Republicans seeking to eliminate Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture

Republican lawmakers are seeking to eliminate the two main sources of funding for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. The Iowa legislature created the center 30 years ago as part of the Groundwater Protection Act, one of the landmark environmental laws in this state’s history. Its threefold mission:

(1) identify the negative environmental and socioeconomic impacts of existing agricultural practices, (2) research and assist the development of alternative, more sustainable agricultural practices, and (3) inform the agricultural community and general public of the Center’s findings.

The center’s director, Dr. Mark Rasmussen, told Bleeding Heartland today that roughly $1.5 million of the Leopold Center’s approximately $2 million annual budget comes from receiving 35 percent of revenues from a fee on nitrogen fertilizer sales and pesticide registrations. The modest fee of 75 cents per ton of anhydrous ammonia (now selling for approximately $550 per ton) hasn’t changed since the Groundwater Protection Act set up this funding stream in 1987. Citing legislative sources, Rasmussen said Republicans are apparently planning to redirect nitrogen tax revenues. To my knowledge, no bill spelling out the new recipients has been published yet. UPDATE: I have seen the draft appropriations bill for agriculture and natural resources and can confirm it redirects these revenues to a new “Iowa Nutrient Research Fund.” (The Leopold Center’s research addresses a broader range of farming practices.) That appropriations bill calls for the ISU College of Agriculture and Life Sciences to take over any incomplete work by the Leopold Center after July 1, 2017.

The second-largest source of funding for the center is a line item in the Iowa Board of Regents budget, which used to be about $425,000 per year. Actual state funding during the current fiscal year totaled $397,417, and Governor Terry Branstad proposed keeping the center’s funding at that level for fiscal year 2018. But the Republican plan negotiated behind closed doors and revealed this afternoon at an Education Appropriations Subcommittee hearing zeroes out the Leopold Center line item.

The center also receives a “small amount of foundation earnings” from donations to an endowment managed by the ISU Foundation, Rasmussen said, but those funds are “wholly inadequate to keep the center functioning at any level of reasonableness.”

I enclose below an e-mail Rasmussen sent to Leopold Center Advisory Board members today. He noted that the center has been involved with than 600 projects “on topics spanning water quality, manure management, livestock grazing, cover crops, alternative conservation practices, biomass production, soil health and local food systems development in Iowa.” The center’s grants have facilitated “thriving local foods networks,” and research supported by the center informed practices that are now part of Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy for addressing the state’s major water pollution problems.

It’s not hard to guess why statehouse Republicans want to ax one of the country’s leading institutions in the sustainable agriculture field. Corporate interests associated with conventional farming practices have long been hostile to research supported by the center, such as efforts to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus runoff that causes the Gulf of Mexico “Dead Zone.” Pressure from Big Ag was believed to have influenced Wendy Wintersteen, endowed dean of the ISU College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, when she chose not to offer the job of Leopold Center director to the search committee’s top choice in 2009. (Rasmussen was hired in 2012.)

The GOP education budget would also eliminate state funding for the Iowa Flood Center at the University of Iowa. Advocates for solid research on sustainable agriculture and flood patterns need to contact Republican members of the Education Appropriations Subcommittee: State Senators Tim Kraayenbrink (chair), Craig Johnson (vice chair), and Jason Schultz, and State Representatives Cecil Dolecheck (chair), Tom Moore (vice chair), Dean Fisher, Gary Mohr, and Walt Rogers.

UPDATE: Dolecheck told reporters on April 11 that there was no need for further work by the Leopold Center: ““Most people would tell you that farmers have been educated to that point, the research has been put in place whether it’s cover crops, waterways, those type of things.”

I’ve added below two messages ISU sent to supporters on April 12, seeking to generate constituent contacts to state lawmakers. At Iowa Informer, Gavin Aronsen posted a “set of talking points prepared yesterday for President Steven Leath’s office,” which covers similar ground.

SECOND UPDATE: Democrats requested a public hearing on the state budget, which will take place Monday, April 17, from 10 am to noon. Iowans can sign up here to speak or leave a comment. Although time constraints won’t allow everyone to speak, it’s worth making your voice heard. In addition to eliminating the Leopold Center’s main funding sources, the Republican education and natural resources budgets repeal language establishing the center from the Iowa Code.

