Spring Updates

The Agricultural Law Center spent the spring discussing recent legislative actions in Iowa and beyond, engaging in conversation about water quality and watershed citizenship, and transitioning into an exciting new leadership team!

Professor Neil Hamilton, soon Emeritus Professor Hamilton, will retire from being Director of the Agricultural Law Center at the end of June. Hamilton will continue to contribute to the Center in work related to soil and water. 

Prior to his retirement, Hamilton gave a keynote presentation at the 2019 Iowa Water conference on the theme “Watershed Citizenship.”On May 6th, he moderated a citizen panel on the challenges in addressing climate change with presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke in Des Moines. Later in May, he presented to the Iowa chapter of the Sierra Club and the Des Moines chapter of the Isaak Walton League covering “Ten Important Developments for Iowa’s Water and Land.”

Later this summer, Hamilton will be on a panel discussing “Key developments in American Soil and Water Conservation Policy” at the annual national conference of the Isaak Walton League taking place in Des Moines. In November, Hamilton will lead a panel on “State Responses to Water Quality” at the American Agricultural Law Association (AALA) meeting in Washington, D.C.

Associate Director Jennifer Zwagerman will officially transition to Director Zwagerman on July 1. Zwagerman has been with the Center and collaborating with Hamilton since 2011. Find her profile in the June issue of the Business Record!

Zwagerman had a full spring, starting with appearances on Iowa Public Radio’s River to River to talk about ag gag litigation and recent court rulings, particularly those in Iowa. In March, she attended the Young Professionals in Agriculture Breakfast as a mentor and provided the Ag Law Update to Webster County Spring CLE. Zwagerman planned and executed the Festschrift Symposium honoring Hamilton for his lifetime scholarship and work. In April, she participated and instructed two courses at the 4th Food Law Student Leadership Summit at Georgetown Law School in Washington, D.C. Additionally, she assisted the Center in co-sponsoring a Gene Editing & Agriculture Symposium with the Drake Intellectual Property Law Center. In May, Zwagerman moderated a panel of political reporters at Science on the Stump at Drake University. She also returned to Iowa Public Radio to discuss Ag Gag 2.0 in the Iowa legislature and to talk about recent glyphosate litigation in California and beyond.   

The Center looks forward to Zwagerman’s new leadership and initiatives, and appreciates Hamilton’s work as Director of the Center for the past 30+ years! 

Watershed Citizenship

Professor Neil D. Hamilton presented “Watershed Citizenship” at the 19th Annual Water Conference at Iowa State University on March 12, 2019.

Citizenship is premised on being part of something – there is an implicit aspect of mutuality and reciprocity.

Watersheds are an excellent vehicle to apply the ideals of citizenship and this is especially true for HUC 12 watersheds because they share these eight traits:

  • the proximity—we live in them
  • the scale—they average 22,000 acres
  • our awareness and knowledge—they are our neighborhoods
  • the visibility—we can see them
  • the objective measurability—we can measure them
  • our identifiable impact—we can change how they perform
  • the personal relations—we know the people who live there, and 
  • the human dimension—they are influenced by our actions. 

Watershed Citizenship broadens the focus from the individual to a community. Watershed Citizenship helps us consider the moral hazard of seeing Water Quality as a “downstream” issue – someone else’s worry. In a watershed, we are upstream from some and downstream from others. This reflects the reciprocity of citizenship and how it is premised on the Golden Rule – the idea we should treat others how we want to be treated.  

As I look at the future of our water quality efforts I am left with many questions.  If we are good watershed citizens, why aren’t we doing more to protect and improve our water? Why are we happy with the meagre funding, with the relative few demonstration projects, and with only a fraction of our fellow citizens being engaged? 

We have staked our future on the NRS – an interesting scientific document but one deeply flawed from a policy perspective. Nothing about the NRS is bold or imaginative – in fact, we only developed it because the EPA forced us to. 

How different might an Iowa water quality strategy look if we developed an NRS 2.0 – one based on the context of our laws, on our legacy of conservation leadership – and on the ideals of Watershed Citizenship?

  • Why can’t we ask and expect each farmer and landowner to have a water quality plan?
  • Why can’t we have more HUC 12 watershed projects underway?  I reviewed the water quality projects and demonstrations for this talk – and can identify at most 34 county Soil and Water Conservation Districts involved in a HUC 12 project.  Why can’t we expect each SWCD to have at least one HUC 12 project underway?
  • Why don’t the agriculture and conservation groups urge the legislature to fund the Natural Resources Trust Fund so we have adequate funds to actually make progress?
  • Why can’t we empower the drainage districts and engage them to use their reach and authority to improve water quality?

I suggest the following lessons I learned from the restoration of Lake Darling—we need a sense of urgency, a vision, and priorities. We need ways to measure progress, community support, and adequate funding. We need cooperation from farmers and landowners working at the local watershed level. We need to engage the structures and institutions we have in place – the Soil and Water Conservation districts, drainage districts and watershed authorities. We need leadership—people willing to invest their time and reputations – and willing to confront the dogma we may need to overcome.

