Report from 2013 Spencer Award Presentation

From left: Jennifer Steffen, Mark Rasmussen, Matt Liebman and Elaine Spencer
Liebman (center) among his peers from Iowa State.
Spencer and Liebman
Former Leopold Center director Jerry DeWitt visits with Spencer while Liebman and Mary Adams, who arranged the presentation, listen.

Elaine Spencer, who with her brother Robert set up the Spencer Award for Sustainable Agriculture in 2001 to honor their parents, returned to Ames on December 5 to present the 2013 award during the quarterly meeting of the Leopold Center Advisory Board.

A leading natural resource lawyer in Washington State, Spencer commended Liebman for his relationships with farmers, which her parents valued.

"He [my father] was a thinker before his time in many ways, but he continually turned to and was enriched by the professors at Iowa State who were his friends, his mentors and, in many ways, his students," she said.

She also praised Liebman's practical research, which focuses on using less energy and fewer purchased inputs, while building on the advantages of diverse ecosystems. It's the kind of work that should be done by the land grant university system created by the Morrill Act during Abraham Lincoln's administration, she said.

"I am quite certain that if the framers of the Morrill Acts could have seen to the present, they would have envisioned Dr. Matt Liebman as exactly who they were hoping their public universities would spawn," she said. "They would have wanted and expected that the land grant universities were focused on the future, on how universities could solve of challenges ot not just the moment but of future generations."

Van Buren County farmer Jennifer Steffen praised Liebman's leadership in the prairie conservation strips research and his extended rotations research that has received national attention. Steffen represents the State Soil Conservation Committee on the advisory board and challenged her colleagues to lobby local soil and water districts to promote these conservation practices.

"Matt says, 'American farmers are highly intelligent, they learn and adapt quickly when they have sufficient motivation and when new opportunities present themselves,' so let's help Matt open up the door of opportunity," Steffen said.

Liebman admitted that he's been inspired most by farmers he's worked with during the past 30 years. Later in the day, he spoke about his relationship with Boone farmer Dick Thompson, whose memory was honored at another event in Ames."I am thankful for their patience and big-heartedness in sharing many hours and many ideas with me," Liebman said.

The Spencer Award also highlights the importance of connections with the land and communities, a key element of Aldo Leopold's land ethic.

"Over the years, I too have come to recognize that if we are to ever live in a world where farms are sustainable, environment quality is protected, and nutritious food is available to all, then we need to value the web of life in which we all are embedded. One key to this is to encourage and embrace diversity," Liebman said.

He said diverse systems can be difficult to understand.

"Closer study reveals, however, that complexity and diversity can confer great strength and efficiency, reduce financial risks, and provide a more dependable path toward food security," he said.

I can say I’ve learned through personal experience that integrating diverse sets of crops with livestock leads to healthier, more productive soils and greater, more stable yields; that mixing annual crops with perennial species used as forages and conservation buffers leads to cleaner water and more types of wildlife; and that promoting market connections between a wide array of Iowa farmers and consumers leads to multiple opportunities for economic development and improved nutrition."

Read full comments [PDF] from Elaine Spencer, Jennifer Steffen and Matt Liebman.

Liebman also was featured in an article on the Wallaces Farmer website [Dec. 28, 2013]