Small farmers served by a university center that "keeps its feet in the dirt" worry that the resource is becoming endangered.
"We felt the center had great value the way it was," says Dale Secher, who runs Carandale Farm near Oregon, of the UW-Madison's Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems. "It was doing work in an area typically not worked on, and especially when you talk about the future of sustainability, this is very, very important. The center needs to survive in some place and some fashion."
Amid the anxiety of looming state budget cuts, changes are afoot at the center and its parent, the Wisconsin Institute on Sustainable Agriculture.
Brent McCown, who helped create the institute in 2007 and ran the center for the past six years, was asked to step down last week as center director. A panel of faculty from the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences will soon begin to meet formally on how to advance the school's work on sustainability.
Molly Jahn, the college's dean, says the changes underscore her commitment to a bigger vision for sustainability and organics: "This is a community I care about very much, locally as well as nationally."
Previously, while at Cornell University, Jahn landed what was at the time the largest competitive grant given by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's organic agriculture programs. She says this shows her commitment to organic and sustainable food, and all the groups [the center] serves.
But Deirdre Birmingham, a Hollandale apple grower and current chair of the center's advisory council, says McCown's reassignment back to horticulture will burden the center and "raises more questions than it answers."
Birmingham says "more than just [center] staff or the council is concerned about the future...and the needs of sustainable and organic farmers in the state.A broad set of stakeholders...are concerned. They do not know what [Jahn] has in mind."
McCown, for his part, says the center "has been extremely effective at servicing family farms, and there are a number of questions about whether those family farms can be served." He agrees family farmers are "under huge budgetary stresses, and so this is probably a good time to look at redirection and reorganization for efficiency." But he adds, "The question is, do you want to put a unit like [the center) under that kind of stress while you're doing these kinds of things?"
The Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, established under the agriculture school in 1989, has launched programs that have gained wide attention. They include the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy Farmers, to spread pasture-based livestock production; and the School for Beginning Market Growers, which teaches sustainable practices in growing organic vegetables.
In 2007, the center started the Wisconsin Eat Local Challenge, a program focused on getting more local food on tables.
"I'm doing my orchard work organically, and the center initiated an Eco-Apple project," says Birmingham of help the center has given her start-up Regan Creek Orchard. "They're also supportive of a network of organic growers I run in the Midwest."
Birmingham says the center works proactively to serve emerging markets. With organic and sustainable food now showing 20% market growth, she says it's not even a niche anymore.
For Secher, a member of the center's advisory council, the center has provided outreach support for a multi-year project on his farm to introduce new berries into the food system.
It's important, Jahn says, to celebrate the center's achievements over 20 years, recognizing that many things the center has fought so hard for have been wildly successful and are now being widely embraced.
But Jahn believes much more can be done to capture money that funds multi-discipline research in the area of sustainability. She says it was important to get word out about the sustainability institute, something that didn't happen to the extent it could have under McCown.
She says that with the new Washington administration come unprecedented opportunities at the federal level: "We're looking for those opportunities where everyone agrees that we can move forward in ways that are important."
There is much exciting work ahead for the center, says Jahn, pointing out the $125 million, five-year grant the U.S. Department of Energy awarded the university in 2007 to create the DOE Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center.
This emerging center will enable scientists and engineers to conduct basic research on a host of new technologies. These include converting cornstalks, wood chips and perennial native grasses into sources of energy for everything from cars to electrical power plants. Jahn says the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems could be in line for similar funding infusions.
But small and mid-scale farmers wonder where they'll fit into the mix.
"The future is in the hands of the dean because they have the purse strings, so to speak, and [Jahn] has a somewhat different vision of what the center should be doing," says Secher. "[The center] is kind of an orphan in many regards in how the university is set up, but it provides a link between the practitioners and researchers. They have boots on the ground, which we really, really need."