Just about halfway through Dennis Keeney’s slim memoir on his life in agriculture, the author’s tone changes dramatically. For 54 pages, The Keeney Place: A Life in the Heartland, delivers on its title—it offers a somewhat nostalgic glimpse at growing up during the mid-20th Century on a diverse family farm east of Des Moines, Iowa. The reader roots for the young Keeney as he takes the path of many a farm kid: he works hard on the land and in school, earning himself entry into Iowa State College, where he falls in love with soil science.
He eventually gets a PhD, seeing his role in “scientific agriculture” as a way he can help family farms like the one he grew up on survive and thrive. His one regret at that point in his life is that he couldn’t have acted sooner: the year Keeney received his doctorate, 1965, his beloved family farm, the Keeney Place, went on the auction block, and his father was forced to go to work for the Allis-Chalmers farm implement company. A few weeks after he was laid off from that job, the elder Keeney died of an apparent heart attack.
So Keeney did what he knew best: he put his nose to the grindstone and became as good a scientist as he had a farmhand and student. He traveled the country and the world studying the latest innovations in agricultural science. He led innovative research trials and published papers. He was a leader in professional societies, becoming a fellow of the American Academy of Science, among other things.
It all sounds great: an American success story from the heartland. But Keeney jars the reader awake with a thumbnail description of his post-doctorate career on page 55: “The more I succeeded, the farther I got from the Keeney Place, and the more my enthusiasm turned to disappointment. That, in a nutshell, is the story of my twenty-two years as a Professor of Soil Science at the University of Wisconsin.”
It takes courage to make such a statement. It turns out Keeney was realizing that industrialized agriculture, far from being a savior, was what killed the Keeney Place, and what led to the kind of land use decisions that went against the ethic he was raised on. All those fond recollections earlier in the book aren’t just scrapbook material—they are touchstones for what is at risk when we put industrialized, corporate-controlled commodity production before the needs of the land and its people.
To Keeney’s chagrin, he realized that as an employee of a land grant institution, he was a prime cog in the industrial ag machine that was destroying the Keeney Places of the world. This was particularly hard to accept from someone who had grown up under the land grant ideal that such institutions were the “people’s universities”—a way for the sons and daughters of farmers to bring the latest innovations back to their communities. Now Iowa State, the very first land grant institution formed after the passage of the Morrill Act in 1862, has the Monsanto Student Services Wing. Just this winter at the University of Minnesota, an agricultural economist used campus facilities to put on a “Dairy Growth Summit” dominated by large-scale corporate producers and processors.
As legendary Iowa State economist and agricultural law expert Neil Harl once put it: “We have moved in the direction of substituting large agribusiness as the primary constituency of the land grant university for the broad constituencies of decades past.”
But Keeney didn’t waste two decades of his life—far from it—and this book is not a litany of regrets from a bitter old man. He did top-rate research while in Wisconsin, often focusing on how to make agriculture less harmful to the environment. Influenced by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the burgeoning environmental movement, the Iowa farm boy proved early he was willing to ruffle some feathers in the conventional agricultural academic field in order to do honest research. In fact, Keeney developed such a reputation as a scientist that it gave him significant clout inside as well as outside academia.
One can use clout as a way to solidify one’s role in continuing the status quo. But Keeney chose to wield the respect he had earned in a different way: in 1988 he left Wisconsin and returned to Iowa State, where he became the first director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, a shining example of how the land grant system can be put back in service of the people. The Leopold Center was the product of the 1987 Iowa Groundwater Protection Act, a bill passed in response to mounting problems associated with, among other things, nitrogen fertilizer contamination of groundwater in the state. It had become clear Iowa State had failed to address this issue, partly because it was so beholding to industrial agricultural’s boosters. I know, because I was a student journalist at ISU in the run-up to the development of the Leopold Center. Report after report about Iowa’s water quality problems came out in the early 1980s, along with increasingly bad news about the economic demise of the family farm. Keeney makes clear the two problems were not unrelated. Fewer, larger, less diverse farms meant more monocrops, which resulted in more erosion and chemical runoff.
The Groundwater Protection Act provided the Leopold Center base funding through taxes on fertilizer and pesticide registrations, a genius masterstroke that gave the center the kind of financial foundation other “sustainable ag” centers at land grant college don’t have, since they are invariably reliant on annual soft funding via the college, and by extension state legislatures.
Keeney set about developing an institution that would disseminate information of use to farmers of all types. At the core of this would be interdisciplinary teams of researchers and Extension educators, a model Keeney had become familiar with while in New Zealand.
And he is most proud of this team approach, particularly around issues related to water quality and local food systems. The Leopold Center’s role in establishing prairie strips in row crop fields (an innovation covered in the Land Stewardship Letter in recent years) is a particularly excellent example of how experts from disparate fields—everything from agricultural engineering to entomology—can come together to create a practical solution. Despite the word “Sustainable” in the title of the Center, Keeney took pains to reach out to all farmers, working with commodity groups, mainstream farm organizations and, yes, alternative agriculture groups like the Practical Farmers of Iowa.
Keeney writes about the early buzz the Center created in Iowa and beyond. Paul Johnson, the lawmaker who was behind the Groundwater Protection Act, had initially not wanted the Center to be located at ISU, given how connected the school was to industrial agriculture. But for a time, having such an institution in the belly of the beast looked like it was going to have a positive impact.
“Both Paul Johnson and I were convinced that the Center was about culture change at Iowa State University,” writes Keeney. “Not just minor corrections, mind you, but big time cultural shifts.”
Keeney had aspirations beyond his home state. He foresaw a time when every land grant would have its own version of the Leopold Center. That dream has been partially attained: the University of Minnesota has the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture and the University of Wisconsin has its Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, for example. But “sustainable agriculture centers” at most land grants are in a tenuous economic position from year-to-year—not a great position from which to bring about “culture change.”
Eventually, even the Leopold Center and Keeney found the ISU campus less than welcoming. In a particularly hard passage, the book describes how the dean of the college of agriculture became “cool” toward Keeney in that classic passive-aggressive Midwestern way. Keeney was disinvited from key committees and it became well known around campus that relations had soured between the two. Keeney says he was perplexed at this change of relations.
But just a few lines later he provides a clue as to why things had gone south—Keeney was becoming more outspoken on some (very) hot button issues in agriculture: the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone, genetically modified organisms and ethanol. Working with all these interdisciplinary teams and being in touch with some of sharpest scientific minds around, combined with seeing firsthand the impacts of industrial agriculture, was too much for Keeney to ignore.
“I’ve often declared the biggest enemy of sustainable agriculture is the agricultural college itself,” Keeney writes bluntly toward the end of the book.
Keeney left the Leopold Center in 1999, and his successors have had mixed results as industrial agriculture becomes further entrenched at places like ISU. But for now, it is still considered one of the country’s preeminent centers of its kind. When it was launched, a leader in sustainable agriculture research called it “the land-grant university’s last hope.” Let’s hope not, given that it remains a bit of an island in a sea of corporate-controlled academia.
Our true last hope is people like Dennis Keeney who toil away within the confines of places like ISU, the U of M and UW, pushing such institutions, in spite of themselves, to fulfill their land grant mission.
Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.