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Mitchell's Stehly brothers honored with Farmer of the Year Award by Pheasants Forever

The Stehly brothers manage a large farming operation with a heavy focus on soil health.

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Craig and Gene Stehly of Mitchell, South Dakota.
Pheasants Forever photo contribution

MITCHELL — Pheasants Forever’s 2022/2023 Precision Farmer of the Year Award is presented to brothers Craig and Gene Stehly of Mitchell, South Dakota, it was announced recently. The annual award recognizes the innovative use of precision ag technology and utilization of data to identify profitable solutions for agriculture and wildlife on working lands throughout America.

Located in the Prairie Pothole Region, the Stehly brothers manage a large farming operation with a heavy focus on soil health. In a region rich with wildlife, wetlands, and accompanying saline soils — a major issue throughout South Dakota inhibiting crop germination and plant growth – the Stehly brothers have utilized precision ag and wildlife habitat to address marginal lands across their farm to benefit soil health, grasslands, and wildlife.

“By utilizing John Deere Greenstar data, we’ve been able to identify crop acres with a negative return and with the help of organizations such as Pheasants Forever, the SD Soil Health Coalition, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, convert these marginal lands into 45 different habitat areas across our operation,” said the Stehly brothers. “The end result is more profitability, better soil health, and improved water quality. All these elements are integral to sustainable farming and wildlife ecosystems on our homestead – we’ve been rewarded with significantly increased pheasant numbers as a byproduct of our efforts.”

For the past 11 years, Gene Stehly has been fulfilling his dream of converting his pasture into a native prairie grassland and riparian buffer. Not only has the local farmer been successful in doing so, but his efforts earned Stehly the first-eve...

“We believe sustainability is both economically, as well as environmentally important,” said Jason Tucker, manager, US sales western region for John Deere. “It means a great deal to John Deere to have growers like Gene and Craig use our technology and their data to sustainability and efficiently enable their farm.”

Integrated wildlife habitat has played a major role on the Stehly farm since pheasants were first introduced in South Dakota during the early 1900’s. The family farm witnessed the spectacular rise of ringneck populations in the 1930’s, and the soil bank era of the 1950’s. By the 1970’s, however, the brothers witnessed their pheasant population decimated when row crop replaced the soil bank. Alarmed by the decreasing wildlife numbers on their acreage, the Stehly brothers – both farmers and hunters – began researching and implementing ways to restore pheasant populations. Forty years later, they’re still working to achieve a sustainable balance between farm and wildlife production.


“Craig and Gene view conservation as a part of their farming operation, not a separate entity. Recognizing early on that not every acre of their operation was returning a profit, they started converting those marginal acres back into perennial grasses for habitat,” said Cristin Weber, Pheasants Forever’s precision ag and conservation specialist in SD and individual who submitted a nomination for Farmer of the Year on behalf of the Stehlys. “They are a prime example to show how production agriculture and conservation can work together to improve profitability while providing wildlife habitat and sustainability.”

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