Taking Action for Public Science: Re-Imagining Iowa’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture

Angie Carter, Ahna Kruzic, and Carrie Chennault, , UCS | March 27, 2018, 4:53 pm EDT
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On a snowy February morning at the Iowa state capitol in Des Moines, students, farmers, community members, scientists, food system employees, and advocates gathered for a press conference and advocacy day. Their efforts came almost one year to the day after the state legislature voted to defund and shut down the Leopold Center, for 30 years the state’s pre-eminent institution for research, learning and practice on sustainable agriculture. Constituents from across the state and beyond had responded with grassroots organizing to reframe discussions about public agricultural science in Iowa. And now they were calling for a re-imagined Leopold Center to lead a bold new vision for Iowa’s agricultural future:

“Supporting a socially just, environmentally sound agricultural system goes beyond simply providing food, fiber, and fuels—it means revitalizing rural communities, and turning Iowa into a shining example of how a resilient, locally focused agricultural system can make a large difference in individual communities and throughout the world.”

—Kristine Neu, Iowa State University graduate student

Screenshot from A New Vision for Iowa Agriculture: Global Greens, Iowa Sustainable Agriculture.

Lawmakers founded the Leopold Center at Iowa State University through Iowa’s 1987 Groundwater Protection Act and in so doing created an institution that benefited farmers, students and community members through research and educational programs. Yet, in the spring of 2017, the state legislature voted to defund and shut down the Leopold Center.

Sustainable agriculture scientists and advocates sprang to action immediately, writing a petition decrying the cuts, garnering national attention and more than 600 signatures over the first weekend it was available. Alumni and allies drafted memos and collected data for reports to share with legislators, wrote press releases and editorials, and organized turn-out to the state budget hearing.

This grassroots advocacy succeeded in securing a veto that saved the Leopold Center in name only—its funding was redirected to a research center created in 2014 dedicated to “nutrient management.” State legislators claimed the Leopold Center’s work was “accomplished.” The public mourned its loss, and stories in the press read as eulogies rather than rallies for its rebuilding. But we saw an opportunity to push forward a new vision for Iowa’s agricultural future—one of regeneration and healing (Carter, Chennault, and Kruzic 2018).

Iowa’s agricultural history is one of extraction. Iowa State University sits on land occupied by white settlers following the Black Hawk “Purchase” of 1833, a forceful removal of the Sauk and Meskwaki people following the Black Hawk War. The extractive economy continues today, with Iowa second only to California in the value of agricultural goods and boasting more hogs (22.4 million) and chickens (60 million) than people (3 million). This production system comes at a cost to the health of Iowa’s soil, water, and human communities as the state is literally washing away at the rate of 20 tons of soil per acre and more each year, and nitrate loading from agricultural landscapes pollutes the drinking water (Naidenko, Cox and Bruzelius 2012; Rundquist and Cox 2018). Clearly, the Leopold Center’s work is far from over.

Science for Public Good grant from the Union of Concerned Scientists helped us create an advocacy video communicating our collective’s new vision for the Leopold Center and agriculture in Iowa. In partnership with farmers, students, emeritus faculty, community leaders, and members of the Iowa Farmers Union, Women, Food and Agriculture Network, Center for Rural Affairs, Practical Farmers of Iowa, Lutheran Services of Iowa, and Iowa State University Sustainable Agriculture Student Association, we brainstormed, debated, revised, and shared new visions. The collective vision shared from these efforts celebrates diversity and prioritizes care, which are necessary components of agrifood systems change in Iowa and beyond. We launched this vision through a series of op-eds at the Des Moines press conference in February 2018, and used it to rally supporters to attend the Leopold Center’s advisory board meeting in March 2018.

These are hard times for public science and scientists studying ecological and social changes. Our refusal to mourn and eulogize the Leopold Center’s loss—and our work to envision and work toward a boldly re-imagined agriculture in Iowa instead—reframed a debate while envisioning new paths forward. The Leopold Center’s future remains uncertain, yet we know the challenges our agrifood system faces will require the kind of collaboration, creativity, innovation, and transparency reflected in our collective vision. A re-imagined Leopold Center 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. We have adopted the prairie as our guide for the work ahead—deep roots, diverse, hardy through times of drought, and resilient through times of change.

Angie Carter is an environmental sociologist and assistant professor of environmental and energy justice at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, MI. She earned her PhD in Sustainable Agriculture and Sociology at Iowa State University. Twitter: @angielcarter

Ahna Kruzic is a community organizer turned communicator from rural southern Iowa. Ahna is Pesticide Action Network North America’s Communications Director and is based out of Berkeley, CA. Ahna is also a Food First / Institute for Food and Development Policy Fellow, and holds a Master of Science in Sustainable Agriculture and Sociology from Iowa State University. Twitter: @ahnakruzic

Carrie Chennault is a doctoral candidate in Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, and a graduate research assistant with the Local Foods and SNAP-Education programs at ISU Extension & Outreach.

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