Thirty years later

5/7/14, Mike Duffy, Leopold Center, Iowa --

When asked to write this column that looked back on my time at ISU and with the Leopold Center, as well as the changes in sustainable agriculture, I readily agreed, without realizing what that meant. I started this piece many times, only to decide some other way would be more appropriate and interesting. Then two things happened.

First, I read The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch, a professor dying of cancer. The book shares his struggles to prepare his last lecture. Obviously, I am not facing anything that traumatic, but his approach resonated with me. He chose to look back at all the good things that had happened to him and realized how lucky he had been. As I survey the past 30 years, I realize I have been lucky, too.

Throughout my career I have been blessed to know many wonderful people and have great opportunities. I began as a field scout with an integrated pest management project in 1973. Since then I have had the opportunity to work with sustainable agriculture under a variety of titles and capacities. One of the more fortunate connections is my involvement with the Leopold Center. I had the privilege of working directly with the Center as Associate Director between 1992 and 2005. I also have been the beneficiary of countless grants, issue teams and other Center projects that have helped me examine important issues facing Iowa agriculture.

The second important thing was hearing a speech by Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey when he received the Outstanding Club Alumni award from the ISU Agricultural Business Club. Part of his message was that agriculture is about people. Personal relationships too often are overlooked in our discussions about agriculture, particularly sustainable agriculture. The interrelationships of plants, animals, insects and the overall ecosystem are critical. But, if we can’t communicate those ideas or if we present them in an antagonistic manner, what good is that knowledge? Too often, I am afraid we talk at each other and not with each other.

Thirty years after joining Iowa State and following 40 years of involvement with ecologically-based agriculture, I see good and bad signs. Today we have more people participating in local food systems, farmers markets and an array of marketing outlets designed to bring the farmer and consumer closer together. This new spirit extends to the White House, where the First Lady has promoted gardening and healthier diets. We are more aware of problems in our food system and possible links with food additives and unhealthy diets.

The environmental impacts of agriculture are becoming more obvious. It isn’t that we are just recognizing the problems; the Iowa Legislature passed the Groundwater Protection Act nearly 30 years ago. The difference is that almost everyone recognizes something has to be done. We have the tools and technologies to help alleviate some of the problems. Also being discussed are the serious challenges of the loss of farmers and rural communities and other problems associated with “getting big or getting out.” Again, these aren’t new issues. People have talked about them for decades, but it seems there is a renewed urgency.

What concerns do I have as we look ahead? I sense a misplaced concreteness in some attitudes. We don’t know it all, none of us do. At best, we can only hope we are asking the relevant questions. There are too many people on both sides of the agriculture divide who feel they know the answers and all they have to do is convince you that they’re right. In this era of easy communication and instant messaging we often don’t take time to talk to one another. As Secretary Northey said, agriculture is about people. If all we do is look at a screen, punch buttons and read diatribes from people we already agree with, we aren’t going to progress no matter how quickly we send messages. Technology can help with some of our dilemmas, but it isn’t the panacea many believe. We need what E. F. Schumacher in Small is Beautiful called “appropriate technology.”

Here we are, 30 years later and in some ways things aren’t very different. I grew up with songs that talked about the “eve of destruction” and that the problems were nature’s way of telling us something was wrong. It is sobering to listen to those songs and realize that basic problems haven’t changed that much.

There is a prayer that tells us that we should “seek not to be understood but to understand.” I think all of us in sustainable agriculture would do well to remember that. We have come a long way, but we have a great distance to go and we need to adjust our attitudes. We all have biases. We must recognize them and realize that other well-intentioned people may have different biases and life experiences. Remember, you will learn more by listening than talking.

I am grateful to everyone who has helped me over the years. I wish you well in all your endeavors.


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