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Smith Family Farms Receives Oklahoma Leopold Conservation Award

Watch the Smith Family's Conservation Success Story

Smith Family Farms of Elk City has been selected as the recipient of the 2022 Oklahoma Leopold Conservation Award®.

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

In Oklahoma the award is presented annually by Sand County Foundation, American Farmland Trust, Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association, Noble Research Institute, Oklahoma Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture, ITC Great Plains, Oklahoma Conservation Commission, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Jimmy and Cathy Smith and their adult children, Spencer and Calli, are cotton growers from Beckham County. The Smiths were presented with $10,000 and a crystal award at the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts’ Annual Meeting on February 27.

“These 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 the Smith family,” 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.”

“The Smith family has a true passion for land stewardship. They are in a continual process of learning, always working toward improvement of their land,” said Hugh Aljoe, Noble Research Institute Director of Producer Relations. “They move beyond their own operation, serving as leaders and educators in their community and inspiring others to be better stewards.”

“Jimmy Smith and Smith Family Farm define what it means to be a conservation leader and innovator,” said Stacy Riley, Acting State Conservationist for the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service. “Their innovations in implementation of cover crops and soil health management systems have benefited the land under their care and been an example for countless others with whom they have shared their conservation successes.”

“Jimmy Smith is a living legend in no-till cover crop farming. The Smith Family Farm not only were among the very first to use cereal rye as a cover crop in dry land cotton production, they also invented the equipment and cropping system to make it work,” said Trey Lam, Oklahoma Conservation Commission Executive Director. “Jimmy has improved the soil on his own family’s farm, while also has leading the North Fork of the Red River Conservation District for many years. The Smith Farm lies very near the multiple flood control dams that protect Elk City. The local Conservation District under Jimmy’s leadership operates and maintains 42 dams providing flood prevention, sediment control, and water resources for Beckham County.”

“ITC Great Plains congratulates Smith Family Farms for being selected as the 2022 Oklahoma Leopold Conservation Award recipient,” said Brett Leopold, ITC Great Plains President. “We are committed to environmental responsibility at ITC. We applaud the Smith family for its dedication to being good stewards of the land and our natural resources. Their work embodies the principles of the Leopold Conservation Award and we’re pleased to help recognize their environmental commitment.”

“Farmers and ranchers have always been called to be responsible stewards of the land entrusted to them, and the Smith family is no different” said David VonTungeln, Oklahoma Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture President. “From no-till practices to careful nutrient management, we are proud to support conservationists like the Smiths in their efforts to ensure their land is prosperous and left better than they found it.”

Oklahoma landowners were encouraged to apply (or be nominated) for the award early last year. Applications were reviewed by an independent panel of agricultural and conservation leaders.

The first Oklahoma Leopold Conservation Award was presented to Jimmy and Ginger Emmons of Leedey in 2017. Last year’s award was presented to Lazy KT Ranch of Freedom.

The Leopold Conservation Award in Oklahoma is made possible thanks to the generous contributions from American Farmland Trust, Noble Research Institute, Oklahoma Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture, ITC Great Plains, U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, Sand County Foundation, McDonald’s, Oklahoma State University and the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts.

In his influential 1949 book, A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold called for an ethical relationship between people and the land they own and manage, which he called “an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity.”

Sand County Foundation presents the Leopold Conservation Award to private landowners in 25 states for extraordinary achievement in voluntary conservation. For more information on the award, visit


People didn’t use the term “cover crop” 50 years ago, but the Smiths were growing one.

Like his father and grandfather before him, Jimmy Smith grows rye as a companion to cotton. What some would call an innovation has long been considered a necessity in western Oklahoma. The year-round presence of a living root retains precious moisture in a drought-prone region and prevents wind erosion of sandy soils.

Jimmy and Cathy Smith farm with their children Spencer and Calli. They credit conservation practices and technological advances with saving time and money, and benefitting the landscape.