APRIL 19 UPDATE: Although many speakers at the public hearing urged lawmakers to save the Leopold Center, House and Senate Republicans voted to eliminate the program in the agriculture and natural resources budget. Brianne Pfannenstiel reported for the Des Moines Register on the House floor debate:

“I don’t believe the dire consequence is going to be there,” said the bill’s floor manager, Rep. Norlin Mommsen, R-DeWitt. “There is a huge amount of research taking place across the state for agriculture, and how we sustain it in Iowa would be part of that conversation.”

Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, D-Ames, offered an amendment that would have kept the program open, but it was voted down by the House’s Republican majority.

“We need to leave our children a legacy, and the Leopold Center will help us do that,” she said. “We need to leave our children and our grandchildren a healthier and safer environment.”

Rep. Scott Ourth, D-Ackworth, also criticized a reduction in funding to the state’s Resource Enhancement And Protection program, which supports projects that enhance and protect the state’s natural and cultural resources. State money to that program will be reduced from $16 million this year to $12 million next year.

Radio Iowa’s O.Kay Henderson reported on the public hearing:

Liz Garst, who manages her family’s 3500 acre farm in the Coon Rapids area. said the work of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture is not done.

“Thanks to the help of the Leopold Center, we have started doing more and more with cover crops,” Garst said. “…There is a huge amount of research that still needs to be done to make this technology viable, which will help protect our soil, which is Iowa’s most important asset.”

Garst was among more than three dozen people who testified today at a hearing in the state capitol that gave Iowans a chance to weigh in on GOP budget proposals. Several spoke against Republican legislators’ plans to cut state support of the ISU research center. Mills County Supervisor Mark Peterson farms about 500 near Stanton and he’s board president of Practical Farmers of Iowa.

“As a conservative Republican, I am disappointed with what I hear happening,” Peterson said. “…The Leopold Center was founded in tough ag economic times. Through their research and funding of everything from waterways to wineries, rural Iowa has improved both economically and environmentally. We are in tough times again. The work of the Leopold Center is nowhere near done.”

E-mail from Dr. Mark Rasmussen to the Leopold Center Advisory Board:

April 11, 2017

Dear Leopold Center Advisory Board Member:

The Leopold Center has faced many challenges in its 30-year history. Today we face another significant hurdle. Late last night we learned that the Republican legislative budget proposal for next year eliminates all support for the Leopold Center.

The Leopold Center has sponsored the work of Iowans concerned about their water and soil resources through more than 600 research projects—on topics spanning water quality, manure management, livestock grazing, cover crops, alternative conservation practices, biomass production, soil health and local food systems development in Iowa.

Many of the practices now recommended in Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy (such as streamside buffers, erosion control measures, bioreactors) were first researched through Leopold Center funding of more than $5M at Iowa State University. Iowa’s thriving local foods networks benefitted from Leopold Center grants leveraged with nearly $1M in funds from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Wallace Foundation.

If you look at just six of the major projects the Center funded, we can tell you that for every dollar the Leopold Center spent on these projects, an additional $4.60 was leveraged to complement or expand the work. ( And all this money went to Iowans to help conserve Iowa’s precious natural resources.

We urge you to contact your state senator and state representative TODAY to share your concerns. This is moving through the legislature today and tomorrow. This bill is expected to move very quickly so it is imperative you reach out as soon as possible.

You can call your legislators at the Capitol. The Senate switchboard number is 515-281-3371, and the House switchboard number is 515-281-3221. You can also find your legislators and their emails at

Please contact me if you have any questions.

Thank you for your support of all the work the Leopold Center has done for sustainable agriculture in Iowa.

Mark Rasmussen

ISU communications staff forwarded to me a “Call to action” e-mailed on April 12 on behalf of Alliance for Iowa State, “a coalition of Iowa State alumni, parents, students, faculty, staff, and friends.”

The Iowa Legislature recently released a bill that would shut down the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.

