• September 2, 2015

Field of Discord

At public colleges' sustainability centers, farming groups sow influence

At Public Colleges' Sustainability Centers, Farming Groups Harvest Influence 1

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When Ricardo Salvador applied for the directorship of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, at Iowa State University, he seemed like a shoo-in. Mr. Salvador is well known in sustainable-agriculture circles for being both soft-spoken and forthright, possessing an easy command of the issues and a knack for putting complex problems into context. Plus, as a former professor at Iowa State, he was already familiar with the university and with the difficulties faced by Iowa farmers.

But despite having the support of the center's advisory board, and despite being the last candidate standing after a yearlong search, Mr. Salvador didn't get the job. The search was declared a failure in March, leaving outsiders—and even those close to the center—wondering what went wrong.

To hear Iowa State administrators tell it, Mr. Salvador simply didn't measure up. But those familiar with what happened at Leopold say it's a glimpse into the pressures faced by university sustainability programs, which often have to tread lightly lest they offend conventional agriculture. For researchers, this can make farmland feel like dangerous territory.

Nowhere is that truer than in Iowa, which produces more corn, soybeans, and eggs than any other state. Both geographically and symbolically, Iowa is at the heart of food production in the United States. The state's success, however, has come at a cost: Pesticides pollute drinking water, and nitrogen-based fertilizers flow down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico, creating "dead zones" that have been wiping out sea life since long before BP's underwater well started gushing.

All of which leaves Iowa State's Leopold center, whose founding mission is to challenge the status quo, in an awkward spot. Can it advocate for change even if that advocacy makes some farmers uncomfortable? Or is even the mildest criticism politically perilous?

A Stronger Candidate

The Leopold center was founded in 1987 as part of Iowa's Groundwater Protection Act, a law intended to improve water quality by taxing pesticides and fertilizers. Its mission, according to that law, is to "identify and reduce negative environmental and socioeconomic impacts of agricultural practices." The center provides grants for projects like offering more local food in rural schools and improving veterinary care for organically raised livestock.

In recent years, the center has lacked a coherent vision and a strong voice, according to Erin Irish, a member of the advisory board and an associate professor of biology at the University of Iowa. Ms. Irish joined the board in 2004 with "starry eyes," but that idealism soon gave way to reality. "I had no idea that not only were there commodity groups struggling to maintain the status quo, but that the university would also be stacked with people interested in sustaining traditional agriculture," she says.

She and others on the board thought Ricardo Salvador could help change that. From 1996 to 2007, Mr. Salvador was an associate professor of agronomy at Iowa State. He was also the first chairman of the university's graduate program in sustainable agriculture. He left Iowa State to become a program director at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, where he manages a $10-million program on food and society. In 2006 he published a paper on the "ecological footprint in Iowa agriculture." Mr. Salvador declined to comment for this article, but a hint of his personal philosophy can be found in his Twitter bio, which advocates living by "doing as little damage as possible."

Of the 15 candidates for the job, four were asked to give presentations on the campus. That group was winnowed down to two: Mr. Salvador and Frank Louws, a professor of plant pathology at North Carolina State University. While Mr. Louws's research background was impressive, he was less prominent than Mr. Salvador in the world of sustainable agriculture. According to Kelley Donham, a member of the center's advisory board at the time, Mr. Salvador was a "stronger candidate in being able to chart an individual course that could stand up against big agriculture" and would have been able to "hold up against criticism and pressure."

Indeed, according to several members of the board, Mr. Salvador was the overwhelming favorite, though no vote was taken. So when the university's president, Gregory L. Geoffroy, selected Mr. Louws instead, many were taken aback. Three members of the board wrote a letter to the president expressing their displeasure: "We take our advisory board duties very seriously and recent events have moved us to question whether the intent of the Groundwater Protection Act was respected." The letter stated that Mr. Salvador was "by far the stronger of the two candidates."

To everyone's surprise, though, Mr. Louws ended up turning down the position after receiving a counteroffer from North Carolina State. Mr. Salvador was then invited back to the campus for a second interview with administrators. That seemed like a formality, considering that he had already been through a lengthy vetting process, and his only rival had dropped out. The president himself, in an e-mail explaining why he had chosen Mr. Louws, had said the candidates "were over all about equal." So, now that Mr. Louws was out of the picture, surely Mr. Salvador would have the job.

