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January 15, 2010

Farm and Food File: The politics of sustainable ag

Originally published in the January 15, 2010, print edition.

One of the shining gems of the nation’s Land Grant university system, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, begins 2010 in deep fescue over an internal controversy on who will lead the institution — a candidate strongly favored by most involved in the search process or another favored by the state’s influential farm groups.

Events leading to the disagreement are not in dispute. Nearly a year ago the current director, Jerald DeWitt, notified the university he planned to retire Jan. 31, 2010. An eight-member committee began a nationwide search for DeWitt’s successor, only the fifth in the Center’s history.

By September, the search had yielded 11 applicants of which, after an initial screening, four were invited to “visit the campus for a two-day interview process that include(d) a public presentation and meetings with various stakeholders,” according a Center press release. (Candidate information and presentations can be accessed at www.leopold.iastate.edu/candidates.html.)

The visits — and especially the presentations — were the make-or-break moments for the finalists because each needed to convince Leopold staff, ISU students, Iowa’s ag leaders and its taxpayers that he or she possessed the “holistic viewpoint relative to solving agricultural, environmental and social problems as outlined in the Groundwater Protection Act,” the 1987 Iowa law that created the Center.

The job description is not academic mumbo-jumbo. The Center, according to its 1987 law, was created to “conduct research into the negative impacts of agricultural practices; assist in developing alternative practices; and work with ISU Extension to inform the public of Leopold Center findings.”

In short, Iowa’s enlightened leaders created Leopold to poke, probe and jab its existing farm and food juggernaut for “alternative” ideas to conventional agronomy and economics that had nearly cracked the state (and nation’s) farmers in the early 1980s.

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