The Loss of the Leopold Center is a Loss for All of Us

The State of Iowa is on the verge of eliminating one of the nation's leading centers of sustainable agriculture research and innovation. The Iowa Legislature's vote to defund and close the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture comes at a time when the work of the 30-year-old institution is, in many ways, just beginning. It was started in 1987 with a mission to “identify and reduce negative environmental and socioeconomic impacts of agricultural practices.” From water quality issues to soil health to climate change, such work is more relevant than ever, making the Center's elimination a loss not just to Iowa agriculture, but to communities around the country. For example, Leopold research into utilizing prairie strips to make row crop fields more environmentally friendly has had impacts across the Midwest, including here in Minnesota.

Since it came to light that lawmakers were gunning for the Center, a lot has been written and said about how Big Ag, commodity groups and their legislative partners were never big fans of having land grant resources devoted to figuring out ways to make agriculture less environmentally destructive. After all, having public dollars devoted to searching out alternatives to the way things are done is an acknowledgement that there are problems with the status quo.

But as it becomes increasingly clear this gem of an institution is about to be history (at this writing, the only thing that could save it is a veto by Gov. Terry Branstad), I was reminded that it's long been clear that the administration at Iowa State University wasn't exactly thrilled to be hosting the Leopold Center in the first place, particularly at a time when public agricultural universities are so nervous about alienating the corporations and commodity groups that increasingly foot the bill. The Leopold Center provides a public good, but public goods require public support, which is shrinking by the day.

Back in November 2010, I wrote a blog describing just how unpopular the Leopold Center was with the Iowa State administration even then, and how its focus on "sustainable agriculture" was somehow seen as anathema to the idea of "production agriculture." (By the way, aren't all forms of producing food and fiber from the land "production" agriculture?)

Dennis Keeney, a respected soil scientist and the first director of the Leopold Center, described in his 2015 memoir the disappointment he felt when he realized the conventional ag culture that dominated ISU did not allow room for an institution that even gently questioned the status quo.

"I've often declared the biggest enemy of sustainable agriculture is the agricultural college itself," Keeney writes bluntly toward the end of his book.

The Iowa Legislature may have pulled the trigger that killed the Leopold Center, but Iowa State University officials are co-conspirators, given their sometimes outright hostility toward seeking out alternative ways of farming our land.

I am a graduate of Iowa State's agricultural journalism program, and was proud of the education I got there, as well as the outstanding research and outreach that institution provided for the people of Iowa. I honestly cannot say I feel that same sense of pride any longer. In fact, I feel a bit of shame—an emotion tempered somewhat by the fact that I know ISU is not alone among land grants in its willingness to do the bidding of Big Ag, even when it harms the people and communities these institutions were set up to serve in the first place.

The blog I wrote seven years ago may be worth re-reading, if only to provide insights into what happens when corporate control of our land grant universities becomes so pervasive that even respected researchers find themselves rejecting basic scientific facts. Here it is:

Cud-Chewing Contrarians

(Originally posted Nov. 10, 2010)

Did cattle evolve to eat grass, or is all that talk about rumens, abomasums and cuds just a bunch of baseless, elitist, tree-hugger new-age propaganda? Don’t ask that question at Iowa State University, where Corn is not only King, it’s Master of the Universe. As the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, Ricardo Salvador discovered that too late. Salvador’s experience at ISU does not portend well for those who are trying to get our own land grant institution, the University of Minnesota, to treat sustainable agriculture with more respect.

I was a student at Iowa State in the mid-1980's when there was talk of forming a sustainable agriculture center as an antidote to some of the environmental (as well as social and economic) fallout from the fencerow-to-fencerow blitzkrieg that was launched the decade before. As someone who had covered the agriculture college as a reporter, attended classes there as a student and toiled in its test plots and laboratories as a technician, I never dreamed such an entity would be allowed within 100 miles of Ames, Iowa.

I left the country for a few years and returned to find it wasn’t all talk after all. In 1987, the Iowa Groundwater Protection Act imposed a tax on pesticides and fertilizers, providing the financial seed for the launching of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. And it was planted smack-dab in the middle of conventional ag academia: the campus of Iowa State University.

Perhaps it’s a sign of how desperate the conventional ag community was after the “Farm Crisis” of the 80's that a center named after the father of the land ethic was allowed to be located at the state’s land grant university.