But that was not to be. The president rejected Mr. Salvador, arguing that he lacked the research record to be a full professor in the agronomy department (a requirement of the position). It was true that Mr. Salvador had published less since becoming an administrator, but how had he made it this far in the process if he failed to satisfy that minimum requirement? And hadn't the president said he was "about equal" to the candidate who had turned the job down?

Supporters of Mr. Salvador believe it was objections from outside agriculture groups, not concerns about his academic credentials, that led to his rejection. The president confirmed that he had received a letter from the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation about Mr. Salvador, though he said he had forgotten about the letter and that it "certainly had no direct effect on my decision." He also said that he had spoken to the dean of the agriculture school, Wendy K. Wintersteen, and that she had heard from agriculture groups that voiced doubts about Mr. Salvador. "While we're very interested in someone who is a strong advocate for sustainability in agriculture, that doesn't necessarily mean that they want to throw out all agricultural practices," Mr. Geoffroy says.

It's important, according to the president, for the center's director to "walk the middle ground."

That sentiment was echoed, in nearly the same language, by Rick Robinson, environmental-policy adviser for the Iowa Farm Bureau, which is part of the American Farm Bureau Federation, the largest farm lobby in the country. Mr. Robinson said he wasn't sure exactly what communication the farm lobby had had with the university, but he said it did weigh in with an opinion. And the opinion was not positive. Says Mr. Robinson, "It wasn't clear to me that he was a strong candidate in terms of working with all aspects of agriculture."

A Single Statement

The remark that may have sunk Mr. Salvador's candidacy came 37 minutes into his on-campus presentation. While discussing a research project in New York State, he mentioned meat being "produced in the natural way that meat should be produced, which is on lands suitable for grasses and perennial crops."

The comment was an aside, but it certainly raised eyebrows.

"I shuddered when I heard that," says Dennis Keeney, who was in the audience that day. Mr. Keeney, who became the Leopold center's first director, in 1988, agrees that cattle are supposed to eat grass, not corn. Among those who study sustainability, saying cows should eat grass is not a controversial statement. But saying so in Iowa—which grows more corn than any other state—is likely to attract attention.

Visit the Web site of the Iowa Cattlemen's Association and you will see photos of cattle roaming free in verdant, grass-covered fields. These photographs, however, bear little resemblance to the feedlots where the vast majority of cattle are raised. A spokesman for the cattlemen's association said he didn't know the percentage of grass-fed cattle in the state, only that it was "a very small segment."

Corn allows cows to get fatter faster and be ready for slaughter sooner. But there are downsides, including the fact that cows have trouble digesting corn and must be fed antibiotics to prevent them from becoming ill. What's more, the beef from corn-fed cows tends to have more fat.

Whether Mr. Salvador's statement about how meat should be produced was his undoing is hard to say for sure. But even the issue of whether cows evolved to eat grass can be a touchy one at Iowa State. When asked, in an interview with The Chronicle, whether she thought cows evolved to eat grass, Ms. Wintersteen, the agriculture-school dean, declined to answer. "I don't have an opinion on that statement," she said.

When pressed, Ms. Wintersteen said she's an entomologist, not an animal scientist, and consequently couldn't be expected to know whether cows evolved to eat grass.

"It's a fact that cattle evolved to eat grass," says Neil Hamilton, who is director of the Agricultural Law Center at Drake University and was on the Leopold center's advisory board for two decades. As for why Ms. Wintersteen might be reluctant to say so, Mr. Hamilton believes her position at Iowa State is to blame. "Wendy is a dean, and you can read into that whatever you want."

Whether cows evolved to eat grass isn't the point, according to Mr. Keeney, the former Leopold center director. It's whether the Leopold center has the independence, not only to criticize conventional agriculture if necessary, but also to state facts about how crops are grown and livestock is raised. Pressure from outside groups, as well as from within the university, he says, may make it so that "the center just can't be governed anymore."

