Divergent Views of Sustainability

There was likely more than one reason why Interim Dean Wintersteen took the action that resulted in Kirschenmann’s resignation as Director of the Leopold Center one week ago today.

I can’t yet put my finger on each of the seperate reasons, but one factor is certain to be diverging views on just what “sustainable” agriculture is.

Wintersteen herself trumpets soil and water conservation.

“There was a significant number of folks who felt like they didn’t have significant connection to the center,” she said.

Among those who complained of Kirschenmann’s performance are corn and soybean producers who wanted more research on issues the center had historically dealt with, such as water quality and conservation research, Wintersteen said.

Others agree.

Hamilton said the center needs to do more on environmental issues, both for smaller and larger farmers. DeWitt, he said, will have a positive impact there.

Kirschenmann has a deeper understanding of what sustainability is. Our food system needs to be environmentally sustainable, but is also (and just as importantly) needs to be socially and economically sustainable. This notion is reflected in Kirschenmann’s Ag of the Middle work.

Some of the board members that Wintersteen left out of her decision agree with Kirschenmann’s approach.

Marvin Shirley, the former chair of the advisory board, said he believed Kirschenmann was doing a good job carrying out the center’s mission. “A lot of the problems and solutions to agriculture are beyond Iowa’s borders,” said Shirley, who represents the Iowa Farmers Union on the advisory board. “You can’t lose focus of Iowa, but to solve those problems, you have to be involved in a larger area than just Iowa.”

This debate is being played out as an “Iowa focus” versus a “national focus” disagreement. Wintersteen and folk are arguing that the Center needs to be more Iowa focused. This discussion of increasing the Center’s “Iowa focus” appears in tandem nearly every time with discussion of increasing the Center’s “soil and water conservation” research, and reaching out to a more diverse set of stakeholder groups.

As if to reassure those of us who might be catching on Wintersteen follows up with this:

Wintersteen said that as a distinguished fellow, Kirschenmann will work on national sustainable agriculture issues, the decreasing number of medium-sized family farms, and niche-marketing opportunities.

I don’t doubt that this is true, but he won’t be doing it as the Director of the Leopold Center any more. These things, unfortunately, do make a difference.

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