New Dean of Iowa State's College of Agriculture shares his vision: The Spokesman Speaks Podcast, Episode 13
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Welcome to Episode 13 of The Spokesman Speaks podcast. In this episode, the new Dean of Iowa State University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) shares his vision for the future of the college, and Iowa Farm Bureau President Craig Hill talks about Farm Bureau's achievements during the 2019 legislative session.
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Narrator: Since 1934, Iowa's farmers have turned to the Iowa Farm Bureau Spokesman as their trusted news source. Now, The Spokesman Speaks. Listen in and hear from leading experts on topics important to farmers and agriculture. Now, here's your host, Laurie Johns.
Laurie Johns: Welcome to The Spokesman Speaks Podcast. This is our May 20th edition. We hope that you're having a safe, healthy, and productive spring and we're glad to have you join us. Today's episode features a recap of Iowa Farm Bureau's success during the 2019 legislative session and a discussion with the new Dean of Iowa State University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Let's start with the legislative recap. The Iowa legislature adjourned in late April and last week Iowa Farm Bureau Spokesman Editor Dirck Steimel sat down with Iowa Farm Bureau President Craig Hill to discuss key victories for young farmers, property, taxpayers, and all Iowans. Let's join that conversation now.
Dirck Steimel: During the 2019 Iowa legislative session, why was the passage of measures to improve the state's Beginning Farmer Tax Credit Program important for young farmers in Iowa?
President Hill: Well Dirck, first of all, we at Farm Bureau are in the business of protecting the interests and the livelihoods of farm families in Iowa. All farm families. But the economics of farming or agriculture today are not the best. Couple that with the degree of difficulty it is to get started, to get a foothold in farming. I think young farmers, beginning farmers need every bit of assistance and every bit of encouragement and benefit that we can provide them. An opportunity to access land as a tenant or access land as an owner was a priority for the Iowa Farm Bureau this year. I think it's critical to our sustainability of our communities. First of all, we thought that we should encourage lawmakers to restore two full funding of $12 million a year. The Beginning Farmer Tax Credit. It enables and helps a lot of young producers and we want to improve and grow that number. Second, beginning in 2023 land owners would have, when selling property, would have been confronted with a capital gains tax. So we thought it was important to provide protection for that capital gains tax deduction and maintain that we don't need a deterrent for farmers or land owners to sell to young producers or any producer, any other farmer. I was at the Young Farmer Conference with nearly 600 young farmers this spring and we heard from them and in my comments I said this year we would put an exclamation point behind young farmer. The governor spoke next and said she supported our efforts in the Beginning Farmer Tax Credit in our efforts to protect that capital gains tax deduction. And so, we're hopeful she'll sign it and I think she will.
Dirck Steimel: Lawmakers also passed a measure to limit private entities from using the state revolving loan fund to finance land acquisition. Why was the passage of that measure important for young farmers?
President Hill: Well, the state revolving loan fund wasn't created to provide an incentive or a subsidy for land acquisition by either private or governmental entity. So young farmers, young or old, shouldn't be forced to compete with tax dollars or a government supported subsidy for ownership of farmland. So we thought this was a wrong that we could correct and we were able to do that. Hopefully with the governor's support, her signature, we will have taken care of this.
Dirck Steimel: Does it create a more level playing field?
President Hill: It does. And that's all we're asking for. We were told that this would inhibit conservation efforts. It will not. All lands can be benefited by conservation efforts whether they're private or whether they're owned by government, but you know, when government resources are scarce maybe they should be used to provide conservation and other improvements to land they already own. So, we think this was important.
Dirck Steimel: During the 2019 session, lawmakers passed measures to protect property taxpayers, including an extension of the save sales tax for school infrastructure through 2050. extension requires that a significant portion of the save revenues be used for property tax relief. Lawmakers also passed a measure to create additional requirements before local governments can raise their total property tax collections. Why are those measures important, Craig?
