Leopold Center saved from closure in 30th year

Director of the Leopold Center, Mark Rasmussen, works in his office in 209 Curtiss April 18.  The Leopold Center has been issuing grants for agricultural research purposes for thirty years.

Maggie Curry

UPDATE: Branstad used line-item vetoes on SF510 to preserve the existence of the Leopold Center. 

“The veto of these particularly specified items will preserve the existence of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Life Sciences to continue valuable research into environmental and water quality issues,” Branstad wrote in his veto message.

Branstad’s veto came nearly a month after the center became aware of the bill. This marks the conclusion of bill action resulting from the 2017 legislative session, ending before the deadline on May 22. These are likely the last to be signed by Branstad as governor, due to his anticipated ambassadorship. 

Branstad did not veto the line diverting state funding from the center.

ORIGINAL: It is nearly a month after state legislators passed a bill defunding the Leopold Center for Sustainability in Agriculture, and staff waits each day to hear whether the center will exist after July 1.

“We’ve tried to keep busy,” said Mark Rasmussen, director of the Leopold Center. “There’s a certain amount of personal anxiety in terms of people’s jobs, what’s gonna happen to them, and a lot of uncertainty.”

The possible defunding and closure of the Leopold Center comes at the center’s 30th anniversary, after being established in the 1987 Iowa Groundwater Protection Act. The news came just a week after founders of the act lectured on campus about the center.

The night of April 10, Rasmussen was home for the evening when he received an email about an education bill in the House that would cut the budget for the Iowa Flood Center at the University of Iowa.

“I was thinking about that and thinking about that, that night,” Rasmussen said.

The next day, he contacted the legislative liaison for Iowa State, who confirmed the flood center’s funding was under discussion – but that was not all. The same bill also cut the Leopold Center’s budget to zero, with news that there was language to eliminate the center entirely.

“We started to let people know,” Rasmussen said. “We quick sent out an email to everybody saying what was going on … we just didn’t think it would be this much longer when we would get back to them. We’ve been waiting now for quite a while, since the twenty-first [of April], which is when the legislature adjourned.”

The date was also the anniversary of Aldo Leopold’s death, for whom the center is named.

They are waiting for Branstad’s signature – or lack of one. Branstad has the option to veto items within the bill, including the two separate parts referring to the Leopold Center.

“We think he’s got three options,” said Rasmussen. “He can sign it fully, and we’re done. He can veto the whole works, and we’re still in operation and we still have some money. The in-between option is he keeps the center alive, but he doesn’t restore the funding.”

Under HF 641, funds previously allocated to the Leopold Center would be redirected to the Iowa Nutrient Research Center.

“[The legislators] thought that our mission was overlapping with the Nutrient Research Center, and they did not fully understand that ours is a much broader mission,” Rasmussen said.

The Leopold Center’s mission included local food and alternative crop development, rural sociology and economic development and administering research grants. The Nutrient Research Center is legislatively established to provide recommendations for the implementation and development of nutrient management practices, a much narrower service than the Leopold Center provided.

“It was frustrating the degree of which a lot of people misunderstood the center,” Rasmussen said. “The center’s had a controversial past, depending on who’s director. . . our job has been to identify negative aspects of agriculture and try and come up with solutions or fix those problems – nobody likes to be told what you’re doing wrong.

“There was thirty years of historical baggage that was involved in this decision and how people thought of the center.”

Educating Americans on agriculture

The center also worked to educate Iowans and the agricultural community on the research findings.

Rasmussen hopes that if the center closes, the website will remain active. Website visitors can view a map that places a dot on any location where someone downloads information from the website.

“It’s really interesting to watch that,” Rasmussen said. “Things that are ten years old, people are still pulling. It just shows how information continues to spread, even after its been completed long ago.

“It’s not just generate this information, but try to get it out there.”

An Iowa agency for agricultural grants

State-funds had to be administered with a competitive proposal process. The center had an advisory board, who participated in choosing the grant proposals. The board was defined by the legislature to include representatives from educational institutions and agricultural organizations. 

“For thirty years that’s essentially what the center did,” Rasmussen said. “We were to provide funding to the other regent universities, but also private colleges and NGOs around the state if they were doing work that related.”

“Last year we had close to 4 million dollars worth of requests but we only had about 1.4 million to spend,” Rasmussen said. “When they put the nitrogen tax in place, it was $0.75 per ton of 82% nitrogen, and that was 1987. Well, $0.75 today, 30 years later, is not the same as it was then.”

The funds, which came from the nitrogen tax, got smaller and smaller at the same time research costs got bigger.

“We were always trying to balance that reality,” Rasmussen said. “There were projects to support.”

One project, partnered with Organic Valley, was attempting to develop a way to identify whether milk came from grass-fed cows. Another was the creation of the Bear Creek Watershed in 1999, which developed wildlife areas in between the banks and farmland.

The mission for alternative crops focused on finding ways to grow crops not traditionally grown in Iowa, including hops for local breweries, canola and grapes.

“We helped get the grape and wine industry in Iowa back on its feet with some seed funding early on,” Rasmussen said. “We still have a seat on the Midwest Grape and Wine Industry Institute advisory board.”

Where they go from here

“I’ve been very humbled by all the supporters who have spoken up and taken time to write or to call or to go down and testify at the budget hearings,” Rasmussen said. “There’s other sustainability organizations across the country, they’ve spoken up. Aldo’s single remaining child, Estella, apparently contacted the governor on our behalf, too.”

The section closing the Leopold Center would take effect on July 1, 2017.

The bill states: “Until July 1, 2017, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture … shall not initiate any new activity … including but not limited to research grants and projects. … The Leopold center for sustainable agriculture shall cancel any existing grant or project that is not in the process of being immediately completed.”

This excludes canceling a grant or project that would result in a default of a legal or equitable obligation through a subcontract.

“We always have grants that are just beginning, grants that are in the middle of their life and grants that are finishing up,” Rasmussen said.

Some of those grants have objectives that fit within the nutrient center’s jurisdiction, and could be transfered with the funding.

On and after July 1, 2017, when the new fiscal budget goes into affect, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences will take over any ongoing activity from the Leopold Center, including administering and canceling grants. Any funding required to do so will come from the funding redirected to the nutrient research.

The college would then submit a report by January summarizing those ongoing activities and expenses and their expected completion date.

If the center loses its funding but is not closed, Rasmussen related it to being in a basement after a tornado has blown the house away.

“The center seemed to fill a very vital role in people’s minds, their aspirations, their dreams, their wishes for a better Iowa. A future of Iowa that might be different from what it is now. If the center goes away, in a lot of ways I think those aspirations are frustrated,” Rasmussen said.