Swoboda: Will Leopold Center Survive?

The following appeared in Wallace’s Farmer on Nov. 9, 2017:

Will Leopold Center survive?

Rod Swoboda 1 | Nov 09, 2017

The town of Calmar, in northeast Iowa will be the site of the last listening session to help guide the future of Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

The meeting, which is free and open to the public, will begin at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 15 in the Wilder Rooms 104-105 on the campus of Northeast Iowa Community College at 1625 Hwy. 150 South in Calmar.

A visioning task force has hosted five listening sessions to hear from people on how the center may move forward. Locations have included Ames, Sioux Center, Lewis and Iowa City. The task force is co-chaired by Mark Rasmussen, the Leopold Center’s director and Doug Gronau, a farmer who is immediate past chair of the center’s advisory board.

Last spring, the Iowa Legislature passed legislation to defund and close the 30-year-old center. Terry Branstad, as Iowa’s governor, used a line-item veto to remove language that would have closed the center, but he signed the bill that removed the Leopold Center’s state funding of approximately $1.7 million. As of July 1, the center’s only new revenues have come from earnings on an endowment established by private giving.

Not a happy 30th birthday for center
At the first listening session in August, director Rasmussen started the meeting at Ames with an understatement. “The Leopold Center’s 30th year didn’t turn out as we expected,” he said.

The five meetings are being held to gather ideas on how the center can “re-imagine” itself as it moves forward with its new financial reality. The center sponsors research on ways to improve crop yields and livestock production while reducing environmental and social impact. It has funded hundreds of research projects and field demos since it was established in 1987.

But with the Legislature being allowed to rescind the center’s funding from a state fertilizer tax, the center is now left with just the $200,000 per year endowment as its only reliable funding source.

What happened at first listening session
The meeting at Ames in August was attended by about 40 people. Several speakers said the center needs to expand its educational reach to residents and lawmakers. Liz Garst of the Garst Farm at Coon Rapids said her strategy would be to focus on combining “ignorance” about large scale problems across the state’s ecosystem and agricultural practices. “This is an opportunity to make a pitch for the effectiveness and usefulness of public science and research, not just for the Leopold Center but for Iowa State University,” she said. “Monsanto and Pioneer do great research but they can’t answer all the public policy questions we have in this state.”

One theme heard from folks speaking at the listening sessions is, the center needs to spread its message to young people interested in agriculture and sustainability. Looking around the room at Ames, Rob Davis, conservation land manager at Whiterock Conservancy, estimated the average age of people attending was about 50 years old. “The question is, how do we get the younger generation interested in this? My generation is not represented in this room.”

Center must keep working on crop diversity
Others say the center can find support by focusing on how farmers and rural areas can survive and grow in an uncertain agricultural economy. Ron Rossmann, farming in Shelby County in western Iowa, says the center and ISU need to continue funding sustainability research if it wants to keep the smaller, family-run farms alive. He says one way to do that is to continue working on crop and livestock diversity research and helping farmers to be able to plant and sell those commodities.

TAKES TIME: Mark Rasmussen says the amount of time and involvement it takes to land private funding can be very steep,That reduces how much farmers are tied to changes in the agricultural markets. “Iowa desperately needs to be growing something besides corn and soybeans,” he says.

Other farmers who’ve testified say the center can find a niche by teaching young and beginning farmers about alternative agriculture. “It’s sad when I hear ag students say, ‘I have to hook up with someone and be a CAFO janitor because that’s the only way to get into hogs.’ Or sometimes you hear young people say, “I have to grow corn and soybeans, it’s the only way I can get into farming,” says Deb Bunka, membership coordinator for the Iowa Farmers Union.

Continue funding research, education projects
The lingering question at the first four sessions has been: How can the center fund its ongoing research and demonstration projects and continue operating? Jan Flora, a retired ISU professor of agriculture, urged Rasmussen and the center to pursue more private foundation funding. Flora circulated his own petition among the Ames crowd. He said the center should focus on rural community welfare in addition to using practices to save topsoil and reduce nitrogen levels in water supplies.

Darwin Pierce, ISU alum from 1970s, says loss of the center’s funding is the latest in a longtime decline of state support for its universities and research enters since the 1980s. A key issue the Leopold Center and other groups must tackle is how to make sustainability funding a front-and-center issue for both voters and lawmakers. He says the center also needs to make an effort to help people who are interested in alternative agriculture, along with helping the conventional large-acre farmer focused on growing corn and soybeans.

Trying to land private funding is huge chore
Rasmussen says he and Wendy Wintersteen, as dean of the College of Ag and Life Sciences at ISU and recently named president, have both been in contact with the ISU Foundation about a funding solution. However, Rasmussen points out that the amount of time and involvement it takes to land private funding can be very steep, citing conversation with ISU Foundation managers who describe some donations as taking years to secure. Rasmussen says he isn’t confident in finding financial support from the Iowa Legislature.

“Personally, I struggle with that right now given the time and politics with the Iowa budget,” says Rasmussen. “But I appreciate what people have said about not giving up on public funding.”

The Leopold Center may have to convince Iowa farmers and the powerful commodity groups and corporations backing them, that more research and work on sustainable agriculture is critically needed. The task force has 11 members charged with helping the center find a new path forward. They’ve been busy crisscrossing the state this summer, listening to what Iowans have to say about the center’s priorities. The group plans on delivering a report by early next year.