President Hill: Well, again, as I mentioned, protecting the interests, the livelihoods, of farm families, but farm families are property owners. In fact, I think all citizens of Iowa benefit from property tax protections. We all pay either directly or indirectly into property taxes. So these activities that we encourage lawmakers to take I think were important. Limiting the growth of property tax is something that's important. The save program, providing predictability and certainty to schools when they do go out to bond with greater oversight by the public, with, some conditions there as well. So I think we worked hard as we always do to protect property tax payers of Iowa. And I think we did that very well this year, as we always do.
Dirck Steimel: How does Farm Bureau's success during that 2019 session and other legislative sessions show the value of the organizations grassroots approach to policy development?
President Hill: We'll appreciate Dirck, how we're structured and how we were formed. We are active in every county of the state. We have active leadership, boards of directors of county Farm Bureaus, leaders that step up. So every lawmaker when they come home and visit with their community, they have to face a Farm Bureau member, a Farm Bureau leader, someone that is aware and informed of the issues. And so that strength is pretty incredible. And then when you couple that with a very strong lobby team that we have that work every day, very professionally, that have built the trust with lawmakers, that, you know, when you make that combination come true, you make Farm Bureau the most influential organization in the state. Not the most influential ag organization, but the most influential organization, the state. So, we are a farmer led, farmer driven and we're just proud of that.
Laurie Johns: There's a lot of good work to be proud of in 2019. Give yourselves a pat on the back for that, because as you heard President Hill say, Iowa Farm Bureau's success at the Capitol stems from you. We're a true grassroots organization, farmer lead, farmer driven and darn proud of it. From Des Moines let's head north to Iowa's preeminent university. Which, okay, I get to play favorites. I'm a proud graduate of Iowa State University. Go Cyclones! That fall Iowa State University named a new dean of its College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Daniel Robison. Robison comes to Iowa State from West Virginia University where he served as the Dean of their ag college. Spokesman Editor Dirck Steimel had a chance to visit with the new Dean at his campus office earlier this month. We're going to take you right into Dean Robison's office. You're going to hear some construction work and you'll even hear the bells of ISU's Campanile, if you listen for them. Isn't that cool? Yeah. All right, all set? Let's hear now from Daniel Robison, the new Dean of ISU's College of Ag and Life Sciences.
Dirck Steimel: You're just beginning your tenure here. What attracted you to this position at Iowa State?
Dean Robison: That's a great question and I've been asked it a lot of times in the last few months. So I came here after serving nearly seven years as the Dean of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design at West Virginia University, which is another great land grant university happens to be in the same Big 12 Conference, and I loved it there. Great experience. That university and the people of West Virginia have the same concerns and the same issues and the same hopes and aspirations that anybody here in Iowa has. West Virginia is a small agricultural state, but for any farmer in West Virginia, every acre of ground is as important to them as an acre of ground in Iowa is to a farmer here. Iowa just has more of those acres. And so what attracted me to come here to Iowa State or to apply to see if they would have me, is that nationally and globally, Iowa is a powerhouse in the world of agriculture and all the attended subjects related to natural resources, life sciences and the technologies that underlie how we use those resources. And so each of us in our careers, for the most part, I think this is generally true. Each of us in our careers wants to have as broad, as deep, as important an impact as we possibly can to make lives better for others to make landscapes better for others to grow communities and economies and industries and so on. And so after those years at West Virginia University doing really important work there for them, I thought, well, if the state of Iowa will have me, I would love to go there because their impact on worldwide agriculture and food supply, on how regions of natural resource and agriculture are aligned and worked on together and on all the underlying sciences, their work has greater, deeper, broader impact. And if they'll have me, then I would love to go. And so that's what attracted me to apply here. And so, the thrill, the privilege of being asked to come here and lead this great college in this state, which has agriculture written all over it, is an extraordinary opportunity. To be part of that, to inherit a college, which is not a fix up special. This college has it all going on. Not the least of which, because the former Dean, Wendy Wintersteen , who's now our president, did a terrific job promoting it and developing it and moving it forward. And so my job is to capture that momentum, keep it going, and build it further. And so that's why I wanted to come here. And that's what I hope to do.
Dirck Steimel: Tell us a little bit about your philosophy for ag education and where it fits in today's ag economy?
