James Middleton, both a farmer and a family physician in Munfordville, balances dual lives. He routinely wakes up before sunrise, and finishes near or after sundown, to help improve the health of Hart County’s people and land.
For his laudable pursuit protecting his 150-year-old family farm, Middleton was recently awarded the Kentucky Leopold Conservation Award, which recognizes farmers and foresters exhibiting exceptional care and management of natural resources.
“I love the land, I love taking care of it,” Middleton told the Daily News on Monday. “I want to do it in a responsible way, in a way that the next generation will have a beautiful land to live and work in after me.”
The Sand County Foundation funds the annual $10,000 award to an exceptional private landowner. The award’s namesake is Aldo Leopold, a conservationist known for writing “A Sand County Almanac,” in which he encouraged an ethical relationship between people and land.
“The foundation sees the value of recognizing the many farm families doing an outstanding job while providing us fruit, fiber and shelter,” said Steve Coleman, a former director for the Kentucky Division of Conservation and current state coordinator for the award, who applauded Middleton’s work regrowing forests and protecting nearby waterways. “James is a lifelong conservationist.”
Middleton earned a nomination – his third – this year from the Nature Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit that helped Middleton establish conservation easements along the Green River to protect the water from agricultural runoff. He planted about 600 acres of permanent hardwoods, native grasses and other vegetation to act as a riparian buffer along about two miles of river frontage.
Because the river feeds in Mammoth Cave, Midddleton feels especially passionate about protecting the unique ecosystem and world heritage site. After planting forests along the river, Middleton has observed eagles, bobcats and quail breathe life back into the land.
“The Green River is the most ecologically diverse river east of the Mississippi,” Middleton said. “It is a jewel. We have to protect it.”
Before medical school, Middleton obtained a Ph.D. in agricultural economics.
“While working on my Ph.D., I always wanted to come back to Hart County. I realized what we needed in Hart County wasn’t another farmer, but a doctor,” he said.
He inherited the farm in 1968 and then enrolled in medical school. He started a family medicine practice, married a pediatrician and began splitting his time between farmer and physician roles.
It’s not an easy lifestyle. On Monday, Middleton started his day at 5 a.m. and finished at 7 p.m. Throughout the day, he might make a couple calls to the farm, which is located several blocks from his clinic. On his days off, he gets more hands-on with his farm.
“You can do both,” Middleton said. “I love being outdoors. It’s a good change from my medical practice, although I love practicing medicine, too.”
For years, Middleton’s family harvested tobacco. But in 2005, when federal incentives shifted, Middleton decided to halt the practice of unsustainable row cropping and shifted to hay, pasture-fed cattle and hardwoods.
He also abandoned his dairy operation after embracing a new style of farming and land management. “There were nearly 300 dairies in Hart County in the ’70s and ’80s. Now there are only six left,” Middleton said.
His new crops were alfalfa, about 600 “mother” Polled Hereford cattle and hardwood trees. The farm is about 60 percent forest and about 40 percent pasture, hay, grazing land and open land.
In addition to planting “over a million” hardwood trees, Middleton also planted several hundred acres specifically for pollinators. He worries about their survival, though, as a third of his bees die each year when they travel to nearby land.
Between climate change, deforestation and wildlife loss, Middleton wants to foster better relations between people and their shared planet – just as Aldo Leopold encouraged.
“He was a leader of modern environmental ethics. He emphasized biodiversity and ecology, and the science of wildlife management,” Middleton said. “I think it’s very pertinent to what we’re facing right now in our country.
“We’re facing big changes and it’s because of human activity. And (people) are stuck in a building, in an air conditioned room.”
Moving forward, Middleton wants the environmental and economic future of the land to be secure, which is why his hardwood forests will also be selectively cut for timber sales.
But since it’s a 70- or 80-year crop cycle, this requires insurance that the farm will land in good hands to ensure the forest is strategically managed.
“We have to make a living out here, but in a way that respects our environment, our animals and trees in a sustainable way,” Middleton said. “I’ve spent my life following those concepts and that passion.”