The Cream of the Crop Retires

By Summer Bontrager, CALS Communications Service

In 1982, Vince Lawson started at the Muscatine Island Research and Demonstration Farm. Little did he know then, this would be his home for the next 35 years.

Lawson, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in horticulture from Iowa State in 1975 and 1982, started at Iowa State in the horticulture department in 1979. He then transitioned to a key player at the research farm as its superintendent in 1982, retiring in January 2017.

(Lawson’s retirement reception will be held Wednesday, Feb. 15, from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. in the Memorial Union Pioneer Room, with a program at 2:45.)

Reflecting back on his career at Iowa States’ outlying research farm, Lawson shared what his future looks like and what his career looked like. 

What is your proudest accomplishment at Muscatine Island Research Farm?
I am most proud that I kept the farm operating and relevant in spite of the many challenges one encounters when operating so far from campus. The farm also has grown from 40 to 120 acres and become more diversified. When I started, the emphasis was on commercial fruit and vegetable production. Projects now include urban gardening and a significant number of corn and soybean trials irrigated with center pivots.

Any memorable moments at the research farm?
Loading a large, good quality, crop of melons onto trucks to go to market. It was a lot of work, but I always enjoyed growing melons. They provided much needed funds for farm operation. Harvesting was an everyday chore for several weeks during the summer. When you finished the day’s picking and loading, you were usually hot, sweaty and exhausted. To cool off and get rejuvenated, we would cut open some of the leftover melons on the wagons in the shade of the white pine tree row. It was always fun to split a watermelon, sample the heart (the sweetest portion) and then try another one until you found the one that was just too good to leave alone. I have some really fond memories of those days and the feelings of accomplishment they produced.

How has research, and the technologies you used to do it, changed in the span of your career?
To me, the most significant change has been the development of computers and the Internet. When I first started, and being off-campus, it was a real challenge to keep up on current research. Now, it is so much easier to exchange information and stay abreast of the latest products, developments and what other researchers are doing. Developing technology is changing most aspects of farming. We used to irrigate vegetables with movable aluminum pipe fitted with impact sprinklers. A huge amount of work and irrigation was used to keep the crop alive during drought periods. Today, high-value specialty crops are grown with drip irrigation and plastic mulch. Irrigation scheduling and fertilizer application through the drip tubes are carefully managed for better plant growth. While this “plasticulture” system requires more management and inputs, produce quality is improved and yields are often doubled or even tripled.

What was the most noteworthy thing that happened during your career?
Probably the most remarkable event started in spring 1985, when I received a request to host a small delegation of Chinese agriculture officials at the research farm. It was early spring with little to see in the fields, so I provided a short tour with an interpreter, describing the research farm system and how it helped Iowa’s farmers. I then promptly forgot about the incident. After all, we get a variety of visitors every year. That should have been end of the story, but then in 2011 I received a call from Gov. Branstad’s office that one of those 1985 visitors, Xi Jinping, was now vice president of China and was returning to Muscatine to meet his “old friends.” At this dramatic, media-covered event in Muscatine, Xi invited all of his “old friends” to visit his homeland, which resulted in about 16 of us touring China in 2012 as his special guests. It was the most phenomenal trip and experience.

How did the (community/people) affect your time at the research farm?
The Muscatine Island Research Farm is an outlying, association-owned, research and extension center. For the farm to be successful in its mission, it was imperative to work with and interact with area farmers and related businesses. These relationships were definitely beneficial to the research farm. I developed many good friendships that made my job easier and more successful. 

What are your retirement plans?
My wife and I live in a large, Italianate-style house in Muscatine built in 1860. Muscatine, Iowa has provided many good friends, a magnificent house to live in and many interesting things to do. I’m hoping retirement will provide time to complete some much needed house work and restoration. In the short term I will visit the farm periodically to help the new staff get familiar with farm equipment, operations and research procedures. In the long term I plan to stay involved through the Muscatine Island Research Farm Association.

How are you celebrating this moment?
I now get up only when I feel like getting up, have a leisurely cup of coffee and contemplate what I want to do with the day.