Dean Robison: First off, I think it's generally true. Everything good in life is correlated with more and better education. And everything on the opposite side of the coin is correlated with the opposite. And so it's really easy for those of us in education, and I think it should be easy for everybody everywhere to say more and better education is a good thing. It's especially true, no doubt, in the world of agriculture and the related natural sciences, in the related engineering sciences related policy issues and so on. It's especially true because we are in a world of limited resources. We're not making any more land. It's what we have an increasing population and increasing standards, low standards of living, and an increasing need to balance all of these needs across frankly vulnerable landscapes and to do so in a way that enables us to have a bigger and deeper and more effective economic sector for our children and our grandchildren and beyond. So the work of a college like this is spot on with the needs not only of Iowa, but of our nation and frankly of the globe. And so my view is that our work is a high calling. You know, we all know the story of agriculture to date, which is one of increasing productivity, which is one of increasing care for the landscapes that we utilize, which is one of increasingly rubbing shoulders with urban areas. And in fact, you know, we often talk about the urban rural divide. And I would love to see that redefine, we ought to be talking about the urban rural codependency. We wouldn't need to grow all this food if people in urban areas weren't utilizing it. And people in urban areas need us to grow all this food. And we both need to do this in a way which is frankly environmentally sustainable and provides economic growth and opportunity. And colleges of agriculture and life sciences like ours are working exactly in that spot. Through our extension, our teaching and our research, we're enabling people to know what the next technologies can look like. We're enabling industries and communities to understand how best to manage their resources. We're finding the next generation of solutions to daunting problems that are out there. I mean consider, 50 years ago there were half as many people in the world and half as many people in this country, more or less. And that less than 50 years from now, there'll be many, many more people and they've all got dreams and aspirations and we have to provide for them on the same land base. This is a huge task. This is a high calling and responsibility. And so our college needs to be at the cutting edge of all of these things. Our college needs to be responsive to industry and responsive to communities and responsive to issues of social and environmental and ecological concern. We've got to be pushing the boundaries on all those things so that we can have the society we want to have.
Dirck Steimel: The College of Agriculture has a lot of momentum. As you mentioned, President Wintersteen was the Dean for many years. How do you keep that going?
Dean Robison: Yeah. So that's no easy trick, right? That's some hard work in that. So first off, you know, the fortunate thing is institutions like this have a great deal of momentum. And it's hard to knock the momentum they already have. Secondly, we're doing this at a time when budgets are not as good as we'd like them to be. So we've got some resource or fiscal constraints we've got to work through. Like any organization, we need to find ways to be more efficient in what we do. We need to find ways to prioritize where we invest the resources we have. You know, the old adage about if everything is a priority, nothing is holds true. Although universities need to be bastions of what's inclusive. You don't want universities to give up on topics simply because the graduates of those programs don't earn the best salaries. You don't want universities to give up on topics simply because they're not as important as they once were. And we don't know how important that they will be. Right? We need to be stable in what we do. But even in stable, comprehensive institutions like our own, we've got to think about how do we grow our enrollments? How do we reach out to other communities where we've not traditionally had people from, right? We need to improve the diversity of Iowa State and this College of Ag and Life Sciences and frankly of Iowa. Iowa looks just fine, but if Iowa is a global player and it is, and a national player and it is, then it maybe needs some help looking more like the rest of the nation. Because there are interesting ideas out there and interesting needs and there's value in the diversity of thought and perspective. So we've got to work on that. And certainly that's one President Wintersteen objectives and we're going to take that on full speed ahead. I've told people throughout the college we need to double our research enterprise. And there are lots of ways to measure research. It can be number of publications, number of grad students, number of proposals, number of dollars we spend. I'm not picking and choosing which metric is the best one and doubling anything is quite an aspirational goal. But you know, the best goals are the ones that are out of reach. And so the message to the college is we've got to get busy and do more and do even better than we have on asking the right questions to generate more important research and more of it than ever before because the world needs more answers than ever before. So we have to do that, right? We've got to be willing to be innovative in our curriculum. Again, that doesn't mean giving up on topics that have always been around, but there are always new topics and we've got to find ways to make sure we're embracing them and teaching them in a way that the next generation of thinkers and doers are going to want to embrace. And so I've asked the college to look carefully and deeply at itself to find out where we have holes in our curriculum that we can fill with new programs. Where we have existing curriculum that we need to bolster in and lift up so that they're more effective. And we've got to work on recruitment. You know, Iowa is just barely 3 million people. The truth is it doesn't have enough high