Iowa Legislature Defunds Sustainable Agriculture Research

Leopold Center to Close Unless Governor Vetoes Cuts

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Posted: Wednesday, May 3, 2017 5:25 pm

A bill passed by the Iowa Legislature to defund the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture now waits on the desk of Republican Gov. Terry Branstad.

Supporters of the 30-year-old research center at Iowa State University in Ames are hoping one of Bradstad's final acts as governor will be to veto the closure. After all, it was Bradstad himself who signed the 1987 Iowa Groundwater Protection Act into law, providing funds to establish and maintain the Leopold Center.

Branstad is widely expected to become the next U.S. Ambassador to China following his Senate confirmation hearing in Washington yesterday.

Over the years, the Leopold Center has funded more than 500 research projects in Iowa, which have provided farmers and policymakers nationwide with science-based data on the environmental impacts of agriculture and the benefits of sustainable farming practices.

As of this morning, the center’s web site still touts the “celebration” of its “pearl” anniversary, complete with a special logo and events planned throughout the year, but makes no mention of the center’s impending doom.

Iowa’s Senate File 510 mandates the Leopold Center immediately cease new initiatives and instructs the center to close effective July 1, after which the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State will wrap up any loose ends.

The center’s mission is (or was) “to identify and develop new ways to farm profitably while conserving natural resources as well as reducing negative environmental and social impacts,” according to its charter. Its four primary areas of focus – ecology, marketing and food systems, policy and cross-cutting – were funded by the state along with fees on nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides required by the groundwater act.

That 1987 legislation was enacted after pollutants from agriculture, industry and other sources caused widespread concern about the quality of Iowa's groundwater resources. "All persons in the state have the right to have their lawful use of groundwater unimpaired by the activities of any person which render the water unsafe or unpotable," the act states.

Many of those concerns still exist today, and the Branstad administration has recently wrangled with the legislature over how to pay for mitigation efforts. More than $340 million in state and federal funds were directed to programs with water quality benefits in Iowa last year, and in March Branstad announced 12 urban water quality demonstration projects that will provide nearly $1.18 million in matching funds.

But, the fate of the Leopold Center has national implications.

Bryce Oates, writing for the Daily Yonder, a publication of the Kentucky/Tennessee-based Center for Rural Strategies, called the Leopold Center “sustainable agriculture royalty” and said its death will be a loss to all of rural America.

“Those of us from other states, at least those of us who think it’s necessary to grow food and have drinkable water at the same time, often look to Iowa and the Leopold Center for research and data. Their track record is impressive,” Oates wrote. He listed these examples:

• Key research that links filter and buffer strips, crop rotation, and cover crops on riparian pockets of crop fields to large reductions in nitrate pollution and runoff in waterways.

• Popularizing the “food miles” concept, which posited the average distance of 1,500 miles traveled by food products from farmer to purchaser.

• Facilitating research, knowledge sharing, and cost-benefit analysis of hoop house and deep-bedding livestock production methods that form the backbone of meat companies that supply Whole Foods, Chipotle, and thousands of natural food stores across the nation.

• Assisting in the launch of the “Agriculture of the Middle” concept, a national attempt to connect family farmers with value chains that deliver improved market access and better prices for their operations. Sysco’s ChefEx program is one such outgrowth of this effort.

Some see the center’s loss as another example of the political divide exacerbated by the contentious election of Donald Trump, which has emboldened Republican-controlled legislatures in many states to go after environmental programs.

Brian DeVore, editor of the Land Stewardship Letter for the Minnesota-based Land Stewardship Project, wrote in a recent blog, “Since it came to light that lawmakers were gunning for the (Leopold) 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.”

The Des Moines Register reported that “Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, D-Ames, offered an amendment that would have kept the program open, but it was voted down by the House's Republican majority.”

In the same article, the Register noted that Democratic Rep. Scott Ourth, “also criticized a reduction in funding to the state's Resource Enhancement and Protection program, which supports projects that enhance and protect the state's natural and cultural resources. State money to that program will be reduced from $16 million this year to $12 million next year,” the Register reported.

DeVore, himself a graduate of Iowa State University, believes the college is complicit in the Leopold Center’s demise. He wrote, “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.”

In making his case, DeVore cited a number of controversial decisions in which the university favored the interests of “Big Agriculture” over the protests of the Leopold Center’s advisory board. And, he quoted a 2015 memoir written by Dennis Keeney, the first director of the Leopold Center, as declaring, “the biggest enemy of sustainable agriculture is the agricultural college itself.”

The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture was named after the late Aldo Leopold, an Iowa native who was internationally recognized as a conservationist, ecologist and educator devoted to teaching farmers how to be productive without interfering with natural systems. He published hundreds of works and is best-known for A Sand County Almanac, a collection of 41 essays published 18 months after his death in 1948.

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