said. Since then, the benefits have piled up.

Among them, the land has hardly any water erosion, no standing water, and the soil’s health “is so much better now,” he said. “The organic matter has increased tremendously.

“They said it would take 100 years to raise it 100 percent, and we’ve already done that,” Cronin said. “All the different benefits are amazing.”

No-till is a common practice in the area, he said, mostly because of how dry it is.

“This is kind of a no-till hot spot,” he said. “Moisture is the limiting factor in central South Dakota and it always has been … You gotta be prepared for the dry, and that’s kind of how we think of it.”

There was a definite learning curve when it came to transitioning from conventional farming to no-till, Cronin said. And while Cronin Farms was not the first farm in the area to change its practices, it was toward the front, he said. Although, looking back now, “It would’ve been easier to do it after someone else made all the mistakes,” he said.

As a second-generation farmer, the Cronins’ father, Daniel, wasn’t so sure about making the change. He thought the operation should try out just a few pieces of its 8,000 acres first. “But after a few years, he was the biggest advocate of no-till,” Cronin said.

No-till farming also means Cronin Farms is able to plant every acre, whereas, in the past, only 25-30 percent of the land was set aside. More land means better yields, Cronin said.

“At the start, we didn’t realize this. But the ground gets better and more productive. It gets back to what nature intended,” Monty Cronin said.

Diversity and innovation are also key to the family operation. “If you look at a native pasture, there isn’t just one type of grass out there,” he said. The Cronins’ crop rotation means they will harvest at least 10 different crops this year, he said. The farm also practices rotational grazing for 800 head of cattle.

Technology in equipment means there are no skips or overlaps in planting, while advancements in hybrids have improved the crops themselves.

The Leopold Conservation Award is given to a landowner who demonstrates a strong land ethic by “doing well by and for their land,” often leaving it better than how they found it, according to the award’s website. It is presented by the Sand County Foundation in partnership with the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association and the South Dakota Grassland Coalition.

Although he knew the farm had been nominated in previous years, Cronin called the award a surprise.

“It’s nice to get recognized for something you do every day … we don’t think we’re that special — this is just what we do,” he said.

The more he found out about the award, the more of an honor it got to be, he said. “It’s a big deal to be recognized as someone that’s doing something right … so that’s quite an honor.”

The farm will likely see a fourth — and possibly even a fifth — generation. All three of the Cronins’ sons help on the farm, and “we have grandkids out playing and working with us all the time … so hopefully,” Monty Cronin said.

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2016 South Dakota Leopold Conservation Award

• Recognizes achievement of private landowners who practice voluntary conservation.

• Recipients also receive $10,000 and a crystal depicting Aldo Leopold, a conservationist and author who called for an ethical relationship between people and the land they manage.

Source: Sand County Foundation