The Politics of Food

It wasn't a surprise that politics may have gotten in the way of Mr. Salvador's appointment, according to Nancy Creamer, director of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, at North Carolina State University. But it was a disappointment. In an e-mail message, she wrote, "Iowa placed more emphasis on the voices coming from conventional agriculture than sustainable agriculture in their decision."

The voices from conventional agriculture have grown louder recently, perhaps in response to the popularity of books like The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, and documentaries like "Food, Inc." Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said recently that the organization "must aggressively respond to extremists who want to drag agriculture back to the day of 40 acres and a mule."

While what happened at Iowa State is unusual, other sustainability programs have dealt with similar issues, according to Chad Kruger, interim director of the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, at Washington State University. Mr. Kruger says he's been able to be more outspoken because his center has a record of fund-raising success and because he grew up on a farm, which lends him some credibility among farmers. "I've said some pretty bold things that I know if other people said them they'd get pulled off the stage and lynched," he says.

Directors of sustainability programs need to be able to challenge current practices, says Thomas Tomich, who heads the Agricultural Sustainability Institute, at the University of California at Davis. Mr. Tomich mentions global warming, childhood obesity, and the prophylactic use of antibiotics in livestock feed as examples of the kinds of issues sustainability programs should be able to tackle. "If we can't answer those kind of questions regarding the public interest," he says, "who's going to do it?"

After the failed search, the Leopold center selected an interim director, Lois Wright Morton, an associate professor of sociology at Iowa State, whose research has focused on agriculture and health. Ms. Morton agrees that there are problems with conventional agriculture in Iowa that must be discussed, including pollution from nitrogen fertilizers and the erosion of topsoil. "We need to keep the vision out in front that we're interested in protecting our groundwater and our ecosystem, but we realize that agriculture is Iowa's income, and it is our revenue, and that without that we are broke," she says.

A spokesman for the university said it would probably be next year before the center again begins the process of searching for a permanent director.


1. 3224243 - June 28, 2010 at 08:03 am


2. washingtonwarrior - June 28, 2010 at 09:16 am

I concur.

3. mrmars - June 28, 2010 at 09:19 am

This is the worst kind of bullsh*t (pun fully intended) because its being perpetrated by people who have no excuse - they already know better. From an ecological perspective using grain to feed animals instead of people directly is one of the most egregious practices of present day agriculture and one that we should begin to address as soon as possible. It is also one of the practices that is certain to change because at some point we will simply have no choice. As populations continue to grow and the amount of arable land doesn't, such inefficiencies (and all of the other problems that accompany them ( antibiotic use, feedlot waste disposal, etc.) will be self-limiting. Unless we figure out how to farm on the moon, or global warming frees up acres in Antarctica, at some point using grain to feed cows will no longer be possible.

4. 11319582 - June 28, 2010 at 09:19 am

The land grant universities should be taken to task for failing to live up to their original mission of doing research for the public good. Whether they like it or not, the system can't run on cheap fossil fuels forever anyway.

5. audragrady - June 28, 2010 at 09:49 am

Disheartening, truly disheartening.

6. db650651 - June 28, 2010 at 10:56 am

The issues of sustainable food production, energy consumption and the environmental impact of agriculture aren't going to go away, they are just beginning. We need to start to build credible multidisciplanary approachs to imagining the next steps for the Iowa agricultural industry.

7. 11134078 - June 28, 2010 at 12:12 pm

And for all that, the main problem here is not disciplinary but procedural. What is at stake is academic freedom, expressed here in a matter of governance. Governance is as important as speech. Academic freedom has thus suffered a major loss. Iowa State has disgraced itself.

8. 11226867 - June 28, 2010 at 12:19 pm

Line this story up with today's Supreme Court decision on gun ownership, the weak Financial Reform that exempts auto dealers, the G20 agreement on fiscal responsibility that will impact the unemployed (read Krugman today, "The Third Depression), the recent legislation working its way through Congress re: lobbying organizations and transparency that exempts the NRA and you have the picture of a country that continues to allow and promote governance by special interests. Can we expect anything less from a state university? No! A new edition of "Profiles of Courage" will not be published anytime soon.

