Communicating a New Vision for Iowa Agriculture

By Lynn Laws

Lisa Schulte Moore, an associate professor and ecologist in the Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management, is seeking to articulate a vision of what Iowa agriculture could look like in 50 years. Her participation in a national fellowship will help equip her to take part in bringing it to fruition. 
This summer Schulte Moore embarks on a fellowship with the Leopold Leadership Program at Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment, focused on helping her skillfully communicate her research and a vision for Iowa’s agricultural future.
Schulte Moore was one of 20 scientists from 17 institutions chosen for the fellowship. The program is named after Aldo Leopold, a native Iowan, recognized internationally for his leadership in the science, practice and communication of natural resource conservation.
As stated at its website, the Woods Institute Leopold Leadership Fellowship Program “provides outstanding academic researchers throughout North American with the skills, approaches and theoretical frameworks for transferring their knowledge into action and for catalyzing change to address the world’s most pressing sustainability challenges.”
In addition to teaching, Schulte Moore has leadership roles in two large research projects at Iowa State: the STRIPS (Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairies) and the Landscape Biomass Project. On the Landscape Biomass Project, she co-leads an interdisciplinary team from five Iowa State departments and three institutions conducting research on five cropping systems, which could supply cellulosic biomass feedstock for the next generation of renewable energy production.
She is co-principal investigator on the STRIPS Project, measuring the environmental benefits and economic viability of establishing strips of prairie within row-crops. With STRIPS, Schulte Moore has taken a primary role in communicating project results. She has initiated webcasts, developed a website and presented to external audiences.
Vision shaped by many sources
The vision, which Schulte Moore hopes to communicate through her experience as a Leopold fellow, not only comes from her research, it also is shaped by discussions with graduate students and colleagues, data from other interdisciplinary research projects, in-depth interviews and surveys with farmers and rural landowners, and surveys and focus groups with state-level leaders in agricultural and environmental policy.
Ask Schulte Moore to list what elements may be included in a different kind of future for agriculture and she would include: more biodiversity; high-quality freshwater supplies; addressing impacts of climate change; annual crops of corn, soybeans and other grains; perennial crops grown for food and feed, biomass energy and an enhanced environment for wildlife. All these elements would be about improving lives.
When presenting to external audiences, Schulte Moore has highlighted both Iowa ecology and agriculture.
“Agriculture is part of our culture in Iowa. It’s a very important economic engine for the state. But from an ecologist’s perspective, it’s a very leaky system, highly dependent on external inputs and linked historically to massive declines in biodiversity and land-use changes that exacerbate flooding and problems with drinking water,” Schulte Moore said.
She said getting an introduction to agriculture can be “shocking for people who don’t spend time in the Midwest. They don’t quite understand the complexity of it, that they are part of that agricultural system, and that, while they may rarely think about it, it affects them daily.”
Schulte Moore wants audiences to know, regardless of their occupation or where they live in the United States, to understand that they are a part of the complex agricultural system and, as poet-farmer Wendell Berry stated, “Eating is an agricultural act.”
As she thinks about Iowa’s recent discussions on a statewide strategy for reducing nitrate and phosphorus and sediment in waterways, she says the key lies in “improving the agricultural system to work better for people, which, in turn, will work better for the environment.”
She says that may mean working alongside agribusinesses, farmers, crop consultants and others, and providing unbiased, scientific-based information to elected leaders and policymakers who may not know much about agriculture, but are responsible for policies that greatly affect the agricultural system.
Family, education and research prepared Schulte Moore
Working with consultants in the Leopold Leadership Program will help her develop a communication strategy. The combination of her family upbringing, formal education, research and work in interdisciplinary academic teams has prepared Schulte Moore well for this part of her journey.
“There haven’t been many ecologists working with agronomists, agricultural economists, and agricultural and supply chain engineers. That’s what I do. I work in large, interdisciplinary teams,” said Schulte Moore. “I’m an ecologist. I study the movement of materials and organisms through landscapes and ecosystems. But I’m also someone who has learned to speak the language of agronomy, soil science, economics, engineering and policy, and work at a level that helps form a cogent picture of what is and what could be.”
Richard Schultz, university professor in natural resource ecology and management at ISU, agrees.
“Lisa is one of the most outstanding young scientists and teachers that I have met in my career. She’ll be a major player in the Leopold Leadership Program, likely bringing more to it and those she interacts with than she takes away. She has established scientific credibility and a broad network. She’ll translate what she learns into tangible, on-the-ground impacts,” said Schultz.
Schulte Moore also brings a family background that includes “hard working people whose hearts are in the right place.”
“I want my work to be meaningful to the people where I came from. I want to be able to go back to talk to my aunts, uncles and cousins at Christmas time and have them see what I’m doing is valuable to their lives,” added Schulte Moore. 
When Schulte Moore talks about “going back,” she is referring to Eau Claire, Wis. — dairy farm country — where she still remembers visiting the farms her grandparents’ grew up on, letting the calves suck her thumb and seeing jars of her great grandmother’s homemade pickles sitting on the kitchen counter. Schulte Moore says that in Eau Claire “there is a vibrant community dialog going on regarding soils, crops and livestock and agricultural policy, and how that affects the kind of decisions that land owners, farmers and investors are going to make when it comes to decisions on the land.”
Schulte Moore’s great uncle lost the small family farm during the 1980’s farm crisis. But in the early 2000s, when Schulte Moore’s parents were taking a leisurely drive in the countryside, they discovered that the family’s original farm — the land and barn — were for sale. After buying it back and restoring a barn, they deeded the acres to Schulte Moore and her sister. She and her sister, who lives in a house on the property, have a “hobby farm operation,” raising vegetables and berries, chickens, a small orchard and some cattle. Her nephew is very interested in becoming a farmer.
“Part of it for me now, though I never anticipated this when I moved to Iowa, is just creating opportunities for my nephew and other young people like him to have a future in farming,” she said.