Celebrating the life of a conservation hero

In memory of Woody Woodruff

This weekend, our beloved friend and colleague, Woody Woodruff, passed away after a long battle with cancer. Although it was not an unexpected passing, our hearts are broken. He was taken far too soon.

Woody started as a Conservation Associate at the Alliance in 2012, bringing with him decades of experience as a humanitarian and conservationist. In his early years, he was an ironman– one of those rare humans that can swim, bike, and run hundreds of miles in a day. He also served two terms in the Peace Corps, first in an agricultural program in the Caribbean, and again in Mauritania in North Africa.  For many years he worked as a Sangamon County Soil and Water Conservationist, but his most beloved work was on his farm, Mud Prairie. He dedicated his life to restoring that parcel of land into a model conservation farm.

Everything Woody did was guided by his deep love for nature and for humankind. He knew, with unshakeable certainty, that we are all connected– that our lives and our deaths, are tied to each other, and to the soil. He understood the sacredness of soil–for its ability to honor those who came before us, its power to heal the world around us, and its capacity to protect those who will come after us. 

On his own farm, Woody honored the past peoples of the land by restoring portions of acreage to native prairie and planting indigenous trees, shrubs, flowers and reconstructing a hogan, which is a structure the Woodlands Indians once inhabited at Mud Prairie. 

He took deep care to grow grain and fruit in harmony with nature. He found and preserved arrowheads and glacial-carved rocks in a collection. He made the farm part of the community and often brought 4-H and FFA students out to wander the trails he carved through the woods. He understood the power of soil to sink carbon and restore balance to our world ecosystem– and he took it upon himself as a sacred duty to steward the land in a way that would protect and sustain future generations. 

Mud Prairie is Woody’s spiritual place, a place that “affected his spirit and soul”. Those who have been to Woody’s farm know that it is a small piece of heaven on earth– woodlands of pine and oaks guard lush prairie and fertile farmland. Bobcats and butterflies share the land with soil microbes and songbirds. It’s the only place in Illinois with ponds so clear that you can see the bottom. It is a living testament to Woody’s dedication and wisdom. But it’s not the only one.

At the Alliance, Woody was responsible for leading the organization’s conservation efforts and outreach to farmers. He was a networker– he showed up wherever there were farmers and conversations about soil health. He criss-crossed the state on days, nights, and weekends to attend county-level discussions and state-level working groups, and just to visit and guide other farmers. He was always ready to serve. No task was too small, no friend too far to travel to. Woody knew that true change would only grow from the ground up, and to that end, he built a network of friends and farmers that laid the foundation for a farmer-led soil health movement in our state. This too is a testament to our friend. 

There is no question in our minds that Woody achieved that life-long axiom of all farmers– “to leave it better than when you found it.” The world is a better place for having had Woody in it, and while we are deeply saddened to return our dear friend to the soil– we are comforted in knowing that he will be a part of that sacred space that he so loved and cherished during his time on this earth.

The Woodruff family is planning a campout this summer to celebrate Woody’s life.

“We need to be the community of the watershed, the community of the Large River, and a community of the oceans. This is one Earth and stewardship was the mission we were given.”

Robert Craig “Woody” Woodruff, 1960-2020

Memorial donations may be made to the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, 230 Broadway, Suite 200, Springfield, IL 62701 or the Ryken Bailey Foundation, 715 West Van Buren, Auburn, IL 62615.

To find Robert Woodruff’s Obituary please click here.