20 years ago Iowa governor Terry Branstad signed a bill that created the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Today he's expected to sign a bill that ends it. Photo by Steve Helber/AP

Yesterday morning, as we were cleaning up from breakfast and clearing off the kitchen island that serves as my office, my wife and son and I were discussing creative signs we might draw up to carry during the March for Science this weekend. I was already working, distracted at the morning news, texting a few Iowa friends:

“What’s happening with this Leopold Center thing? Is it really getting cut out of the budget? What’s the deal?”

I had read some surprising news an hour or so before about Iowa’s leading sustainable agriculture center being defunded through the state Legislature’s session-ending budgeting process.

The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, for the uninitiated, is sustainable agriculture royalty. Iowa might be ground zero for industrial corn and soy and hog production, but its Leopold Center is a hub for information and a funding mechanism for farmer-conducted research. The center works on controversial topics like whether it’s better for hog manure to be treated as a composted homegrown fertilizer that enriches and builds up soil or as a key contributor to runoff pollution that poisons the Gulf of Mexico.

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:

  • 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.

It was curious to me how such a key player in the sustainable agriculture world could fall so quickly, if the reports I had seen were true. I called Mark Rasmussen, director of the center, to get the facts. He confirmed the rumors, and it became pretty obvious I was going to be writing more of an obituary than a news story explaining a state public-policy debate to a national audience.

Citizens watch a live stream of a public hearing about the agriculture budget bill outside Iowa’s Supreme Court chambers Monday in Des Moines.

“Yep. It’s true. After 30 years we’re dead,” Rasmussen said. “It looks like we’re closing up shop on July 1st We just learned about the possibility a week ago. It passed the Senate, and just passed the House around midnight this morning (Wednesday).”

All that remains to make the closure final for Iowa Governor Terry Branstad (R) to sign the legislation into law. Rasmussen said he’s sure Branstad will sign the bill this week.

The Leopold Center is funded through the state’s Groundwater Protection Fund, created in 1987 from a fee on nitrogen fertilizer and pesticide sales. The center also maintains an annual appropriation from Iowa State University (ISU) and has a $5 million endowment. The Leopold Center uses the state funds to pay the center’s staff and to support a grants to farmers to document sustainable-agriculture research.

Rasmussen said there is no way to stop the closure. “It’s right there in the text of the bill. ‘Elimination of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.’ I guess I thought we had a little bit more pride than that in Iowa. I thought we cared a little bit more.”

Elimination means a loss of six staffers that support Leopold Center work. The portion of the center’s funding that comes from the Groundwater Protection Fund would be moved to the Nutrient Research Center at ISU.

Rasmussen says he is not worried about his own future. He’s tenured faculty. He’s busy looking for jobs around the university for his co-workers. “But I guess I have to live with the guilt of being the director as the ship went down, the guy who presided over the end of thirty years of success,” he said.

Rasmussen said even though the bill passed surprisingly quickly, there were moments when Leopold Center supporters were hopeful. “Lots of farmers, lots of people have been touched by the center over the years. They dropped everything and tried to save us. There was an incredible outpouring of support this week.”

Supporters acted quickly on social media and through person-to-person connections. They put a petition together online, showed up at the capital in Des Moines, and tried to make their case.

Active in the effort is Stefan Gailans, who received research funding from the Leopold Center while he was training as a scientist at ISU. “This is a huge blow,” Gailans said. “It’s a blow to the collection of individuals, of farmers, scientists and researchers all over Iowa who support sustainable agriculture.”

Gailans now works with Iowa crop producers to integrate crop rotations and cover-crop systems. He works at Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), which he says was founded back in the 1980s era right alongside the Leopold Center. Many of those farmers are also Leopold Center grant recipients and collaborators. “I’m hearing from many PFI members, all of them saddened and disheartened. We’re all asking why did this happen? Who’s behind this? Where did it come from? Where are people going to go for farmer-driven research?”

“It’s a dark day in Iowa. What a loss,” said Art Cullen, publisher of the Storm Lake Times. Cullen was recently award the Pulitzer Prize for editorials “fueled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa.” Our conversation about the Leopold Center was cut short so he could “answer a call coming in from New York City.” Cullen said, “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.”

And the irony, if that’s what we’re calling it, doesn’t end there. You could find irony in the fact that Governor Branstad is the same guy who signed the bill creating the Leopold Center back in 1987. You might say it’s ironic that the governor will sign the death blow to the Leopold Center on Friday, the 67th anniversary of the Aldo Leopold’s death. Leopold was a famed conservationist born in Iowa and was the inspiration for the center’s mission. You might find some irony in the Republican leadership’s claims that the Leopold Center is no longer needed because, “hey, mission accomplished.”

What worries me is the clear strategy of using the Trojan horse of budget cuts to dismantle popular programs based on science, evidence, and solutions that work for the majority of rural Americans. In my reporting for the Daily Yonder over the last couple of months, I’ve learned a tremendous amount about the important work happening all over the nation to improve agricultural production while also addressing public health and climate impacts. The science of conservation-based agriculture, the data, is proving that society doesn’t have to make false choices between economic development and cleaner, healthier rural communities.

The murder of the Leopold Center through the legislative budget process in Iowa should be a national story that raises a lot of questions. I’m disturbed that an effective academic center driven by research designed and collected from hundreds of real-life farmers can be terminated in such a quick and dirty fashion. I’m shocked at the lack of public debate the issue has generated. I’m concerned that rural America is looking at a very similar situation in Washington, D.C., under President Trump’s proposed budget that slashes science, research and conservation funding across the board.

When I head to the March for Science on Saturday (I’ll be attending the Seattle event), I’ll be thinking about Mark Rasmussen, about the Leopold Center’s incredible track record of citizen science, about my friends in Iowa. I’ll be thinking about one of my heroes, Aldo Leopold, who once cautioned “in our attempt to make conservation easy, we have made it trivial.”

If we’re honest, we know that democracy requires public debate centered around facts, around proveable data, around the concensus of science. As we continue the conversation about ways we can “make America great,” let’s hope that one of them is to invest in popular, accountable, successful public institutions like the Leopold Center, rather than sending them to an early grave.

Bryce Oates writes for the Daily Yonder.

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