By Pete Temple, Express Sports/Ag Editor
When the March issue of Iowa Pork Producer came out, it featured the Jason and Sarah Russell family.
Jason Russell, a Monticello High School graduate who heads Russell Brothers LLC, just east of Prairieburg, was honored twice during the recent Iowa Pork Congress in Des Moines.
In both cases, the awards were based on environmental issues.
The company received both the Environmental Stewardship Award, which is an annual award from the Iowa Pork Producers Association (IPPA); and the Gary Wergin Good Neighbor Farm Award for January, a monthly award that is presented by the Coalition to Support Iowa Farmers (CSIF).
The awards stem from the company’s planting of trees around its hog confinement facilities, the planting of cover crops to preserve nutrients, and from the use of a 140-foot wind turbine to power one of the facilities.
The IPPA award makes the Russells eligible for a national pork producer award that will be presented next year.
Jason sees the awards not just as reward for these projects, but also as an opportunity.
“It goes hand-in-hand with the ag advocacy that I try to do,” Jason said. “It’s been a really good conversation starter with folks. It’s given a local face to this type of thing.
“This proves I’m a real person and I’m doing these things. I like to say it will motivate other people to do stuff.”
Sarah said: “We were pretty excited. Jason works hard, so it’s a nice honor to be recognized for what he’s done.”
Tree planting has been a big part of the farm’s environmental success.
“We’ve probably planted 1,000 trees in the last 10 years,” Jason said.
“Around the building, to help with air quality, we planted quite a few trees,” Sarah said. “What you smell most of the time is dust. It’s not so much the (manure) pits. So the trees help with the dust.”
The Russells also plant cover crops such as winter wheat.
“What it (winter wheat) does, it picks up fertilizer that’s left over,” Jason said. “A lot of nitrogen we applied through hog manure wasn’t utilized, because the corn wasn’t able to consume it. The cover crop will consume it and hang onto it until the summer. It will green up and pull that nitrate up.
“It’s kind of like free fertilizer. We did it on our hillier fields, trying to prevent erosion.”
The wind turbine was a March 2011 addition.
“There were a lot of incentives through the federal government and the state that made it attractive,” Jason explained. “It was a low-risk situation, so we just went ahead with it.
“So far it’s worked really well. It has produced 60 percent of our energy needs for that barn. It’s brought the electric bill down considerably.”
The power from the turbine can also be banked, and if the confinement facility doesn’t need all of it, energy can be transported to neighbors’ farms.
Sarah said Jason, a sixth-generation farmer, was destined to farm.
“He never had a chance. He was going to be a farmer,” Sarah said. “We have pictures of him playing with tractors, when he could first sit up. He was just meant to farm.”
“My uncle Moe, being in the ag banking industry, saw that hog confinement buildings like we have were a great way to get young people involved in the industry, and bring new blood and new capital into an existing farm operation,” Jason said. “That was ultimately when I committed to farming.”
Sarah is a fourth-grade teacher in the Linn-Mar school district, but feels right at home on the farm.
“I wanted to (live on a farm),” she said. “I probably envisioned that more than I envisioned becoming a teacher. But I really enjoy teaching.”
In all, Russell Brothers LLC has a pair of 7,200-head wean-to-finish swine barns, for which Jason and Sarah provide the day-to-day management and labor.
Also involved in Russell Brothers, LLC are Jason’s brother Eric, his father Dennis, and uncles, Dave, Ralph, Moe and John.
The Russells also raise corn and soybeans, and all of their acres are enrolled in the Conservative Stewardship Program.
“Jason and Sarah are a great asset to our state, as they go above and beyond to take great care of their livestock while also serving their neighbors and reaching out to their community,” Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey said in a CSIF press release.
They will continue to promote stewardship and their efforts to tell agriculture’s story to a larger portion of the public.
“There just aren’t many farmers that have the heart to speak up, and I feel that I’m obligated to do that, just for the sake of the industry and public perception,” Jason said. “I actively go out and advocate what we do and why we do it. So many people don’t visit about it, and the public comes up with its own idea of how things go inside of a hog confinement.
“They call them ‘factory farms,’ anything where you can’t see the pigs outside. I feel that’s a derogatory statement. We put a lot of care into what we do, and it’s our livelihood. The animals mean a lot to us. We don’t want to hurt them.”
In addition to operating the farm, Jason is vice president of the Linn County Farm Bureau. He and Sarah have a seven-month-old daughter, Harper.
PHOTO: Jason Russell and his family’s company received two environmental awards from different organizations at the recent Iowa Pork Congress. (Photo submitted)