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A distinguished fellow
In the big, slow move from the big, painted house in town this past summer my worn copy of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac went missing.

Truth be told, the lovely little book of simple, powerful essays explaining mankind’s deep connections to the land never made the move with Emerson, Thoreau, McPhee and the rest of my literary family.

The most likely explanation of its disappearance is that I loaned it out years ago and, unlike the waterfowl, songbirds or wildflowers Leopold wrote so powerfully and poetically about on his Wisconsin farm, the book that pioneered “the land ethic” never returned.

I know that’s what happened to some of my other great possessions - a drywall T-square, an expensive gear-puller, my pruning saw. The last time I looked they were there to be employed and enjoyed; the next time I looked they were sadly, madly, gone.

I hope that’s not the case with Fred Kirschenmann who, until Oct. 28, was the director of the Leopold Center, Iowa State Univer-sity’s globally recognized research and education center for sustainable agriculture.

Officially, Kirschenmann was promoted from his administrative post, a position he held since 2000, to “a new leadership role as a distinguished fellow of the center” where, according to the ISU press release, he “will devote his time to national sustainable agriculture priorities affecting broad segments of U.S. agriculture.”

Unofficially, say many of his peers, he was shuffled off to the academic gulag by powerful farm and commodity groups in Iowa who worried the Kirschenmann-led Center’s authoritative research and growing reputation undermined their agribiz-or-bust approach to farming.

The way the Kirschenmann coup occurred, they suggest, confirms it. On Oct. 26 Kirschenmann was notified by letter that he was out as director, that his successor was already in place, and that he had 48 hours to either accept the “distinguished” post or go back to his 3,500-acre North Dakota family farm. Wendy Wintersteen, ISU’s interim College of Agriculture dean and a member of the Center’s advisory board, was the letter’s writer.

Kirschenmann didn’t see it coming but, he related in a Nov. 2 telephone interview, Wintersteen, as a Leopold Center board member, had made it known to him previously that he and the Center were “not reaching out to enough Iowa stakeholders.”

It’s a charge that didn’t then, and doesn’t now, sit well Kirschenmann. “The Leopold Center’s mission is unique in all of agriculture,” he explained by phone. “What that mission boils down to is change; the Center deals with change coming in agriculture.”

For example, he noted, “Between 1997 and 2002, Iowa lost 18.5 percent of all its farmers with gross farm sales between $50,000 and $500,000. Also, only 6 percent of all Iowa farmers are under age 35 while 26 percent of them are over age 65 now.

“Chart those trends,” he continued, “and you don’t have to go very far before you have no farmers left in Iowa. And once you reach that point, you have a very different type of agriculture and rural landscape.”

To Kirschenmann those trends - as well as another of his tenets: the days of cheap energy powering U.S. agriculture are over - means American agriculture “will go through more change in the next 10 years than it went through in the last 100 years. That means alternatives to today’s energy intensive, nonsustainable agriculture must be sought and put into place.”

And that’s exactly why the Center moved Kirschenmann from administrative leader to big picture philosopher, said Neil Hamilton, director of the Agricultural Law Center at Drake University and a director-at-large at the Leopold Center.

“My personal view is that this move will be a boost for both Fred and the Center,” offered Hamilton, a law professor and widely respected Iowa aggie. “He is a national and international leader - and more importantly, a true seer - in sustainable agriculture.”

Again, I hope it is so, because Kirschenmann is a national treasure; a farmer who embodies Leopold’s ethic that “land is a community” while heeding Leopold’s warning that American agriculture “someday will die of its own too much.”

This opinion piece was published in the November 9, 2005 issue of Farm World.