Growing rye as a cover crop has improved the Smith’s soil, which average 2 to 4 percent organic matter compared to the statewide .5 percent average. They began interseeding rye on their fields prior to harvesting cotton in 1998. There was a time when they used a moldboard plow to integrate rye back into the soil each spring. They now terminate the cover crop with herbicides rather than tilling it. Jimmy had completed a transition from conventional tillage to strip tillage to no-till practices across his 2,200 acres of cotton by 2010.

Smith Family Farms also grows 200 acres of rye, some of which is used to graze their herd of 40 beef cattle. The rest produces the seed used to plant that year’s cover crop. Rye grows on the farm’s sandiest soils that cannot produce cotton.

To improve water quality in the Elk City Lake watershed, the Smiths utilize nutrient management plans and have fenced off riparian areas from cattle with assistance from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services. They also retrofitted watering facilities for wildlife, resulting in an uptick of local turkey and deer populations.

Much of Smith Family Farms borders residential areas of Elk City. The Smiths maintain neighborly relations using precision application technology that reduces drift of fertilizers and pesticides. They make positive impacts off the farm in other ways as well.

Smith Family Farm became a cooperator with the North Fork of the Red River Conservation District in 1988, and Jimmy has served on its board since 2001. Spencer serves on the USDA’s Farm Service Agency Committee for Beckham County. Smith Family Farms hosts field days for fellow farmers, researchers, and agribusiness professionals to learn more about their conservation practices.

Jimmy and Spencer’s ingenuity led to the creation of an agriculture manufacturing business. When the Smiths switched to no-till practices, they noticed their planter gauge wheels quickly wore out. After working with a machinist to build stronger tires, other farmers took notice. The Smiths partnered with machinist Jake Hunter to launch 4 AG MFG, which now produces and sells wheels for no-till planters and air seeders internationally.

It's the latest reinvention in a story that began when Jimmy’s great grandparents Edmond and Martha purchased the farm’s original 300 acres in 1913 to grow cotton and raise cattle. Smith Family Farms survived the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl and witnessed nearby Elk City’s run as a booming cotton town from the 1930s to the 1970s, with nine cotton gins in operation.

When Jimmy returned home from college to farm with his father and grandfather, soil health wasn’t a commonly used term. Yet his efforts to improve the soil, water, and wildlife in his care ever since earned him an induction into the Oklahoma Conservation Hall of Fame in 2021.

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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 Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, 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.

ITC GREAT PLAINS is a transmission-only utility operating in the Southwest Power Pool region. The company operates approximately 470 circuit miles of transmission lines in Kansas and Oklahoma. ITC Great Plains maintains regional offices in Dodge City, Topeka and Wichita, Kansas, and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. ITC Great Plains is a subsidiary of ITC Holdings Corp.’ the largest independent electric transmission company in the U.S. For further information, visit ITC is a subsidiary of Fortis Inc., a leader in the North American regulated electric and gas utility industry.

NOBLE RESEARCH INSTITUTE is the nation’s largest nonprofit agricultural research organization, serving ranchers and farmers with research, education and mentorship for regenerating soil health to improve their land, livestock and livelihood. Since 1945, Nobel Research Institute has been a leading, trusted resource in agricultural research and education dedicated to land stewardship. Demonstrating our ongoing commitment to regenerating our nation’s grazing lands, Noble actively manages 13,500 acres of working ranchlands to provide real-world insights and applications for farmers and ranchers.

OKLAHOMA CONSERVATION COMMISSION provides assistance to Oklahoma’s 84 conservation districts and the public to foster a sense of stewardship and conservation management of Oklahoma’s renewable natural resources. This is accomplished through soil and water conservation, land use planning, small watershed upstream flood control, abandoned mine land reclamation, water quality monitoring, environmental education and wetlands conservation.

OKLAHOMA FARM BUREAU FOUNDATION FOR AGRICULTURE was formed to enhance awareness and understanding of agriculture’s contribution and importance to the state of Oklahoma.

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.

USDA NATURAL RESOURCES CONSERVATION SERVICE (NRCS) is a federal agency committed to helping private landowners care and make healthy choices for the land and water, while using them productively. Through voluntary incentive-based programs, the NRCS works directly with farmers, ranchers, forest owners and other land stewards to provide technical expertise and financial assistance to make conservation work on private lands.