The Leopold Center sponsors research and extension education on key issues in agriculture for Iowa and the nation. The center serves as the catalyst to research that eventually makes its way into everyday practice — by farmers, businesses, and communities.

Over the past 30 years, the center has earned a national reputation for exploring innovative, profitable approaches to farming that conserve natural resources and stimulate local economies. Given these difficult times of low commodity prices, funding for the Leopold Center is crucial to the economic health of the state.

The Leopold Center has sponsored the work of Iowans concerned about their natural resources through more than 600 research projects on topics spanning water quality, nutrient management, soil health,livestock grazing, cover crops, andlocal food systems development.

The proposed shut down of the Leopold Center will remove the center’s ability to fund research in these fields. Additionally, grants funded by the center in the last four years brought in nearly $20 million in added support (leveraging) for Iowa researchers and educators. Eliminating the Leopold Center would mean a loss of roughly $5 million a year to agricultural research initiatives.

The entire state would be impacted by the cuts as the Leopold Center provides demonstrations and field research in all 99 Iowa counties – epitomizing Iowa State’s land-grant mission.

The legislation to defund the Leopold Center is moving very quickly. It is imperative that we make our voices heard as soon as possible. Please take a moment to send a message to your legislators urging them to restore funding for the Leopold Center.

Thank you in advance for your support of Iowa State University! We will provide additional updates on the legislative budget process as they become available.

ISU communications staff also forwarded this letter to me. According to Iowa Informer, Wintersteen says Grow Iowa Agriculture is “a grassroots group of citizens that has been supportive of our legislative requests linked to the Agriculture Experiment Station and to Veterinary Medicine.”

April 12, 2017
TO: Grow Iowa Agriculture Members

FROM: Wendy Wintersteen, Endowed Dean, ISU College of Agriculture and Life Sciences John Lawrence, Acting Vice President, ISU Extension and Outreach

Yesterday we learned that a bill is circulating in the Iowa Legislature that would eliminate the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. The center provides valuable funding for relevant research to conserve natural resources and stimulate local economies, and we urge you to contact your state legislators to share your concerns on this possible action.

The Leopold Center sponsors research and extension education on key issues in agriculture. Often the center has served as the catalyst to research that eventually makes its way into everyday practice — by farmers, business people and communities. Certainly, many practices highlighted in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, including cover crops and bioreactors, can be traced back to support our agricultural scientists received from the center. On the livestock side, the center historically and currently supports research that seeks to increase profitability of beef production through improved grazing systems, conducted by animal scientists such as Jim Russell and Patrick Gunn, and the development of hoop buildings for hogs and cattle. Cropping systems that better manage phosphorus to improve profitability and soil health and protect water have been the topic of center-supported research by agronomists like Antonio Mallarino and ag engineers like Matt Helmers.

In these ways and others, the center demonstrates the critically important integration of Iowa State’s research and extension missions. Throughout its 30 year history, the center also is a good example of how our faculty benefit from support of center grants, leveraging it into significant commitments that expand the impacts across Iowa and beyond.

Thank you for considering this request to contact your state legislators to preserve this highly relevant program that supports agricultural research and extension of importance to many Iowans. To find your state legislator, go
to We understand a form of this bill is circulating in both the Agricultural Appropriations and the Education Appropriations committees. We will keep you informed as this bill moves through the legislative process. Below is some brief background on how the state funds the center.

How is the Leopold Center funded?
The Leopold Center’s primary funding stream is the Agriculture Management Account (AMA), one of four accounts that comprise the Groundwater Protection Fund, created

by the 1987 Iowa Groundwater Protection Act. The legislation set a fee on nitrogen fertilizer sales and pesticide registrations to support about 20 environmental programs. The center receives 35 percent of the AMA funds, or about $1.3 million annually to carry out its mission. A second source is an annual line-item education appropriation of approximately $400,000, which is included in Iowa State’s annual budget requests to the legislature.

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  • Thank you

    I appreciate this detailed information. Now I’m waiting for the amendment that will legally prohibit any state agency from ever mentioning the “Dead Zone” again.