And this is no mere “think tank” that produces innocuous white papers in some ivory silo. The law states clearly that the three-fold mission of the Center is: to conduct research to identify and reduce negative environmental and socioeconomic impacts of agricultural practices; to research and assist in developing alternative practices consistent with a sustainable agriculture; and to work with ISU Extension to inform the agricultural community and the public of its findings.

Indeed, during the past three decades the Leopold Center has done just that, producing cutting-edge research on everything from local food systems and rural economic development to cover crops and alternative swine production.

Most recently, the Center has sponsored research into the role managed rotational grazing of cattle and other livestock could play in a more sustainable food system. I recently attended a couple of Iowa field days on this subject—it’s exciting what can be accomplished when farmers and scientists team up to balance livestock production and environmental health.

Ironically, it may have been grass-fed livestock production that sealed Ricardo Salvador’s fate. In 2009, ISU began the search for someone to replace then-Leopold Center director Jerry DeWitt, who was retiring. Salvador applied for the job, and seemed from the beginning to be a natural fit.

Salvador is a former agronomy professor at ISU and over the years has become well known in sustainable agriculture circles for his research and leadership. He’s now a senior scientist and director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Numerous well-qualified candidates were interviewed for the Leopold Center directorship, and it finally came down to two finalists: Salvador and Frank Louws, a professor of plant pathology at North Carolina State University. Louws has a strong research background but was not as well-grounded in sustainable agriculture, particularly Midwestern sustainable agriculture.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Salvador was the overwhelming favorite among the Leopold Center’s advisory board. (The advisory board consists of university scientists, farmers, government agency staffers and representatives of farm organizations.) But late last fall, ISU president and chemistry professor Gregory Geoffroy, apparently ignoring the recommendations of board members, chose Louws instead.

Three members of the advisory board wrote President Geoffroy a letter of protest, but he stuck with his choice. As the Chronicle reports, the Iowa Farm Bureau had made it clear to Geoffroy that they did not want Salvador as the director of the Center. The dean of ISU’s ag school, Wendy Wintersteen, also told Geoffroy that “agriculture groups” in the state weren’t pleased with Salvador’s background in sustainable ag. Geoffroy told the Chronicle that it was important to have a Leopold Center director who could “walk the middle ground.”

An interesting job requirement, given the Center’s legislative mandate to “identify and reduce negative environmental and socioeconomic impacts of agricultural practices.” Accomplishing such a task requires stepping out of the middle furrow at times and questioning whether it’s headed in the right direction.

But here’s where things get really ugly: Louws turned down the position earlier this year, making Salvador the natural pick. But even after bringing Salvador back to campus for a follow-up interview, Geoffroy rejected him yet again, conceded the job search was a failure and appointed a sociology professor as interim director. It will be at least a year before the search for a new director proceeds.

What happened? As anyone who’s read the recently released documents related to the attempted censorship of Troubled Waters knows, it’s no surprise that land grant university officials will do almost anything to avoid offending corporate ag interests. Often, the “offensive” gesture comes in the form of simply questioning the status quo.

In the case of Troubled Waters, the film dares to present science that questions whether planting corn as far as the eye can see is good for the land both here and in the Gulf of Mexico. In the case of Professor Salvador, his misstep may have come when he dared to state a scientific fact about bovines.

During a presentation at the ISU campus, Salvador was talking about a research project in New York when he described in an aside meat “produced in the natural way that meat should be produced, which is on lands suitable for grasses and perennial crops.”

Oops. That statement alone probably wasn’t Salvador’s undoing, but the uproar it generated touched a raw nerve at ISU—so raw that even undisputed scientific fact has become radioactive. The Chronicle asked Dr. Wintersteen whether she thought cattle had evolved to eat grass.

Her answer: “I don’t have an opinion on that statement.” Wintersteen was trained as an entomologist, but as far as I know even bug scientists have to take a course or two in basic biology.

Wintersteen’s response, or non-response, is quite troubling. Whether Salvador was qualified to be the director of the Leopold Center is almost moot at this point. The ag dean’s refusal to answer a simple, no-brainer question on basic biology shows the extent to which corporate ag’s tendrils have reached into our land grant institutions.

I think one of the most interesting insights about the Leopold Center controversy was offered up by Alan Guebert, the agricultural journalist and columnist. When Frank Louws was offered the job earlier this year but was waffling on whether he would accept it, Guebert wrote: “Why? Maybe he’s uncomfortable that Big Ag put its thumb on the Iowa State scale to make him the heavy favorite. Maybe he worries that if Big Ag can deliver the job, it can take it.”

Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.