Sustainable agriculture: A vision for Iowa

This column by former Leopold Center Director Dennis Keeney was published in the summer 1995 issue of the quarterly newsletter The Leopold Letter. Keeney's thoughts on sustainable agriculture resonate still today, 22 years later.

Sustainable agriculture: A vision for Iowa

As our great state approaches its 150th anniversary we have much to be proud of. We have a high quality of life, perhaps one of the best in the world. We have a literate population, some of the best schools and universities in the nation, and one of the hardest working, most ethical citizenries known anywhere. I would guess Iowa is near the top in its per capita ratio of writers, artists, and business leaders.

In his 1988 speech "The Importance of Vision," Robert Waller spoke to developing a vision for Iowa. He eloquently explained that this vision must be full and rich and must lead us to the community we want for ourselves and for our children. To reach its destination, Iowa must focus on a guide for action, a way to evaluate what we do.

In 1987, the citizens of Iowa fashioned a vision for some of its most important assets—agriculture and natural resources. They established, at Iowa State University, an institution dedicated to the future of Iowa agriculture. It was named after Iowa's most famous naturalist and ecological writer, Aldo Leopold. Its direction has been guided by Leopold's thoughts from a famous chapter, "The Land Ethic," in a Sand County Almanac. In eight years, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture has developed a presence throughout the state, sponsored research and education in a vast array of agricultural and natural resource projects, and involved researchers and educators from many of the state's institutions. The Center has gained national and international recognition and generates many inquiries and visitors.

The Center has earned the trust of Iowans by regarding sustainable agriculture not as a set of restrictive practices, or a philosophy opposed to development, but as a vision for agriculture. Iowa's agricultural sector is diverse, and the phrase "sustainable agriculture" may never be defined to the satisfaction of all stakeholders. But as we develop ways to ensure our vision of a sustainable future, there is opportunity to move forward. 

I'd like to share my vision of Iowa agriculture in the next century:

The vision—Iowa agriculture consists of diverse livestock and cropping systems that build the natural resource base of soils, water, and diverse biological systems. This agriculture also provides a stable economic base for the state's economy and for its rural communities.

The mission—Iowa produces a variety of value-added products in harmony with the best use of land and natural resources. These products sustain a strong rural economy and the family farm structure of agriculture, providing a diversity of income sources.

The strategies—Support of strong, adaptive research programs helps devise systems permitting family farmers to compete with industrialized systems. The state must also provide learning links that connect farmers with researchers  and include farmers in the research and education process. Iowa must promote farming systems that permit high productivity while increasing the quality of the soil and protecting ground and surface water supplies. These systems enhance biological and physical diversity of the landscape and permit access to land by those who want to enter commercial agriculture. The state must also provide diverse opportunities for high value employment in rural Iowa.

Flexibility is key to meet the changing technologies and political and economic realities of these times. Industrialization took control of the poultry and beef industry years ago. Policies, technologies, and market forces now challenge farmer control of the swine industry, and even of grains. Can Iowa farmers coexist with industrial agriculture? Can Iowans concur on a vision of agriculture 25 years from now?

I feel optimistic that with planning, a dedication to vision, and sound strategies, we can come up with a stronger Iowa in 25 years. Large corporate farms can be supportive of family farms, sharing technology and resources. The environment can benefit with whole-farm and watershed level planning, using technologies being developed now to protect soil, streams, and natural areas. Iowans will benefit from more diversity in the landscape and from a diverse agriculture providing many specialty products and home grown foods. We can meet high energy cots of the future by supplying much of our energy through biomass, ethanol and biodiesel.

This vision of Iowa agriculture in the future requires that we move ahead on a number of research and policy fronts. Research programs currently underway at Iowa State University and elsewhere are addressing technical and social issues. Even longer-range research must involve watershed-based research and demonstration programs. This type of research will help to address issues like the siting of swine unit. Through consensus and hard work, we can enhance our environment while benefiting the community.

All is not rosy in agriculture nor in Iowa. But with a vision before us, we can develop an agriculture that supports our economy, our quality of life, and our literate, hard-working citizens. Believing in our ability to positively shape the future of our state is the first step in achieving this vision in the 21st century and beyond.

--Dennis R. Keeney