Fred Kirschenmann Looks Beyond 2018 for Leopold Center’s Future

Fred Kirschenmann at a December fundraiser in Ames for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Cathy Glasson, back left. Photo: Gavin Aronsen/Iowa Informer

The two remaining staffers of Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture after GOP lawmakers cut its state funding last year remain committed to keeping the center open on a smaller budget and have their sights set on ensuring its long-term viability.

But Mark Rasmussen, the center’s director, and Fred Kirschenmann, its distinguished fellow, aren’t banking on a re-funding bill introduced last week by Democratic state Reps. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell of Ames and Chuck Isenhart of Dubuque that would provide $1 million in funding from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship if it could be matched with “moneys that are contributed from a source or sources other than the state as certified by the president” of the university, Wendy Wintersteen.

“I appreciate their attempt,” Rasmussen said during a conversation with the Informer earlier this week. “I don’t know if it will go anywhere.” Kirschenmann, likewise, told us he was “not in a position to predict” the bill’s odds.

They are slim to none. After its introduction, the bill was co-sponsored by 30 other lawmakers, but none were Republicans. As the 2018 legislative reaches the end of its sixth week today, it has also approached its first funnel deadline — any bills that aren’t reported out of committee and sent to the full floor of the House or Senate for further debate will be dead. The GOP-led House Appropriations Committee, where the Leopold funding bill sits, has taken no action on it since its introduction Feb. 5, and the committee is chaired by Pat Grassley, who voted last year to strip the center’s funding and close it entirely. (Update: The bill failed to advance Friday.)

The center is still open, thanks to a line-item veto from then-Gov. Terry Branstad after public opposition and a bit of pushback from Wintersteen, who at the time was still the dean of ISU’s college of ag and life sciences. But its million dollar-plus annual funding from state fees on nitrogen fertilizers is gone, as are five of its previous staff members.

Regardless of the re-funding bill’s fate, Kirschenmann said, “People can’t ignore the issues the Leopold Center raises.” The work it does “will increasingly become important,” he added, “and it will get back on its feet. But it may take a few years.”

He described what he likes to call the “two cultures of agriculture”: industrial — the input-intensive path the United States has been on since World War II — and an alternative culture that’s been slowly emerging since the early 1900s, when “father of American horticulture” Liberty Hyde Bailey criticized unsustainable ag practices that he argued dominated nature, later expanding on his thoughts in his 1915 book The Holy Earth. The Leopold Center, named after the Burlington, Iowa-born conservationist Aldo Leopold, has embraced the latter culture dating back to its establishment in 1987 through the Iowa Groundwater Protection Act.

“I do think that right now what we’re starting to see is that this input-intensive agriculture is becoming increasingly expensive and the returns to farmers are increasingly decreasing,” Kirschenmann said. He recommended another book, published last year by David Montgomery, a geomorphology professor at the University of Washington, called Growing a Revolution. In it, Montgomery features farmers who’ve abandoned an unprofitable industrial ag paradigm in search of a more cost-effective approach through practices such as planting cover crops and diversifying crop rotations to improve soil health. Even here in Big Ag-dominated Iowa, Kirschenmann noted, farmers have been planting cover crops in record numbers — thanks in part to an incentive that reduces their crop insurance costs.

The Informer previously spoke with Kirschenmann in mid-December at an Ames fundraising event for Democrat Cathy Glasson, whose gubernatorial campaign he supports because of her positions on issues including raising the minimum wage, expanding health care access, and pushing back against the recent assault on workers’ rights. (“I think it’s clear that Kim Reynolds is still very committed to the industrial agriculture kind of approach,” he added this week.)

At the time, Wintersteen had been ISU’s new president for just under a month. We asked Kirschenmann what he thought about Wintersteen, who in 2005 played a key role in his ouster as the Leopold Center’s director, as president.

“When I first met her, and when I first was a candidate for the Leopold Center, I was very impressed when we had a number of conversations,” he said. “She very clearly was informed about agroecological practices, and seemed to be very supportive of that, and we got on really well together. And then, all of a sudden, it was like somebody threw a switch and she began to support more the industrial direction of things.”

This week, Kirschenmann said that he has yet to speak with Wintersteen since she took over as president but believes she “is at least to some extent aware of these two cultures [of agriculture], so she has to try to figure out how she can exercise her leadership in the midst of those two cultures.”

Rasmussen, the Leopold Center’s director, is looking ahead to March 9, when the center’s advisory board plans to meet with its visioning task force, which was assembled last year after the Republican funding cut and facilitated a series of listening sessions across the state to gather input on the center’s future. Among the topics discussed were whether the center should narrow its focus with its primary funding source eliminated. “It’s kind of the final step in this whole visioning process,” he said.

Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.