News & Publications

Footprints in the Garden Receives Carolinas Leopold Conservation Award

Footprints in the Garden of Mount Olive, North Carolina has been selected to receive the inaugural Carolinas Leopold Conservation Award®.

Erin Martin, owner and operator of Footprints in the Garden, is a seventh-generation farmer who grows fruits and vegetables with her family members for markets in five counties. She and other family members were presented with the $10,000 award at the Systems Change Conference in Statesville, North Carolina.

The Martins utilize cover crops, intercropping, and diverse crop rotations to build soil nutrients, retain moisture, and suppress weeds. Water is conserved with a micro-irrigation drip system. Forestland on the farm in Wayne County is managed to provide wildlife habitat.

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

Photo Nov 14 2022 9 56 11 PM

In North Carolina and South Carolina the award is presented annually by Sand County Foundation, national sponsor American Farmland Trust, and regional partners: Carolina Farm Trust and Soil Regen.

Earlier this year, landowners in the Carolinas 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 landowners nominated for the award were finalists: Kamal Bell of Durham, North Carolina, and Russell Hedrick of Hickory, North Carolina.

The Carolinas Leopold Conservation Award is made possible through the generous support of Carolina Farm Trust, Soil Regen, American Farmland Trust, Trane Technologies, Wells Fargo, and Sand County Foundation.

The award is named 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. Sand County Foundation presents the Leopold Conservation Award to private landowners in 27 states with a variety of conservation, agricultural and forestry organizations.


Erin Martin knows the importance of deep roots.

With help from her extended family, she manages farmland that her great-great-grandparents purchased in 1883. They grew tobacco, soybeans, and wheat. Erin grows red okra, Easter egg radish, and yellow flesh watermelons. What hasn’t changed is a conservation ethic passed on to each generation.

Ancestorial roots of indigenous members of the Coharie Tribe and formerly enslaved African Americans ground the family’s thoughts and cultural beliefs about land stewardship and traditional farming practices.

Erin’s mother named the farm “Footprints in the Garden” in 2012. At that time, the Martins were growing herbs, kohlrabi, daikon radish, asparagus beans, and specialty cut greens for restaurants in the Raleigh area. They also hoped to inspire the next generation to take an active role in farming.

It worked. In 2018, Erin, who was in her early twenties, became the seventh generation to manage the farmland and forest at Footprints in the Garden. She’s a millennial combining modern conservation practices with personal, historical, and cultural narratives of nature to connect others with the land.

Footprints in the Garden serves as a learning platform to educate other farmers, landowners, youth, and military veterans about conservation practices and land usage at more than 30 events annually.

As a high school student, Erin established a community garden located amid a food desert. Now she serves as an outreach coordinator for a grocery store cooperative where she communicates the importance of having access to locally grown food. She also promotes health benefits of eating nutrient-dense foods like kale, garlic, blueberries, and potatoes.

No matter the season, growing a continuous rotation of diverse plants at Footprints in the Garden is beneficial to the landscape and wildlife. Keeping the ground covered with vegetation and always having living roots underneath its surface are keys to enhancing soil health and preventing erosion.

Companion planting, mulching, and cover crops of buckwheat, clover, sunflower, and hairy vetch provide an armor for soils. They also assist with pest control, suppress weeds, and provide nutrients needed for successful fruit and vegetable production. Erin and her family follow a conservation plan that encourages planting native wildflowers for beneficial pollinator insects and managing forestland to provide wildlife habitat.

Erin sells produce ranging from watermelon radish to Parisian and rainbow carrots at farmers markets in five counties. With cost-share assistance from the federal Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), she erected a high tunnel system to grow during all four seasons.

Locally-sourced compost and wood chips suppress weeds and build topsoil in growing beds. Micro-irrigation drip tape in the high tunnel provides direct root base watering for plants and to conserve water. Instead of leaving the high tunnel empty during the summer, cover crops are planted in its growing beds to retain moisture and build soil nutrients.

Just as new crops emerge each season at Footprints in the Garden, there’s now an eighth generation of family members who are quickly learning and growing a relationship with their land. It’s just what would be expected on a farm where roots run deep.


“We are proud to be part of the effort to bring the Leopold Conservation Award to the Carolinas and showcasing our farming community’s efforts in regenerative farming,” said Zack Wyatt, Carolina Farm Trust President and CEO.

“Soil Regen believes that the foundation of ag starts from the ground up,” said Liz Haney of Soil Regen. “We are honored to support the many and varied conservationists celebrated with the Leopold Conservation Award. They are the true stewards of the land.”

“Leopold Conservation Award recipients 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 farmers, ranchers and forestland owners,” 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.”

Watch their conservation success story

LEOPOLD CONSERVATION AWARD PROGRAM is a competitive award that recognizes landowner achievement in voluntary conservation. Sand County Foundation presents the award in California, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin, and in New England (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont).

AMERICAN FARMLAND TRUST is the only national organization that takes a holistic approach to agriculture, focusing on the land itself, the agricultural practices used on that land, and the farmers and ranchers who do the work. AFT launched the conservation agriculture movement and continues to raise public awareness through its No Farms, No Food message. Since its founding in 1980, AFT has helped permanently protect over 6.5 million acres of agricultural lands, advanced environmentally sound farming practices on millions of additional acres and supported thousands of farm families.

CAROLINA FARM TRUST works to bring fresh, bountiful, locally-grown food to your plate. Our approach is comprehensive and collaborative. We work alongside our partners, farmers and growers, farms, markets, and consumers as we strive to make our region a global leader in local food production and consumption.

SAND COUNTY FOUNDATION inspires and empowers a growing number of private landowners to ethically manage natural resources in their care, so future generations have clean and abundant water, healthy soil to support agriculture and forestry, plentiful habitat for wildlife and opportunities for outdoor recreation.

SOIL REGEN is a “farmer first” company focused on providing farmers, ranchers and the food and agricultural community education, consulting, and Regenerative Verification. By partnering with nature and utilizing holistic management practices we can improve producer profitability, human health, resilience to climate, carbon storage, water quality and quantity.