Iowa Legislature Moves to End 30 Years of Sustainable Ag Research

Source: By Jessie Stolark, EESI • Posted: Monday, April 24, 2017

On Friday, April 21, a budget bill from the Iowa legislature makes its way to Governor Branstad for his approval. The Iowa budget bill would eliminate funding and force closure of the prestigious Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, at Iowa State University.  The center was founded as a response to the 1980s farm crisis, and is considered to be at the vanguard of farmer-led research on everything ranging from specialty crops, conservation, organics, water quality and other farmer-focused research.

Indeed, much of the research and thinking that informs efforts to improve water quality and reduce nutrient reduction from agriculture has its origins at the Leopold Center. They have conducted important research on buffer strips, crop rotation and nitrate reduction.  Other ‘cool’ ideas have originated through Leopold funded research, including hoop barns that have enabled giants like Whole Foods and Chipotle to offer more humanely raised meats.

The move to eliminate the approximately  $2 million in annual state funding that the Center receives came as a huge shock to many, including the Leopold Center staff, who just celebrated the Center’s 30th anniversary.  According to Mark Rasmussen, director of the Leopold Center, “It looks like we’re closing up shop on July 1st. We just learned about the possibility a week ago.”

The Republican-controlled legislature wants to transfer the $1.5 million the center annually receives from a fertilizer tax, and another $397,000 it receives from the Iowa Board of Regents, to the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, another effort at Iowa State University, created in 2013 by the legislature.  The Republican-controlled legislature contends that the work of the Leopold center is done.

The Iowa Nutrient Research Center is responsible for Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, the state’s plan for reducing nutrient loading to the Mississippi, and subsequently, the Gulf of Mexico.  It has been argued that the Iowa Nutrient Research Center is in the pocket of “big ag,” with little focus on smaller operators.

Now Iowa family farmers are wondering where they will turn to for on-farm research. Stefan Gailans, of Practical Farmers of Iowa, said his members are asking, “Why did this happen? Who’s behind this? Where did it come from? Where are people going to go for farmer-driven research?”  Art Cullen, publisher of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Storm Lake Times commented, “It’s pretty ironic they’re going to kill the Leopold Center when the debate on how to improve water quality is all over the news.”

Beyond water quality, the Leopold Center has driven research that has helped small producers stay profitable.  In a time of low commodity prices, their work is especially important in helping farmers stay resilient. According to testimony from farmer Mark Peterson, who farms near Stanton Iowa, “Through their research and funding of everything from waterways to wineries, life in rural Iowa has improved both economically and also environmentally. We are in tough times again. The work of the Leopold Center is nowhere near done.”

Many suspect the move comes down to pure politics. With the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit rescinded, the onus of improving water quality falls back to the Republican-controlled legislature.  The Leopold Center was formed under a Democratic legislature many years ago, and some suspect the work of the Center may not be “politically appealing to a lot of folks,” according to Iowa Farmers Union President Aaron Lehman.

According to former Center president Jerry DeWitt, the center is so successful because it operates outside the confines of traditional academia or federal research. “The center can respond quickly to farmer problems or issues that do not require lengthy processes, committees or state/USDA oversight. The center’s work is not a plan on paper established by a consensus committee to tackle a problem. It is a dynamic entity that is responsible to farmer ideas and needs.”

Meanwhile, the issue of water quality isn’t going anywhere and the specter of regulation still looms.

For more information see: