Leopold Center Selects Farmer Researcher Paul Mugge for Spencer Award

Paul Mugge in field speaking to field day group
Paul Mugge (in white) discussing a hairy vetch breeding project with Lisa Kissing Kucek of the USDA-ARS Dairy Forage Research Center and others at a field day on his northwest Iowa farm. Photo courtesy of Practical Farmers of Iowa.   

AMES, IA – Sutherland farmer Paul Mugge has been selected as the 2019 winner of the Spencer Award, presented by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.

A 1974 Iowa State graduate in engineering, Mugge left a fledgling career with Boeing in Seattle, to return to Iowa and take over his family’s 300-acre farm when his father retired. He now raises organic corn, soybeans, small grains and alfalfa.

The Spencer Award is one of the most prestigious awards of its kind. Administered by the Leopold Center, it recognizes farmers, researchers and teachers who have contributed significantly to the environmental and economic stability of the Iowa farming community. The award presentation is tentatively planned for the 2020 Iowa Water Conference, April 8-9, in Ames.

“We are pleased to honor Paul as a farmer and an exemplary on-farm researcher,” said Leopold Center Director Mark Rasmussen. “He has done so much to study and demonstrate the efficacy of environmentally sound farming practices, and he has provided important leadership, including serving on the Leopold Center board from 1996 to 2009. He is an inspiring and deserving recipient.” 

Mugge said he adopted organic farming field by field, transitioning completely by 2003. Involvement with other farmers through Practical Farmers of Iowa gave him support and encouragement to begin farming organically. At the time, he said, “things looked really bad for farming,” but he managed to endure and now benefits from significant premiums for his organic crops.   

Mugge received PFI’s Master Researcher award in 2013, which recognized his participation in 65 trials to field-test practices including ridge-tilling, the late-spring soil nitrate test, small grain production, hoop-house production, weed management and prairie strips. Mugge has also hosted more than 20 field days to share information with others to help promote sustainable agriculture.  

He said he is especially excited about the prairie strips he’s planted. Over time, he thinks the strips may help control weed populations by supporting seed-eating insects and birds, but “even if we don’t see that bottom-line change, it’s beautiful. There’s just something therapeutic about going out there and walking through a prairie, even a reconstructed prairie.”  

In a letter supporting Mugge’s Spencer-award nomination, PFI Director Sally Worley said, “Paul has a long-term vision for the farm where profit and stewardship are mutually inclusive… Paul’s farm is a wonderful example of what is possible on Iowa’s landscape.”

Mugge credits Iowa State for giving him a broad-based education and encouraging an interest in international issues that has taken him on agricultural and mission trips to India, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Mexico, Russia and Uganda. Closer to home, he recently visited Montana with a group studying the impacts of climate change on grizzlies and huckleberries, which are important to the bear’s diet. Mugge said his environmental interests originated with his progressive father and have been influenced by the words of Nez Perce Chief Joseph and authors like Garrett Hardin, Aldo Leopold and David Montgomery.

Paul Mugge and his wife Karen have three children and seven grandchildren, who all live relatively close and sometimes help out on the farm. His local activities include substitute teaching and active involvement in his faith community.

The Spencer Award honors Norman and Margaretha Spencer, who farmed in Woodbury County for 40 years. Graduates of Iowa State, the Spencers maintained an active relationship with the university and several professors who encouraged them to conduct research on sustainable practices and family farming. The Spencer family established the award in 2001 through an endowment that provides a $1,000 cash prize for each winner. Learn more about the award and the Spencers at  www.leopold.iastate.edu/spencer-award.

The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture was established in 1987 through the Iowa Groundwater Protection Act. It is a research and education center at Iowa State created to support profitable farming that conserves natural resources. The center’s events, scholarships and grants support education and research at Iowa State and other Iowa universities and colleges. For more information about the Leopold Center, visit https://www.leopold.iastate.edu/.


Mugge family portrait in winter scene
Paul and Karen Mugge pose with their three children and their spouses, and grandchildren, in a recent family portrait.