Iowa ag titans clash over Leopold Center leader

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.

Background

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.

Alternative ag

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.

Stakeholder board

It was to be advised by a public board of 17 “stakeholders” ranging from academics at Iowa’s universities to representatives from in-state farm groups like Farm Bureau, Farmers Union, and Practical Farmers of Iowa.

That political recipe could have cooked the center but it didn’t because the larger mission — conducting research into alternative, sustainable farm and food practices that Iowa farmers might use to benefit both them and the state — held sway.

Political maneuvering

Until now, that is, when Iowa Farm Bureau made it known to ISU aggies that the leading candidate for the post, Ricardo Salvador, the program director for the Kellogg Foundation’s Food, Health and Wellbeing program, was not its prime choice. It preferred Frank Louws, a plant pathologist at North Carolina State.

According to interview and program evaluations, Louws was a clear second to Salvador in almost every category commented on by evaluators. He had limited experience with Iowa commodities, no livestock experience, no “national or international reputation in sustainable agriculture,” and a “lower scope of vision” for the center than Salvador.

Despite these shortcomings, Iowa State President Gregory Geoffroy authorized ag Dean Wendy Wintersteen to offer Louws the job.

Simultaneously, Wintersteen sent Salvador an e-mail Dec. 2 that informed him he would not be Leopold director.

Why, asks Laura Jackson, a center advisory board member and a professor of biology at the University of Northern Iowa, was Salvador, “clearly the most qualified applicant interviewed,” sent packing before Louws either accepted or declined the position?

Curiously, as of Jan. 6, more than a month after being offered the plum post, Louws has neither publicly accepted nor declined the offer. Why?

Maybe he’s uncomfortable that Big Ag put its big thumb on the Iowa State scale to make him the heavy favorite.

Maybe he worries that if Big Ag can deliver the job, it can take it.

Maybe he’s uncomfortable with Big Ag’s pattern of calling anything — or anyone — that challenges convention an “elitist” or, worse, “a social scientist.”

Maybe, he’s right.

About the Author

Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com More Stories by Alan Guebert

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