AMES — The office space is smaller. The staff is nearly non-existent. There are no contracts going out for new research projects. But despite all that, the work continues at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.
It has been almost eight months since the Iowa legislature shocked many sustainable farming advocates by suddenly eliminating all state funding for the Leopold Center. Gov. Terry Branstad did use his veto power to cut language that would have made sure the center ceased to exist, but he did not restore the funding.
And so the staff who remain have spent the past half a year shutting down some operations, transferring many research projects and trying to determine where things go from here.
“I would hope they would just leave us alone now,” says center director Mark Rasmussen, an animal scientist who has headed operations since 2012.
Some center supporters would like to push the legislature to reinstate funding. Undoubtedly, some critics would like to finish the job of closing it down, Rasmussen says.
But he says that since no state money is going to the center and closing it would mean the university would likely not be able to use the income from its approximately $5.2 million endowment, such a move wouldn’t make much economic sense.
“It would be a matter of pure vengeance,” he says.
For Rasmussen, the year has been a bit surreal. Twelve months ago he headed a nationally lauded center on campus that was nearing its 30th anniversary. Created as part of land-mark legislation in 1987, the center began operations in 1988.
Over the years, it conducted early groundbreaking research in such areas as cover crops and hoop buildings. But some critics attacked it as nothing more than a use of agribusiness-generated funds to support organic farming or anti-commodity agriculture goals.
Rasmussen says only a small amount of the research done here had much to do with organic farming.
“There was a degree of misinformation out there,” he says.
Since lawmakers pushed the measure through the legislature in April, the office space has been reduced and most of the staff laid off or transferred to other jobs at the university. Rasmussen remains on staff as director, largely because he is a tenured member of the faculty. He also still teaches. Former director Fred Kirschenmann remains on a part-time basis as a distinguished fellow.
Many of the research projects have been transferred. Meetings have been held as the center looks to determine what its future should be.
“I have my points of optimism,” Rasmussen says, explaining that the center’s advisory board is working to re-focus the smaller organization that Rasmussen describes as being “unshackled” from past constraints. That may free the center to take more of a long-term outlook — to focus on Iowa agriculture 20 or 30 years down the road.
The organization gets a little bit of annual funding from its endowment, and it may look at ways of partnering or fundraising to expand that financial base, he says. But the rules regarding the endowment mean they can only use the income from it, not the total cash amount, so the legislative argument that the center didn’t require state funding for the work it had been doing simply wasn’t true, he says.
As for the research projects that were on-going, Rasmussen says many were transferred to the Iowa Nutrient Research Center at ISU. Several projects were already scheduled to end this year. New projects that had not yet begun were canceled.
One or two projects were continued by the center. Several projects that were not completed were canceled. And several were deemed important enough to be funded either through the center or through other places at ISU.
There were a number of items considered when making those project-by-project determinations, Rasmussen says. Some were deemed important and come under the umbrella of the nutrient program. Others came with legal obligations.