school graduates to fill two world class universities and Iowa has two world class universities. Even though I prefer just talk about one of them. And so we've got to look out of state for students too. And throughout our region, throughout this whole sort of northern tier of the U.S., populations are not surging. In fact, they're stalled or growing very slowly. And so we have to look further and further out to find the people we need to fill our ranks. But that's good for Iowa. That's a good problem to be looking beyond ourselves for people and ideas and frankly, investment. And then let me touch on investment. University resources are paid for differently than they used to be. When you meet an old timer who says I paid $300 a year in tuition, that's because the formula for funding higher education was different then. It's not just because education's gotten more expensive. It's because where the funds come from has changed as well. And education has gotten more expensive. The rate of change has made it so. And so, we've got to be innovative in how we find resources and look for resources. A great deal of those resources come from tuition dollars. That's not going to change and those will continue to climb up. Although we had to be really careful about that. We've got to think about student debt, we've got to think about what our citizens can afford and so on. But we've also got to raise more funds through development and donors and giving. We've got to raise more funds for the research enterprise through research grants and contracts. We've got to do more public private partnerships where our own activities are generating revenue that we pile back into the activity of the university. So there's a lot of challenges out there. All those things are necessary as you pose in your question to keep the momentum up and in fact to grow it. And that's what we're going to try to do.
Dirck Steimel: These are challenging times for agriculture. How can CALS, how can the College of Agriculture, help farmers in rural communities weather this tough time?
Dean Robison: You know, the first thing we do is we supply information and we do that most effectively to people all across the landscape, whether they're farmers or manufacturers, whether they're industry or banking or school teachers. We provide information and the most effective way to do that is through the extension service. There's no daylight between us and the extension programs here. There are lots of faculty and staff in this college who have extension appointments. And so we care very directly about that. And there's lots of others who serve in roles that are akin to extension. So, information always empowers decision makers and our farmers are making decisions every day and the people who run our industries are making decisions every day. And so our policy makers. So we've got to be a source of information and we do that through a whole variety of means. We've got centers and people lined up in ways to provide information to enable decision makers. The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy issues, issues with the monarch butterfly. And as you folks in Farm Bureau know the list goes on and on and on because Farm Bureau has been with us all the way and we know that partnership is going to be sustained because it's important to both of us. That's for certain. And I've been particularly thankful and grateful for the wonderful welcome from Iowa Farm Bureau. Craig Hill and Joe Johnson. Everybody's been really great and helpful and gracious. I've had some really great conversations in particular with Craig. In fact, we ended up waiting for a plane once in D.C. For an hour and a half that was late and had a long chat about many, many things. And among the things that we chatted about, he mentioned this wonderful little book called The Butterfly Effect. It was given to him some years ago by Wendy Wintersteen when she was Dean. And Craig said, I'm going to give it to you, Dan, because I think you would benefit from it as well. And it's a wonderful little story. It's got lots of Iowa references as it turns out. And the notion of The Butterfly Effect is that a butterfly anywhere in the world can flap its wings and the movement of air molecules is going to affect other molecules and the impact of that, like ripples across a pond spreads and spreads and spreads. And you never know where your impact will end up. And in the book it tells a story of George Washington Carver and a number of others with Iowa connections. And so sure enough, Craig gave me the book, I think he gave it to me at a meeting of the Monarch Consortium, which happens to be about butterflies, and I read it and was really taken by it. And so I've passed it onto my leadership team and they're passing it around too. And it's already appeared now as a reference in some of the college's newsletters. And so the very book that Craig gave me is having its own butterfly effect. And I think it's a wonderful metaphor, wonderful perspective to have that the things we do in places like the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and organizations like the Farm Bureau have this butterfly effect. And given the authentic motivations of organizations like ours to do things that help people, that help the landscape, that feed the world, that maintain our communities and our economies, that can only be a positive butterfly effect. And to work with people who care about those things is the best thing there is. The other thing we do is we train the next generation of thinkers and doers. So all those organizations out across the state, whether it's a family farm organization or a great big multinational corporation or the state legislature, they need the latest and greatest thinkers and doers. And those are our graduates. So that's another way that we help to sustain and grow and weather the ups and downs of the agricultural and natural resource sectors that are so much tied to what we do. Can we affect a trade negotiations? Probably not. Can we affect labor strife and the sources of labor? Probably not. But can we provide the information and the people who will address those issues? Absolutely. And that's our sweet spot, to be engaged that way.
