GRAND FORKS — As a fifth-generation farmer, Adam Putnam is focused on fostering the relationship between conservation and agriculture in his new role as CEO of Ducks Unlimited.
Putnam, a Florida native who became the conservation group’s CEO in April, brings an extensive background as a farmer, conservationist and policymaker to the job. Before taking the DU helm, Putnam most recently was commissioner of Florida’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and before that served five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.
He’s also an avid hunter, becoming a Ducks Unlimited member when he was only 16 years old.
“I’ve always taken the position that farmers and ranchers are the original conservationists, and the bulk of conservation takes place on private property that is also being used to feed the world,” Putnam said. “So building those strong relationships, having the level of trust between Ducks Unlimited and farmers and ranchers, is essential to both of our missions.”
Putnam in late October was in South Dakota, where he signed a memorandum of understanding between DU and the Beadle Conservation District to develop a soil health demonstration farm on a 310-acre property near Huron, S.D.
The farm is an example of “regenerative agriculture,” a DU priority Putnam says “brings conservation and agriculture together to benefit both a producer’s operation and wildlife.”
Putnam, who also visited DU’s Great Plains Regional Office in Bismarck during his trip to the Dakotas, recently spoke with this reporter by phone from DU headquarters in Memphis, Tenn., about his new position and DU’s plans and priorities.
Here are some highlights from that conversation.
FNS: What attracted you to DU as a 16-year-old?
AP: I had watched my dad and older brothers go off to the banquets over the years and had begged to be allowed to tag along. And when I was 16, my dad let me come. All of our Christmas cards were DU Christmas cards, and I had been reading the magazine forever and, frankly, was a member of DU before I was a duck hunter.
I was attracted to the camaraderie of the local banquet and attracted to the mission in knowing that there wasn't a whole lot of the money that was raised at our local banquet that was staying in Florida; it was going to this mysterious place called the Prairie Pothole Region that I didn't know a lot about as a 16-year-old from central Florida.
But what I knew, I learned from reading the magazine and what a critical part of the duck breeding grounds it was — the “duck factory” — and I was struck by how neat it was that we were raising money through raffles and auctions and everything else to send to Canada and to send to the Dakotas. And that that meant more ducks for Florida.
That was a pretty fascinating connection for me to make about the miraculous migration.
FNS: I know regenerative agriculture was a focus of the site you visited in South Dakota. What exactly is regenerative agriculture?
AP: Regenerative agriculture is using plants to restore the soil health and what we continue to learn about the chemistry of the interaction between different plants and what they take from the soil, what they give back to the soil and how they work in concert with one another.
The combination of soil health and water are really, we believe, what the next generation of conservation looks like.
We think that there's a win-win opportunity there for improving yields on high value agricultural lands and reducing losses on marginal lands that are not high yield for agriculture, but are high benefit for conservation.
FNS: Was last month’s visit your first chance to get up to this part of the world?
AP: My first chance as Ducks (Unlimited) CEO. I'd been up there before, I'd pheasant hunted before, and I met with some folks before in both North and South Dakota. But I had a fantastic visit in my first trip as the new guy, and we were thrilled to join up with the Beadle Conservation District, sign our memorandum of understanding for us to really use that piece of property as a testing ground to demonstrate best management practices that are good for farmers’ bottom line and good for habitat.
We are hiring soil scientists and agronomists, frankly, with more emphasis in the Dakotas now than even our traditional wildlife biologists because we recognize that farmers and ranchers are our essential partners on working lands to both feed the world and protect the duck factory.
FNS: Are there new DU programs on the horizon that you're particularly excited about, in terms of promoting those partnerships?
AP: The regenerative agriculture is what I'm most excited about. It's something that's still in its early phases, where we're making key investments in more staff expertise that reflects an agricultural bent — in many cases more so than the traditional wildlife biologist bent — and they speak plain tailgate English, they come from farm family backgrounds, they have agricultural degrees.
They come to us with dirt under their fingernails, and many of them have a family farm background and recognize the strong linkage between soil health, regenerative agriculture and the future of water quality and habitat conservation.
FNS: What is DU doing to attract young hunters and conservationists?
AP: We've been very aggressive in setting up high school and collegiate chapters for Ducks Unlimited. We now have over 170 across the country and growing. This is attracting young men and a lot of young women, roughly 50/50 male-female. The growth has been so tremendous that the addition of these young members has brought our average age down two years, which says a lot about how it's moving us.
It's introducing young people who didn't grow up hunting to our conservation mission. And some of them through their affiliation with us become hunters. Not all do, but they all have an appreciation for wildlife conservation and the role that hunters and farmers play in conservation and the stewardship role that we all have.
And that's part of this larger effort within the conservation community beyond Ducks Unlimited, called R3 — recruit, retain and re-engage — and that's our piece of the puzzle, and it has been successful for us by tapping into the natural competition that exists between schools.
Not only are they joining and adding to the diversity of our membership, they're actually supporting the mission; the high school and collegiate chapters collectively raised $2½ million last year for conservation. So it's tremendous.
FNS: How have the first seven months on the job been going?
AP: It's like drinking out of a fire hose but I wouldn't trade a minute of it. It's not a job, it's a calling, and every day is a new reason to smile.
FNS: Do you find time to hunt and get out in the marsh?
AP: I do. That is one of the one of the advantages of the job is that occasionally, our meetings do occur in a duck blind. Watching the world wake up in the morning is transformational, whether you're watching the world wake up from the seat of a tractor, from the back of a horse, or sitting in a duck blind or in a boat on a lake, all of us who love the outdoors know what it is to watch the world wake up.
And we want that same experience for future generations.
FNS: Any parting thoughts?
AP: I'm so grateful for the men and women of American agriculture in the Dakotas and beyond who are such good stewards of the land and are cohabitating with the duck factory that so many of us across North America benefit from, the habitat that's in your backyard.
And I know sometimes we're all guilty of taking things for granted that we get to see every day, but there's a whole lot of us that are just really enamored with the landscape of the prairies, and we believe that strong rural communities, profitable American agriculture and conservation not only can exist but need each other if we're going to leave the world better than we found it.
DU at a glance
History: Ducks Unlimited started in 1937 as an effort by a small group of sportsmen to save plunging waterfowl populations decimated by the Dust Bowl.
Mission: To conserve, restore and manage wetlands and associated habitats for North America’s waterfowl. These habitats also benefit other wildlife and people.
Headquarters: Memphis, Tenn.
Membership as of Jan. 1: 622,122 adult members and 43,947 youth members in the U.S., 4,704 members in Mexico and nearly 127,000 supporters in Canada.
Acreage conserved in North America: 14,478,372 acres.
On the Web: ducks.org.
— Ducks Unlimited