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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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Iowa State, Nation’s First Land-grant University Makes Strides in Sustainable Agriculture

February 29, 2012 |

The following story marks the start of a new article series in which Seedstock will profile land-grant universities across the United States with a specific focus on the role that sustainable agriculture plays in their curriculums, research projects, student initiatives and more.


In the world of agricultural education, Iowa State University has historical bragging rights.

The university calls itself the nation’s first land-grant university, which refers to the Morrill Act of 1862. The law allowed federal land to be donated to states so the states could sell it and use the proceeds to establish public colleges that focused on agriculture and mechanical arts.

Fast-forward to 150 years later and the university is now a leading agricultural college with an edge in sustainable agriculture programs and research, particularly through the university’s renowned Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

In agricultural education, the university has an array of “firsts”—it offered the nation’s first courses in forestry in 1874, the nation’s first courses in dairy science in 1880, its first Master of Science degree in farm mechanics in 1902, and the nation’s first professional agricultural engineering curriculum.

ISU is also home to the nation’s first comprehensive graduate program in sustainable agriculture, and it claims to have the largest group of faculty in the country working on sustainable agriculture issues.

Mark Honeyman, interim director for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and ISU professor of animal science, says the graduate program has now been in existence for 10 years.

“It was originally sponsored (partially) by the Leopold Center, but it’s an inner departmental program where students in, say, agronomy or rural sociology or animal science or forestry can also major in sustainable agriculture, and they study how these different disciplines interact,” said Honeyman, who also coordinates the ISU Research and Demonstration Farms.

The program’s Web page lists its curriculum topics as the following: agroecosystems analysis, integrated crop and livestock production systems, ecologically-based pest management strategies, strategies for diversified food and farming systems, foundations of sustainable agriculture, sustainable agriculture colloquium, agroforestry and organic agriculture.

While there is no sustainable agriculture major for undergraduate students, Honeyman noted that there are various courses that focus in the area. For example, the university launched a course last year that focuses on managing horticulture operations for local food production. Through the course, students were given the option to grow their fruits and vegetables organically, he said.

Innovation in Research

Honeyman says there are various examples of how the university is focused on sustainable agriculture, particularly through its facilities and research activities.

The BioCentury Research Farm is one of the university’s prized examples. ISU describes the facility as the “first fully integrated biomass production farm and processing facility in the nation.”

The idea behind the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences facility, which opened in 2009, is to boost innovation and production capacity associated with bio-based fuels, chemicals and products, and to do it sustainably.

“Anything you can dream of making from petroleum, there is probably a route to make it from biomass,” said Larry Johnson, the director or the BioCentury Research Farm. “The issue is economics. Not all of them are economical, and our mission is to make them economical.”

Aerial view of the BioCentury Research Farm. Photo courtesy of BioCentury Research Farm.

Johnson said the center’s efforts are mainly focused on using corn stover for biomass, but it is also using alternative crops, such as switchgrass and miscanthus (which are both perennial grasses), grains and forest waste.

Industry partners team up with the university to develop and commercialize new sustainable technologies. For example, the center has developed machinery concepts for AGCO Corp. and John Deere. Other partners include DuPont Cellulosic Ethanol, ConocoPhillips and local companies, he said.

Besides the BioCentury Research Farm, the university has 13 research and demonstration farms that are run by the university and located all across the state. Nonprofit farmer associations and businesspeople own or lease eight of the research farms, while the state owns the other five, according to ISU. The farms, which are used for teaching, research and extension education, are leased to the university’s Iowa Agriculture Experiment Station.

Honeyman said the university also has a compost facility, which handles than 8,000 tons of organic waste a year, though it is designed to handle more than 10,000 tons annually. The facility uses waste from the campus—manure from the university’s dairy farm and other livestock farms; yard waste; greenhouse waste such as sand, soil and plants; and dining hall food waste,  he said.

“The compost is used in university construction projects to amend soil, primarily, and also for research projects,” Honeyman said. “A small amount of it is sold wholesale, but we’re very sensitive (about it). We don’t want to compete with the private sector, so most of it is either used by the university or state and federal entities.”

Some of those entities include Iowa Veterans Cemetery, which uses the compost to dress the tops of graves, and the State Forest Nursery, which uses the compost to grow trees for state parks, he said.

The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture

The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture focuses on reducing the negative environmental and socioeconomic impacts of agricultural practices. The education and research center was formed in 1987 as an outgrowth of the farm crisis of that time, Honeyman said. It is funded by state appropriations and fees collected on nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides.

Honeyman listed a couple of achievements that came out of the Leopold Center. There was the development of riparian buffer strips, which are placed along waterways to filter runoff from fields before it gets into the waterway. This is now widely used in soil conservation practices across the country, Honeyman said. He noted that the center was also instrumental in fostering local food systems in Iowa, including farmers markets and vegetable and fruit production.

Here are a few other research projects the center is currently funding:

  • A project led by ISU animal science professor James Russell researches how grazing management affects the flux of major greenhouse gases. It aims to assess the relationships among greenhouse gases, soil organic carbon sequestration, botanical and chemical composition of vegetation, and physical characteristics of soil in southern Iowa grasslands. (Three-year grant awarded in 2012)
  • A project led by Stanley Harpole researches the ecological impacts of biochar on the interaction among plants, soil organisms and the environment. The aim of the research is to provide information that will help determine the effects soil amendments prior to widespread application. (Three-year grant awarded in 2011)
  • A project led by Antonio P. Mallarino, a professor in ISU’s Department of Agronomy, researches how much phosphorus is plant-available in beef manure for use as a fertilizer for cropping systems in the state of Iowa. (Four-year-grant awarded in 2010)

Other current grant research projects can be found at the Leopold Center’s Web page:

Growing Numbers

Student enrollment at ISU’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is on the rise, Honeyman said. In 2009, the university’s undergraduate enrollment surpassed 3,000 students for the first time in 30 years. (The college peaked at 3,623 undergraduate students in 1977.) Honeyman said the college currently has 3,434 undergraduate students, and that number is expected to surpass the 1977 record next fall.

The numbers are particularly up in the college’s agricultural studies and agronomy majors. Agronomy focuses on field-crop production and soil management, he added.

“Agriculture is really booming, economically and technologically, and I think the education here is a good value,” he said. “We are working hard to have courses and majors that students are interested in and relate to.”

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