According to Food & Water Watch board member Dr. Dennis Keeney, the first director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, “the farm you grew up on, at least for a couple of generations, was named after the family that lived there. It became a sense of place that we really miss, because now agriculture is large corporate farms that have no sense of place. It’s a way of life that is largely gone.”
Keeney would know. He grew up on The Keeney Place, a functioning farm near Des Moines, Iowa, and he’s written a book about his personal and professional journey of understanding the true meaning of agricultural change. I had the opportunity to speak recently with Professor Keeney about his book, The Keeney Place: A Life In the Heartland, our industrialized agricultural system and the importance of preserving sustainable, small-scale approaches to farming.
According to Dr. Keeney, the book came about after he retired and reflected on where he came from, realizing that his children and grandchildren would have no idea how he grew up. Despite earning some of the highest honors bestowed to his profession as an agronomist, Keeney grew disillusioned with industrial agriculture, but his leadership at the Leopold Center helped him regain some hope that sustainable agriculture will ultimately replace today’s factory farms.
The Leopold Center is unique. While many university-based agriculture programs employ an agenda controlled by corporate interests, the Leopold Center was created to identify and reduce the negative environmental and social impacts of farming to develop new ways to farm profitably while conserving natural resources. It was founded by the state legislature and is funded by a small tax on fertilizer.
According to Keeney, it “addresses the big picture,” and has never been replicated due to interference from Big Ag. Most of the Center’s support comes from the small-scale farming community and concerned citizens. The center wasn’t originally set up to address food systems, but it slowly got into that, mainly trying to increase the amount of locally sourced foods available to consumers, encouraging the proliferation of farmer’s markets.
It should therefore come as no surprise that the driving philosophies behind the Leopold Center are mirrored in The Keeney Place, since the Leopold Center is all about giving small farmers a chance. But what our food system needs, in Keeney’s opinion, is localizing—establishing local markets for sustainably produced food. He’d also like to see us eating less meat and growing a more diverse array of foods.
And what can consumers do to improve the food system? According to Keeney, they can look at where their tax dollars go, examine who is funding federal and state research systems, and read up on trade deals like the Trans Atlantic Trade Partnership and the Trans Pacific Partnership, which will further undermine local food systems.
In light of corporate interference in agricultural research and these pending trade agreements, the future of food may look grim to some. But ultimately, the main take away of The Keeney Place is that “sustainable agriculture offers hope…The important thing is that the industrial [agricultural] model will fail, not catastrophically, but slowly, one piece at a time. Sustainable agriculture will be there to help put it all together again,” said Keeney.