Working for the greater good: The 2022 Outdoor News Person of the Year – Ruth Hoefs

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Ruth Hoefs’ years of conservation efforts made her this year’s pick for the Outdoor News Person of the Year Award. Photo by Javier Serna

Le Center, Minn. — Ruth Hoefs was never much for hunting. But no one will ever question her commitment to conservation, particularly on the family farm where she grew up and continues the family-farming tradition in Le Sueur County today. It’s there that she’s put into place many conservation practices, from Conservation Reserve Program enrollments to crop rotations designed to keep soil in place.

“My dad did some things differently than I do,” said Hoefs, of Le Center, who a few years ago became the first woman to hold Ducks Unlimited’s state chairmanship in Minnesota.

This year, Outdoor News has chosen her as the 2022 recipient of its Person of the Year Award.

The highlights of Hoefs’ resume in conservation run deeper than there is space allowed, but they include years of volunteerism with Ducks Unlimited and efforts locally with various conservation projects and groups, including restoring Sanborn Lake near Montgomery to its former glory as a magnet and refuge for waterfowl and other wildlife. Hoefs also has been a volunteer firearms safety instructor, teaching youths proper firearms handling and use. 

While this list isn’t close to comprehensive in terms of her conservation contributions to the state, it’s a start.

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Many who have worked with Hoefs said there is no job too big or too small for her to tackle. Photo courtesy of Ducks Unlimited

Hoefs attended a Ducks Unlimited event about 25 years ago, and it’s changed the trajectory of her life and farm ever since.

“I wasn’t sure what Ducks Unlimited was about,” she said. “After going to that (DU event), I wanted to make sure that what we do (on our farm) preserves it for the future. You don’t want to see soil blow away. You want to make sure the water stays clean and pure. That’s what prairies do, they purify. In farming, you have to watch your tillage practices, avoid (soil) from eroding into the county ditch.”

Steve Breaker, district conservationist at Hoefs’ local Natural Resources Conservation Service office, said he’s worked with Hoefs in the past on erosion-control projects on her farmland, which has been in her family since 1953.

Breaker helped Hoefs install water and sediment-control basins.

“We have worked with Ruth in the past on identifying areas where there is more concentrated erosion,” he said. “Establishing those water and sediment-control basins across the gullies help pond water, (distribute it) slowly, trap and hold the sediment, and it helps reduce erosion.”

Breaker also mentioned the CRP enrollments and Hoefs’ crop rotation, using small grains and alfalfa to keep the soil in place.

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Hoefs said restoration work at Sanborn Lake, where a water-control structure recently was replaced, is among the many projects she’s proud to have been a part of in improving Minnesota’s outdoors. Photos courtesy of Ruth Hoefs

“She has been very good to work with, open to different ideas and the practices that we identify,” he said.

Mike Schultz, manager of the Le Sueur County Soil and Water Conservation District, said Hoefs has been outspoken regarding conservation.

In 2013, Schultz’s SWCD awarded Hoefs its annual outstanding conservationist award.

Schultz has been working on a restoration project at nearby Sanborn Lake that Hoefs also has been involved in, but from different angles.

“We did the work on the drainage system that was tied to the outlet,” Schultz said.

Patrick Murphy, too, is familiar with Hoefs’ efforts regarding Sanborn.

“For all she has done for conservation in Minnesota, all the time she has given, (and) she doesn’t even hunt,” said Murphy, who said he appreciates the example Hoefs sets for other nonhunters who may be interested in the mission of Ducks Unlimited and other conservation groups.

Murphy said he’s been a friend of Hoefs for about a decade, “but I have always known her for what she has done for Ducks Unlimited. I have been going to DU functions since I was 11 years old in 1969.”

Murphy is a longtime hunter, shooting sports advocate, a member of the Montgomery Sportsmen’s Club, and an advocate for Sanborn Lake, going back to the 1960s.

“The hunting was fantastic,” Murphy recalled about a recent Sanborn hunt. “A lot of divers, canvasbacks, bluebills, ringbills. … The main ditch goes to the Minnesota River in Jordan. It got infested with carp, bullheads, and runoff.”

Hoefs was involved in the fundraising for the Sanborn restoration project, which received Outdoor Heritage Fund grants. The lake is now on its way, via construction of a new water-control structure, to being restored in the next few years.

“We all rallied because of her leadership,” Murphy said of Hoefs. The Sanborn project saw a wide range of conservation partners pull together to restore the lake, he said.

Hoefs, asked about the project, credited local organizations for their roles.

“It is a project that needed to be done,” she said, mentioning a pair of local DU chapters that she is involved with – the Tri-County chapter and the Sanborn Lake Ladies chapter.

Hoefs’ volunteering efforts are known well around the state among other DU chapters.

Gregory Erickson, DU Minnesota’s north-central regional director, noted all the help Hoefs has offered at the annual Fishing for Ducks fundraiser that the Garrison chapter hosts each winter on Lake Mille Lacs.

“Whether it’s a big chore or a little chore, she is always ready to dig in,” Erickson said. “When something needs to be done, she steps up and takes care of it.”

Hoefs doesn’t limit her volunteerism to DU chapters.

John Trnka, secretary of the Montgomery Sportsmen’s Club, noted that Hoefs holds an official FFL (federal firearms license), which makes her a valuable asset at any conservation fundraiser that includes firearms as prizes.

“Our club just did a gun bingo fundraiser at the American Legion,” Trnka said. “She contributed her time to do the transactions for the gun raffle.”

Hoefs said she got that license to help out clubs financially. Otherwise, some gun shops have folks available, but usually for a fee, and sometimes, the transactions aren’t processed as quickly.

“People aren’t as excited at banquets if they don’t get to take home the firearm that night,” Hoefs said.

Her contributions have been noticed far and wide by Ducks Unlimited officials.

Upon learning of this latest award, Chris Sebastian, DU’s sustainability lead and external affairs manager, tracked down national DU President Doug Schoenrock to inform him of Hoefs’ award.

“Ruth is an extraordinary champion for wetlands conservation,” Schoenrock said. “She leads by example on her farm and through countless dedicated hours to our mission as a member of the DU Board of Directors. Ruth is such a positive person, inspiring others throughout her state of Minnesota and across the country with a genuine love of the outdoors. Ducks Unlimited congratulates her on this honor and is proud to have someone with her passion and talents working for Team DU.”

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Although she didn’t hunt much while growing up or as an adult, Ruth Hoefs said her involvement at the family farm, which she now owns, has driven her desire to do what’s right for wildlife on the landscape. Photo courtesy of Ducks Unlimited

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