9. hawkeyecc - June 28, 2010 at 12:30 pm

When politics, strong political lobbys (Farm Bureau), and money rule the selection of a director for the Sustainability Center for Agriculture we all lose. This is a classic example of an abuse of power. The power of money over the power to make the right decision. When no one on Iowa can drink the water, and the gulf is truly dead, then maybe someone will listen. But then it will be too late. Our planet is becoming more poluted every minute, and farmers are one of the biggest culprits. But lets put present day profits ahead of the sustainability of our planet. Good plan Iowa State.

10. 11207442 - June 28, 2010 at 12:30 pm

It is a challenge for universities to maintain their integrity when they are under pressure from powerful interest groups, but they must make every effort to do so since we need them to be centers of creativity and inspiration for needed changes.

11. populist - June 28, 2010 at 12:36 pm

Unfortunately, this is not the first such action in Ames. Pioneering sustainable ag practioner and advocate Fred Kirchenmann was "unceremoniously removed" from the directorship of the Leopold Center five years ago.

12. soc_sci_anon - June 28, 2010 at 01:07 pm

Aldo would be so proud. (Yes, that's sarcasm).

13. phikaw - June 28, 2010 at 02:50 pm

Taking sustainability seriously challenges everything we do -- in agriculture, business, water use, energy, you name it. Is there a single thing we as a society now do that is sustainable? I am hard pressed to identify it if there is. It is no wonder that sustainability advocates of any kind arouse intense opposition, since what is at stake is our "way of life". For better or worse, many people have vested (short term) interests in keeping things just as they are.

14. evolve42 - June 28, 2010 at 10:34 pm

"When pressed, Ms. Wintersteen said she's an entomologist, not an animal scientist, and consequently couldn't be expected to know whether cows evolved to eat grass."

As an entomologist-in-training, I really shuddered at this statement.

15. agteach - June 28, 2010 at 11:47 pm

Seems the posters here are more hypocritical than professorial. If you have a better idea, write a paper, have it reviewed and get it published, in an ag journal. This is the the academic version of put up or shut up. If you have the moxie to make change, do it, as you were trained. Do the work, write it up, and defend it. Whining, complaining and second-guessing is, well, mundane and laic. Perhaps garnering consideration through the ag research community can open opportunity to the audience you seek. If you can't get past your peers on campus, your unlikely to accomplish much else in that regard off-campus.

16. prairiefyre - June 29, 2010 at 09:33 am

There needs to be a campaign to make Gregory L. Geoffroy step down. He is obviously incapable of unbiased governance of this university, being so clearly in the pocket of the farm bureau and conventional (polluting) farm lobby.

My husband often says that the way to the top is simply by being willing to kill. This might sound over the top, but I don't think it is. What we now call conventional agriculture kills through the impacts of pollution at the source and pollution of our food, and intense promotion of the worse kinds of diets, which lead to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease (our biggest killer), and cancer. If you support conventional agriculture, you have to be willing to say it's ok to promote food that doesn't nourish, but instead, kills at each point in the process. You must embrace death as simply part of profit. By refusing to appoint the most qualified candidate to the Leopold Center, and lying about who influenced him and why he did what he did, Mr. Geoffroy has demonstrated that embrace, whether he wants to admit to it or not.

Step down, Mr. Geoffroy. You are not fit to lead.

17. ebchuff - June 29, 2010 at 12:05 pm

The posters are responding to the article, which makes a good case that Iowa State administration were more responsive to pressure from agribusiness interests than they were to their own search committee. The article has nothing to do with refereed publications, except for the reference to Mr. Salvador's alleged shortfall in that area. The only research to be done on this would be additional fact finding about the search process and decision-making for the hire. Given the sort of answer presented by Dean Wintersteen, the likelihood that this would be productive is pretty slim. This isn't science, it's politics.

18. evolve42 - June 29, 2010 at 12:08 pm


How do you have any idea what work the previous posters have or have not done in regards to ag? You've been the only one "whining, complaining, and second-guessing."

19. 11319582 - June 29, 2010 at 12:17 pm

I think the point, agteach, is that "doing the work" usually necessitates funding dollars which can drive research in a particular direction. Often, these dollars come from self-interested firms that use the research not for the public good, but for private gain. Check out "Science, Agriculture and Research: A Compromised Participation" by Buhler and Morse for more on this.

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