Dirck Steimel: One of the big things that has happened in the last four or five years is you mentioned the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Farmers are really, from my experience, I've seen farmers really taking on the challenge of reducing soil loss and improving water quality. How does the College of Agriculture help them?
Dean Robison: The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy and all the pieces that relate to that are critically important. Many would say that water is the great integrator, right? Without water you got nothing without water. I mean, you have places in the world with lots of sunshine, but no water and they're difficult places to live. Iowa is blessed with all these things. And so water's this great integrator. And keeping it clean and or making it clean is really critical. Dirty water in whatever realm is dirty is not useful or helpful. And so we owe it to ourselves and to all the future generations to work really hard at this. And, and I know that Iowa is, in fact, I know from being outside of Iowa for most of my career to date, that Iowa's held up as a leader in these technologies and these approaches. And the work of many people here in this college, the one that comes to mind, especially is Matt Helmers who is directing this effort for us, but there's lots of others working in this realm, trying to figure out ways we can use cover crops, trying to figure out ways to use prairie strips and edge of field technology. He's trying to figure out ways to take nitrogen and phosphorus out of waters once they have too much nitrogen and phosphorous in them using algo systems and so on. That all across this chain, we've got people working hard at that. And again, back to your earlier question, you know, what's our principal role? Our principal role is to come up with new ideas, invent new technologies, come up with the information that others can use to make good decisions, and then train the next generation of people to think and do in these regards. So philosophically, we're all about clean water and everybody is. Philosophically, we understand that where we are today is a reflection of how industry and society has been. And you can't just throw a switch and change it. You've got to find a way to move forward that makes adequate progress as quickly as we possibly can. So we create a better environment for ourselves. We all would agree on that. Philosophically, we know we've got to devote the people and the resources here at the university to answer this question because it's key to Iowa's economy. It's key to global food supply and it's key to all the aspects of sustainability that we all care about. So we're both feet into this thing. You know, I could say we're neck deep in it and we're talking about water quality and we all are. And you know, we want to be out there serving all the citizens of the state and frankly, enabling all the citizens, you know, downstream from us to benefit from clean water that's leaving our state. So, this is really critically important.
Dirck Steimel: We've talked a lot about challenges. What about opportunities for the College of Agriculture? Do you see new areas? Do you see other ways that the college can participate in both for students and for the state?
