Pioneering Iowa Sustainable Agriculture Research Center Hangs On, Barely

A leading research center focused on local farmers and environmental conservation is hanging on by a thread, even as the movement to diversify agriculture, which it helped launch, continues to thrive.

The Iowa Legislature created the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in 1987. Housed at Iowa State University, its mission is to improve the environmental impact of agriculture in ways that still allow farmers to earn a living. The Legislature recently decided to defund the research center, leaving it to rely on money from its existing endowment, grants it can procure, and whatever support Iowa State chooses to provide.

Ferd Hoefner, now a senior advisor at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, says the Leopold Center is one of the top institutions supporting research on agricultural techniques that prioritize sustainability and conservation in the context of profitable farming. When he was working with Congress in the late 1980s to draft the bill that created the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s sustainable agriculture program, Hoefner says the Leopold Center served as a model.

“I remember reviewing the Iowa law to get ideas on how to formulate the federal program,” Hoefner says.

Hoefner says following the Leopold Center’s leadership, several dozen additional states, including Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kentucky and Kansas, created similar groups. Research from the Leopold Center has identified successful conservation practices, which can also be used in other states, that can keep nutrients on fields, prevent soil erosion, and help clean up water. It is also a pioneer in studying how local food systems can be successful.

“That’s a subject where Leopold did some of the early work that has now led to what’s essentially an entire movement across the country towards trying to diversify agriculture and take advantage of the great consumer interest in local and regional food,” Hoefner says. “Now that might not be an area where Iowa would be…

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