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Leopold Conservation Award Finalists Selected in the Carolinas

Three finalists have been selected for the inaugural Carolinas Leopold Conservation Award®.

Given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, the prestigious award is presented in 27 states to farmers, ranchers, and forestland owners who inspire others with their dedication to land, water, and wildlife habitat in their care.

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.

The finalists are:

  • Kamal Bell of Durham in Durham County: Kamal Bell owns and operates Sankofa Farms. He utilizes low-till production methods to reduce erosion and promote soil biodiversity. He raises bees and has established pollinator habitat to improve the land’s ecological health. The Sankofa Farms Agricultural Academy is a STEM-based program that educates students on agricultural practices and aims to improve the perception of STEM and ag-related professions.
  • Russell Hedrick of Hickory in Catawba County: Russell Hedrick broke the dryland corn yield record in 2022 using regenerative agriculture practices. His use of cover crops, no-till practices, and the integration of livestock has made his farm more resilient to climate extremes while improving water quality and profitability. When not growing a diverse crop rotation of non-GMO corn and soybeans, barley, oats, triticale, and wheat at JRH Grain Farms, he travels extensively promoting soil health practices.
  • Erin Martin of Mount Olive in Wayne County: Erin Martin owns and operates Footprints in the Garden, a seventh-generation farm that grows fruits and vegetables for markets in five counties. Cover crops and crop rotation are utilized to build soil nutrients and retain moisture. Intercropping helps with natural suppression of insect pests, pathogens, and weeds. Water is conserved with an innovative micro-irrigation system. Forestland on the farm is managed to provide wildlife habitat.

The award recipient will be revealed at the Systems Change Conference in Statesville, North Carolina, September 26-28. The recipient receives $10,000, and their conservation success story will be featured in a video and in other outreach.

Earlier this year, owners of farmland and forests 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.

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.


“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.”

Bell 23 CR

Kamal Bell of Durham in Durham County

Hedrick Russell

Russell Hedrick of Hickory in Catawba County

Martin NC 23

Erin Martin and family of Mount Olive in Durham County

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.