Dean Robison: Yeah, absolutely. So, you know, there's no shortage of opportunities. In fact, some joke that we're surrounded by insurmountable opportunities, right? And I don't buy that they're all insurmountable. You probably can't do them all at once because you need to focus your resources and your efforts. There's only so-called so much time in the day. One thing that's true about academics in general is they've all got opinions and ideas. So if you have a gathering for academics, you're going to up with nine opinions. And that's part of what makes these exercises so exciting and so valuable is you're sorting, you're sifting and winnowing opinions to borrow the agricultural phrase. And that's what we do here. So where I think the opportunities lie is only one piece of this. What's more important is where our collection of faculty, students and staff think the opportunities lie. But at the risk of being wrong, which we all have to take if we're going to be inventive, right? I would say that we have opportunities, not exclusively, but in areas such as we can do a lot more in the world of entrepreneurship and innovation. Our students come to us now and more than ever, more than generations past. They want to invent stuff. They want to create businesses, they want to add value to the world around them. And we have programs like the Ag Entrepreneurship Initiative and others, and the whole campus is to standing up more efforts in this regard. And we've got to respond to that in a big, big way. And frankly, and this is one of those cases where our students are going to lead us forward. Our faculty are being asked to respond to students as opposed to traditionally students respond to faculty. So students want these things. And so our faculty have to begin providing them. And along the way we'll be developing more intellectual property than ever before and doing more technology transfer work than ever before. And there'll be more startups and more demand for startup funds and those kinds of things. So that's a great big area of opportunity that we need to seize on. Another one I'd mentioned before is our need to do more public private partnerships. We've got to find, frankly, you've got to find capital resources from others who are willing not just to make gifts to the university but are willing to make investments in the university and the college to enable us to do something together. So together with an industry, together with an agency together, with an NGO, we invest in things such as the projects we have are underway for our new feed and grain mill complex. And now we're talking about a new plant science field complex. There's the potential for work in the realm of dairy and creamery and how do we add value to dairy products and we can't do these things alone anymore. And state tax dollars aren't going to support them as they used to decades past. So we've got to find new partners for it. I think another area of interest is going to be what happens deep, deep inside of molecules. So we recently had a received a gift from the Carver Trust out of Muscatine to install a new electron microscope that can look deep inside molecules and understand aspects of a structure and function like never before. And it really enlivens the opportunity to bring the life sciences to bear on things like agricultural productivity. We're going to discover new things about molecules that we didn't know. You need to go back to 1954 and Watson and Crick and they proposed the structure of DNA. Well that revolutionized our ability to deploy life sciences in the realm of agriculture and medicine and lots of other things. And we never know where the next remarkable discovery is going to be. But peering deep inside molecules is probably one of the places. So that's exciting. The advent of things like blockchain where we're tracking information and understanding more about life cycle analysis and chain of custody is going to impact us in lots of ways. And what's the whole value chain that goes from rainfall and soils and sunshine integrations into feed and grain mills into livestock facilities? Where does the manure go? Where does the product go? What's the impact on water quality? All through that cycle, that value chain, that's another area where we need more integrated and sophisticated analysis so that we can sustain those great industries. We can protect our environment for future generations. We can enable new industries to stand up and make new products for people and communities worldwide. That's another one. And the list goes on and on and on. And so we're working hard here. We've ginned up a whole series of conversations, many think tanks if you will, to start to try to figure out where to move resource to, where to invest resources, where we have excess capacity that we can do more with without adding resources. Because every organization has some places that are a little bit over tax and other places that are maybe a little bit under taxed. And if you're careful and thoughtful in how you understand them, you can find ways to right size, I don't mean right size in terms of losing people, I mean right size in terms of how you use what you already got to do more.
Laurie Johns: Clearly lots of reasons to be excited about the future of ISU's College of Ag and Life Sciences. We certainly appreciate Dean Robison's time and we look forward to many more years of partnership with the College of Ag. As we wrap up this episode of The Spokesman Speaks Podcast, I wanted to remind you that this is your last chance to nominate a candidate for the 2019 Conservation Farmer of the Year award. June 1st is the deadline for nominations and it's pretty easy to nominate someone. Just head out to IowaFarmBureau.com and learn how to submit a brief letter nominating a worthy farmer. Let's get those good stories told, okay? I also wanted to let you know that registration for Iowa Farm Bureau's 2019 Economic Summit is now open. The summit is a full day conference on June 28th, mark your calendar there, June 28th, bringing together a group of leading national experts to help you manage your farm through these challenging times. We're going to have a complete preview of the summit during our next podcast episode on June 3rd. But hey, don't wait until then. Head out to IowaFarmBureau.com today. Check out the slate of speakers and get registered to join us on June 28th. And that's all for this episode of The Spokesman Speaks. Be sure to join us for our next episode on June 3rd. Until next time, thanks for reading The Spokesman. Thanks for all the great stories and the inspiration and thanks for listening to The Spokesman Speaks.
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