Cates Family Farm Exemplifies Working With the Land, Not Against It

Mar 14, 2016 | Citizen Advocacy

When we first watched Soil Carbon Cowboys, one of 10 films featured at our 9th Annual Wild & Scenic Film Festival this Wednesday, March 16, we immediately thought of our River Alliance friends Dick and Kim Cates who run the Cates Family Farm in Spring Green.

Soil Carbon Cowboys spotlights three different North American cattle farmers who buck the system and begin practicing a new (old) grazing technique that offers efficiency and solutions in terms of soil health, animal health, human health, water supply and food nutrition.

“I grew up working on my dad’s farm. I wanted to know how things worked, so I went on to grad school and built a philosophy of farming as a profession based on the Aldo Leopold statement that man and land do better in partnership,” says Dick Cates. “I believe that in my bones and also take Leopold’s challenge that conservation and land stewardship should be ecologically informed, environmentally sustainable, and economically viable.”

The Cates’ efforts to manage and produce following this philosophy have not gone unnoticed. They were the 2013 recipients of the Wisconsin Leopold Conservation Award, which honors Wisconsin landowner achievement in voluntary stewardship and management of natural resources. (This video gives a great overview.)

More recently, the Blue Mounds Area Project, which usually acknowledges restoration projects rather than producers, recognized the Cates for their farming methods. (It just so happens they are also 12 years into a savannah restoration project on their land.) Another big honor came this month with the announcement of Dick Cates as the 2016 Master Agriculturist, a prestigious award that has been given every year since 1930.

Three images of Cates Farm

The team at Carbon Nation, which made the award-winning documentary of the same name a few years back, also produced Soil Carbon Cowboys. One of the filmmakers, Peter Byck, puts it very simply: “Healthy soil is about water, and water is about healthy soil.” A professor in the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University, Byck says he “got bit working on Carbon Nation and wanted to stay in this world of solutions.” Check out their great work here.

Cates sums it up by bringing things full circle. “This practice of farming requires judgment and skill; it’s a challenge but very satisfying and productive,” he says. “We have wonderful customers who pay us a living wage for our food because they know where it comes from. It’s not just us in a vacuum. There is a whole community out there who believes this way of agriculture is significant in a whole variety of ways.”