Lee and Marilyn Ellers, the owners of Sparrow's Song Farm near Houston, received the Delaware Department of Agriculture's Environmental Stewardship Award for 2012 last week.

Lee and Marilyn Ellers are quite particular when it comes to their 250-acre poultry and grain farm near Houston.

“If you keep something looking nice and neat, you’re more apt to take care of it,” Lee recently explained. “That’s why we try to stay ahead of everything by doing things on the farm before they become a requirement.”

That foresight and attention to detail are what helped the Ellers to earn the state department of agriculture’s 2012 Environmental Stewardship Award.

The couple was presented with a plaque, a farm sign and a $1,000 check on Thursday during Delaware Agriculture Week events at the Delaware State Fairgrounds in Harrington.

“Marilyn and Lee Ellers represent the best traditions of agricultural innovation, taking action to protect and preserve our environment,” state Secretary of Agriculture Ed Kee said in a statement. “The work that they and other farmers are doing is vital to helping improve our water quality, and the early signs we are seeing indicate that it is paying off.”

The Ellers first became poultry farmers in the mid-1980s and expanded their operation in 2005 after buying what is now the Sparrow’s Song Farm on Mesibov Road from Marilyn’s mother.

Today, the couple raises as many as 125,000 roasters at a time for Amick Farms, which nominated them for the stewardship award.

To qualify, the Ellers had to submit a questionnaire that Marilyn says ended up being about seven essays.

Representatives from several poultry companies and officials from DNREC and the department of agriculture also inspected their work to reduce nutrient runoff and otherwise limit the farm’s impact on the environment. Those efforts include the development of a five-year comprehensive nutrient management plan; the installation of a concrete pad between their poultry house and manure shed; routine cleaning of heavy-use concrete pads; the maintenance of buffer zones around ditches; and the addition of a tree windbreak and habitat area for whitetail deer.

The Ellers also are certified as private nutrient handlers by the Delaware Nutrient Management Program and hold a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation permit.

“Farmers are the first environmentalists,” Marilyn said when asked what inspires the couple’s stewardship efforts. “If you don’t take care of what you have now, what will your children be left with when you’re gone?”

Lee, who retired from a fuel hauling job a decade ago, said the couple’s approach to farming is not unlike maintaining a fine automobile.

“If you don’t wash and clean your vehicle, you’re less likely to do the proper maintenance and eventually you end up with a piece of junk” he said.

Despite their recent honor, the devout Baptists who both grew up just a short distance from Sparrow’s Song Farm, said they don’t have any intention of resting on their new-found laurels.

“We intend to continue taking care of what God has blessed us with,” Lee said. “This has all been made possible through God and Jesus Christ. We’re just tenants of the land until the Lord decides to take us home.”

Runners-up for the award included Kathy Willms, who owns Two Paws Farm near Bridgeville; the Herman Smith Jr. Farm near Clayton; and Paul T. Baker, the owner of Hidden Acres Farm near Millsboro.