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Farmers Behind Your Food: Mortenson Ranch, South Dakota

In the late 1940s, Clarence Mortenson began to wonder how the water on his ranch could be preserved so it would be remain available far into the future, a thought that sparked his effort to restore the ranch to a more natural state. That vision still guides his sons – Todd, Jeff, and Curt Mortenson – in their commitment to land stewardship.

The brothers, the third generation to run the ranch, have seen increasing results from their efforts as the years have passed. In the 1980s, Todd learned about holistic management and began moving their cattle across the land according to the ancient rhythms of buffalo herds, grazing the livestock in different areas depending on the season. By the 1990s, researchers were observing an increase in native tree and shrub species along the ranch’s streams, an impressive increase in wildlife populations and a decrease in sediment flowing into creeks on the ranch.

The ranch has come a long way since Clarence began his quest. More than 90 percent of the 19,000-acre spread is back to native grasses, forbs, shrubs and trees. “Each generation has done something different to improve it,” Todd Mortenson said. “I still see areas I can improve upon, and I want to be sure that when I hand it to my boys that it’s as good as I could do and, hopefully, it will continue with them.”


The Mortsenson family was recognized by the Sand County Foundation as the 2011 Leopold Conservation Award winners in South Dakota.

**This story was originally published by the Sand County Foundation.