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By Frank J. Buchman

Michael Thompson of Almena has been selected as the recipient of the 2022 Kansas Leopold Conservation Award. 

 Presented in honor of conservationist Aldo Leopold, the award recognizes farmers, ranchers and forestland owners for land, water, and wildlife resources conservation. 

 In Kansas, the award is presented annually by Sand County Foundation, American Farmland Trust, Kansas Association of Conservation Districts, and the Ranchland Trust of Kansas.  

Thompson grows crops and raises beef cattle at Thompson Farm and Ranch in Norton County with his father and brother. He’s a vocal advocate for soil stewardship.  

Thompson was announced as the recipient of the award at the Kansas Association of Conservation Districts’ annual convention in Wichita. He receives $10,000 and a crystal award. 

 Earlier this year, Kansas landowners applied or were nominated for the award. Finalists also included Ray and Susan Flickner of Wichita, Kevin Karr of Emporia, and Glenn and Barbara Walker of Brookville. 

 The first Kansas Leopold Conservation Award was presented to Sproul Ranch of Sedan in 2015. Last year’s recipient was Dwane Roth of Holcomb.  

In his influential 1949 book, A Sand County Almanac, Leopold called for an ethical relationship between people and the land. He said, “It is an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity.” 

Sand County Foundation presents the Leopold Conservation Award to private landowners in 24 states for extraordinary achievement in voluntary conservation.  

Like the five generations before him, Michael Thompson grew up knowing the challenges of farming and ranching in northwest Kansas. There were crop failures brought on by harsh weather. Michael also remembers the scars left by tillage on semi-arid soil. 

 As young adults, Michael and his brother Brian were told there wasn’t a future for them at Thompson Farm & Ranch.  

However, the avid learner and experimenter knew there had to be a more efficient way to raise crops and cattle. 

 Michael began researching land stewardship and soil improvement. He knew his family’s land could no longer afford to lose more topsoil from wind and rain.  

Studying peer groups across Kansas, Michael realized benefits of diverse cover crop rotation using no-till practices and rotational grazing. 

Keeping farm fields covered with growing vegetation year-round would infiltrate water instead of letting it wash away.  

No fan of cattle in his youth, Michael has come to see their role in a holistic, regenerative system. Their manure delivers nutrients to native rangeland as well as corn, soybean, and wheat fields. 

 The program was started small with a few acres of cover crops and some electric fencing.  

Grazing cover crops provided another source of feed for beef cattle. This provided an unexpected benefit of giving existing pastures and rangeland more time to rest and grow. The extra rest produced a more robust and diverse stand of native grass species. 

 Growing cover crops coupled with a no-till system improved earthworm activity and soil life. An increase in nutrient cycling allowed for less fertilizer use. Improved water infiltration meant crops and forage grew even in years of drought. 

 Ultimately, rebuilding worn-out soils proved essential in allowing Michael and Brian to return home to farm with their father, Richard. 

 Knowledge and lessons learned by Michael are shared with other farmers and ranchers and at conferences worldwide. He’s a founding member and chairman of the Kansas Soil Health Alliance. President of No-till on the Plains, Michael is also a supervisor on the Norton County Conservation District Board. 

 A kindergarten teacher before returning to the farm, Michael serves as a mentor in the Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy. Kansas farmers and ranchers are connected for improving water quality.  

In extreme droughts or after heavy rains, Michael often digs below ground to examine root structure and worm channels. What happens deep within soil determines what grows above ground while soil management is key to enduring weather extremes. 

 Part of the National Association of Conservation Districts’ Soil Health Champions Network, Michael doesn’t claim to be an expert.  

“The path to lasting success is often through failure,” according to Michael Thompson of Almena.  

His peers say this makes Michael Thompson an authentic, accessible, and passionate voice for conservation. 



Michael Thompson of Almena has been selected as the recipient of the 2022 Kansas Leopold Conservation Award.