Transforming the land grant mission: Iowa State’s next 20 years
Mark Rasmussen, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, talks about the work they do and how they plan to push ahead after they were stripped of their state funding at the end of the 2017 legislative session.
The Iowa State University presidential search presents an opportunity to renew our commitment to public science at the land grant university. Let’s use this change to reclaim the land grant mission for the public good.
As recent alumni of Iowa State University and part of the next generation of community leaders, policy makers, public scientists and farmers, we propose a new vision, one that prioritizes the health of ecological and social communities while providing a good quality of life and livable wages for those working on farms and in rural areas.
The priorities of this new land grant mission will protect Iowa’s rich agricultural future while addressing the pressing problems facing the public in our agricultural systems today: degraded soil, polluted water, access to land, loss of rural community, poor public health, diminished rural economies and weak local food systems. This work requires a new research agenda prioritizing ecological and public health while cultivating a transition to a regenerative, sustainable agriculture.
This new mission will value, honor and celebrate diversity of landscapes and communities, putting diversity into practice and action. This requires strong support of research studying alternatives to the industrial corn, soy and confined animal systems that characterize so much of the Midwest. This research must prioritize mixed livestock and cropping systems that support the livelihoods of midsize family farmers as well as beginning and marginalized farmers.
The future of Iowa’s rural communities and agriculture will not look like the past. To achieve the new mission will require that ISU lead in creating a welcoming Iowa: a place where young people stay and return home to find a good living, a place where those new to agriculture — and new to the United States — are included as equal partners in decision-making.
There is healing to do as we rebuild a new agricultural system based on care for animals, soil, water and people. There must be space in the new land grant mission for this important work, too, and so the new mission must partner science with art, research with outreach, practicality with vision, and utility with love.
Central to this new mission will be a re-imagined Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture (LSCA). The outpouring of testimony last spring shows that support for the LCSA is bipartisan, urban and rural, and from farmers and non-farmers alike. In the coming decades, a well-funded, fully staffed LCSA should be championed by ISU’s leadership as a transformative agent of change on campus and beyond. This rebuilt LCSA should be autonomous and report to the vice president of research.
A strengthened interdisciplinary Sustainable Agriculture program, housed within the new LCSA with its own faculty and funding, will help to implement this new mission. These students and faculty, working with ISU Extension, community partners, farmers and researchers across and beyond campus, will engage with Iowa’s pressing problems to generate innovative, cross-cutting approaches and practices while increasing diversity income streams and markets.
We recognize the university is also a business; however, it has been run as a short-sighted one, auctioning off its hallways and its research agenda to the highest bidder rather than investing in the development of a long-term, sustainable future for Iowa. ISU’s commitment to champion for farmers and rural communities should guide partnerships with industry through a process that is public and transparent.
The costs of prioritizing science for corporations rather than science for the public have been externalized and paid by our water, soil, farmers and community members. The next ISU president must transform what has become a monoculture of ideas with a polyculture of thought, experience, scientific approach and innovative agricultural practices. A monoculture is weak and vulnerable; it fails to provide for the coming decades. Let the prairie be our guide for a new land grant mission — deep roots, diverse, hardy through times of drought, resilient through times of change.
Angie Carter is an Iowa State alum (sustainable agriculture and sociology) and an assistant professor of environmental and energy justice at Michigan Technological University.
This essay was co-signed by six other alumni of ISU’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Graduate Program in Sustainable Agriculture — Stefan Gailans, Gabrielle Roesch-McNally, Hannah Dankbar, Joe Wheelock, Jackie Nester, and Ashley Noonan.