Field of Discord

At public colleges' sustainability centers, farming groups sow influence

Getty Images

June 27, 2010

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.