When my husband, Brandon, was little, his parents recall, he had a couple favorite indoor games. He'd shoot baskets on a miniature hoop, from all angles of the house. That may have helped him put up thousands of points in his high school basketball career.
But his other favorite game was one I doubt many kids have played. He'd line up rubber bouncy balls in the hallway that became his alleyway and "sort" them into different rooms with a whip or sorting stick.
Even then, as a small child, he knew he wanted to work with cattle. As he grew up, he began acquiring his own cattle, eventually establishing a cow-calf herd. But his real desire was to feed cattle.
Brandon would background his own calves and dabbled in custom feeding for others. Some years, he'd buy more calves to feed.
But there was a problem: The corrals on the farm had been built into a low spot. They didn't drain well, and that made it inefficient for feeding and it meant that it wasn't ideal for water quality.
For years, Brandon and his father had talked about building a feedlot on an under-utilized part of the winter pasture just beyond the farmyard. In 2012, just after our first daughter was born, Brandon signed paperwork with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to begin working on the project.
Feedlots get a bad wrap from people who haven't been around one. People envision animals overloaded in lots, getting pushed corn until they're fat.
But in our case, the feedlot enabled Brandon to feed more animals in a more efficient, more humane manner while protecting water quality in our part of the Prairie Pothole region.
A few years ago, the Stutsman County Soil Conservation District honored Brandon with a water quality award for putting up his feedlot. Earlier this year, staff from the district called again, asking if Brandon would accept the district's overall achievement award.
Brandon accepted, but he called me almost right away. "Should I have done that?" he asked me.
Conservation hasn't necessarily been the biggest focus around our place. Farming and ranching are businesses, and we, like many others, are just trying to stay above water. That's been tough the last few years as prices have remained low. In recent years, we've dealt with blizzards and droughts and rain that came when it shouldn't have.
But that doesn't mean Brandon hasn't been trying to make choices to improve the soil and water. Putting up the feedlot was a major step, but there have been a lot of little things, too. Brandon has made steps to move to rotational grazing and no-till planting. He's tried cover crops and uses manure from the feedlot as fertilizer.
None of those are big steps. But they do represent decisions made with the best intentions for the land in mind. Whenever I interview people about conservation, I ask what advice they have for people who want to start improving their land. The answer almost always is, start small.
We attended the recognition banquet at the annual convention of the North Dakota Association of Soil Conservation Districts and heard the stories of achievement award winners from across the state. Some have years of conservation planning under their belts; others, like us, have just tried to make the right choices in small ways.
Conservation can be in small steps, small choices to improve land. I'm proud of the steps Brandon has taken to make his lifelong dream come true and to take care of the land at the same time.