Creativity served retired research farm manager

VanDePol concludes nearly 40 years of work “harvesting information”

Thousands of visitors from all over the world have toured Iowa State University Agricultural Engineering/Agronomy Research and Demonstration Farm while Richard VanDePol co-managed it. They have ranged from second graders to heads of state.

“I make it a point to tell them all that they are visiting the number one ag engineering and agronomy research farm in the world,” VanDePol said. “Actually, I have no data to support that; on the other hand nobody has come up with any data to say we aren’t.”

An Iowa State alum, with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural mechanization earned in 1976, VanDePol retired Aug. 3 after working for the university’s research farms for 39 years.

When he started working at the farm near Boone in 1984, and became manager in 1988, it was run by the departments of agricultural and biosystems engineering and agronomy.

“We had two staffs, two fleets of equipment and two budgets, even though we physically existed on the same farm,” he said.

The separate units were merged in 2003 with the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Research and Demonstration Farms taking over administration. VanDePol was given responsibility for the farm’s agricultural engineering portion, which included working with machinery, and soil and water projects.

VanDePol said the merger was the most significant of the many changes he has seen at the farm.

It has nearly doubled in size to about 1,400 acres — through donations and acquisitions — although about a third of those are taken up with grass “streets” so research staff can access the plots, which number into the thousands.

“It is the largest research farm in the system — staff-wise, project-wise and the number of plots,” said Mark Honeyman, coordinator  of the research and demonstration farms. “There are farms that have more acres, but none have more activity.”

A lot of the activity is in the equipment area, Honeyman said. VanDePol was in charge of training the employees, undergraduate students, graduate students, staff and faculty — as many as 500 people — to make sure they are safely operating the shop tools and farm equipment.

“Richard’s also very creative. He has to do a lot of fabrication and do things that haven’t been done before. They’re taking existing equipment and modifying or retrofitting it to do unique research operations,” he said.

Farm equipment has gotten larger, faster and more complicated, VanDePol said. Instead of recording research results with pencil and paper, data are collected by computers in the planters, sprayers, combines and other machinery. He foresees a time when the data will be sent immediately to the researchers.

“We harvest information. Richard grasped that in spades. He probably had as much vision about how this place looks today as anyone that I know of,” said Mark Hanna, an extension agricultural engineer.

An expansion of the farm’s shops, which were under VanDePol’s supervision, was completed in 2006 to accommodate larger equipment. VanDePol credits that and Iowa State’s accomplished ag engineers for the many collaborations with farm equipment manufacturers, such as Deere & Co., AGCO Corp. and Case IH.

Agricultural and biosystems engineering faculty members who spoke at VanDePol’s retirement reception pointed to his adaptability and foresight. When presented with a difficult project, they say he did his best to make it work.

“He’s very good working with researchers, saying, “I get what you want to do. Have you thought about this, or how about doing it this way,” Hanna added.