State Legislators Say Iowa Has Achieved Sustainable Farming (It Hasn’t) and Doesn’t Need More Research (It Does)

Iowa's lawmakers have cut funding for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, leaving rural farmers in the lurch.
A farmer in Iowa

Scott Sinklier/Alamy

In Curtiss Hall, one of the oldest buildings at Iowa State University, students get their career advice and information on global agriculture from the Monsanto Student Services Wing, dedicated in 2012 with help from the colossal food tech company known for bioengineering seeds. But just two floors above, at the end of a long hallway, sits another institution: the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. This is a very different kind of center. It was named for renowned environmentalist Aldo Leopold, and its mission is to conduct research on the environmental and socioeconomic effects of farming, to develop profitable farming systems that protect natural resources, and to publicly share those findings. There one can find director Mark Rasmussen and a handful of other employees, and that’s about it. What the office lacks in size, however, it makes up in stature.

Mark Rasmussen, Leopold Center director

Courtesy of Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture

“I always thought that the Leopold Center must be in some LEED-certified building,” says Angie Carter, who attended grad school at ISU before becoming a teaching fellow in environmental sociology at Illinois’s Augustana College. “I envisioned this mighty, beautiful place, and it is, but it’s really in the belly of the beast there.”

Founded in 1987, Leopold was one of the country’s first sustainable agriculture centers at a government-funded school. Since its founding, it has helped more than 600 projects get off the ground, and its researchers have fanned out across the United States, providing farming know-how to dozens of sustainable ag institutions. Similar centers based on the Leopold model have sprung up from California to North Carolina.

Most of the $1.1 million in grant money that the center doles out every year goes to Iowa’s rural farmers, with many of the grants helping to diversify the commodities produced in a state dominated by corn, soybeans, and pigs. But now the Leopold Center is in trouble.

Iowa legislators voted in April to give the state’s annual $1.5 million contribution to the center (three-quarters of its yearly budget) to the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, which doesn’t have to publicly share its work as Leopold does. The bill also proposed eliminating Leopold altogether. Former governor Terry Branstad kept it alive, albeit with far less funding.

The Hawkeye State depends on agriculture to fill its coffers, and profits from Iowa’s major commodities have taken a hit in the past few years. The price of corn, for example, has dropped from an all-time high of $8.15 per bushel in 2012 to $3.80 today. The cash-strapped government needed to make cuts, and it found one in the Leopold Center.

Their reasoning? Some lawmakers said the center had already fulfilled its goal of making farming sustainable. This is a bold claim in a state whose rivers have more nitrogen than most other Mississippi River tributaries, nitrogen that contributes to the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. “We’ve got water-quality issues, we’re still losing too much soil, we’ve got nutrients going down to the Gulf,” says Rasmussen. “There’s plenty of things to work on, no doubt about it.”

With such a crushing funding cut, the Leopold Center will have to stop paying for research on new or less prevalent crops. Every year, farmers compete for the center’s grants to start new projects, like research into hops or aronia berry production. If such crops become successful, they could help diversify the state’s ag market and keep midsize farmers in business—at a time when staying in business is a growing problem. Though the amount of Iowa’s farmland is increasing, according to the last census, it’s owned by fewer and fewer farmers. Unable to compete with commercial-scale operations, smaller farmers have been heading elsewhere. One of the Leopold Center’s priorities is trying to find ways for them stick around, says Rasmussen.

Alex Congera participates in a Leopold Center funded farming grant.

Courtesy of Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture

ISU alum Ellen Walsh-Rosmann is one such farmer. She received support from Leopold to start FarmTable, a company that procures and delivers locally grown and produced food. Walsh-Rosmann also participated in a food-hub working group the center supports, collaborating with ISU professors to figure out how to buy and sell local food all over the state. Her company now works with 40 Iowa producers, distributing vegetables, honey, flour, maple syrup, meat, granola, salsas, soup mixes, and many other products to restaurants, grocery stores, schools, and corporate dining facilities.

“She’s lifted a lot of people up, and that’s the sort of work that’s needed to help diversify agriculture,” says Augustana’s Carter, a friend and former classmate of Walsh-Rosmann.

The Leopold Center addresses the needs of all Iowans, “not just a certain section of the food system,” says Walsh-Rosmann. “We need help with the brain drain that we have in the state.” From the beginning, she says, the Leopold Center has been very supportive and was just a phone call or an e-mail away whenever she needed guidance. When Walsh-Rosmann heard that lawmakers had voted to eliminate the center, she cried. Then she got angry. Two state legislators, Senator Jason Schultz and Representative Steven Holt, had recently visited her food hub and said they supported her enterprises and the resources she needed. Then they cast their votes to defund the center. “That was really insulting,” she says.

While Leopold is popular with small farmers, Big Ag and the politicians who support it aren’t huge fans—in part because the legislation that created the center focused on the damaging effects of fertilizer use in the state. After problems concerning nitrates in drinking water, such as blue baby syndrome, surfaced, legislators passed the Groundwater Protection Act in 1987. The legislation put a tax on fertilizers that would help fund a new center designed to study sustainable agriculture, which eventually became Leopold.

Iowa’s new law opened the door to similar legislation in other states. “The Leopold Center was really a stroke of political genius,” says Ricardo Salvador, who has been working on sustainable agricultural practices for 30 years. But this obviously did not please fertilizer companies, some of which have itemized the tax on farmers’ bills. Salvador, the director and senior scientist of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says tension between agricultural interests and the Leopold Center grew. And so did Big Ag’s political influence. One new state-subsidized fertilizer plant is currently coming online in Iowa, and fertilizer use remains high.

In Salvador’s words: Industry has won.

“It was our mission to always look at the underdog,” says Rasmussen. And now those underdogs are stepping in to fight for the institution, writing op-eds and trying to secure funding from other sources. Without Leopold, who knows how long many small farmers, the likes of Walsh-Rosmann, will be able to stick around?

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