When we do so, we will have used the ideals of citizenship and the organizational potential of watersheds to unleash the power of Watershed Citizenship.


To read the full script of Neil Hamilton’s Watershed Citizenship presentation, go to http://aglawcenter.wp.drake.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/99/2019/03/Watershed-Citizenship.pdf

Fall Updates

The Agricultural Law Center team has spent the fall engaging in political debate and educating the public about sustainability and conservation.

A Summary 

On October 3rd, Director Neil Hamilton moderated a debate with several candidates for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture at Iowa State University.  The debate was sponsored by the Association of Graduate Students in Sustainable Agriculture at ISU.

On October 10th, Hamilton returned to the ISU campus to deliver a lecture on “Our Water Our Land: Iowa’s Legacy of Leadership – Where are We Today?” as part of the ISU Osher Lifelong Learning Institute lecture series.

On October 27th, Hamilton and Assistant Director and American Ag Law Association President Jennifer Zwagerman attended the AALA annual meeting in Portland on “Sustainability in Agriculture – Legal and Policy Considerations for Economic and Community Development.” Hamilton presented a paper on “Eight Steps to Understanding the Evolution of Sustainable Agriculture in the U.S.” The meeting was organized by Drake Ag Law alumna and AALA President-elect Amber Brady Miller. Mike Traxinger, also a Drake Ag Law alumnus, was announced as the next president.

On November 1st, the Center posted the 26th episode of Hamilton’s educational series Our Water Our Land.  This episode featured the legacy of Congressman John Lacey from Oskaloosa. Season One of the OWOL series will run through the end of November.

Looking Forward

The next episode of Our Water Our Land will feature Hamilton’s report on election results.


Lessons from SOIL 2018

You can’t predict exactly what will happen when you bring together 150 dedicated Iowans and ask a dozen farmers, scientists, conservationists, and community leaders to share their visions for Iowa’s water and land – but you can be sure it will be interesting.  That was very true at SOIL 2018.

To begin – speakers and attendees agreed on several key points.

First, Iowa is seriously underfunding any real efforts at protecting water quality and soil.  There was strong support for raising the sales tax to provide permanent funding for the natural resource protection efforts Iowa needs.

Second, we have the farming practices needed to help improve soil health and protect water quality – the two most valuable are widespread adoption of cover crops and using wetlands and riparian buffer strips to filter water and build soil.

Third, there is a growing recognition we need to focus on soil health, especially improving water infiltration capacity so the soil can withstand the frequent large rains we are experiencing.

Fourth, changing our attitude to the soil means ridding ourselves of the notion there is a tolerable level of soil loss.

Fifth, we need opportunities for people to get outdoors, to be on our rivers in we want them to understand how land and water are part of our eco-system and to recognize how a healthy environment is one of our most effective tools for economic development.

Here are some specific ideas shared by speakers:

Dr. Jerry Hatfield of the USDA explained our need to promote biologic activity in the soil.  Soil degradation is limiting the ability of soil to absorb water, which is why we have terrible surface runoff from large rains.

Liz Garst, a farmer and banker from Coon Rapids, said we need to develop realistic views on soil regeneration and get rid of the idea of tolerable soil loss.  She reminded us we are trying to do what no civilization been able to – solve soil erosion. Doing so will require us to overcome what her grandfather called “the despotism of custom.”

Seth Watkins, a cattleman from Southwest Iowa, focused on rural economies and community life; for example, expanding opportunities for tourism from hunting.  Seth said, “We have never filled our hotels for corn season.”  Grazing the way Seth does allows him to employ a variety of conservation and soil health building practices.

Jennifer Terry, the Iowa farm girl heading the Iowa Environmental Council, said our lakes are sick and we need to restore them to health.  She invited us to learn what neighboring states are doing.  Her most powerful suggestion was out need for more diversity of voices and involving women leaders in our efforts.

Larry Weber from the University of Iowa reminded us how critical it is to take a watershed approach. He highlighted the growing number of Presidential disaster declarations from flooding in Iowa and the frequency of 10 inch rains.  He left us with sobering data how trend lines show Iowa’s nutrient export has increased in recent years.

Matt Russell from Interfaith Power and Light brought a hopeful message for how farmers can lead our nation’s response to climate change.  Doing so may unlock significant economic opportunities and pay for the healthy soil and water quality central to addressing climate change.

Jim Pease, a wildlife biologist, explained Iowa does have a vision plan for wildlife.  It is based largely on having more permanently protected public land with larger blocks and contiguous corridors of riparian buffers to continue the wildlife restoration work underway.

Hannah Inman of the Greater Outdoor Fund detailed the Central Iowa water trails plan and how business community supports outdoor amenities to aid in job creation, recruitment and retention.

The great news coming from SOIL 2018 is that Iowans have a vision for our resource future and are looking for ways to bring their hopes alive.  We will keep exploring their stories.

ALC Quarterly Update

The Agricultural Law Center team has been busy in the second quarter of 2018.  We’ve launched multi-episode video project Our Water Our Land, hired Anna Jordan to act as Policy and Outreach Coordinator, travelled to Cuba, prepared to host the 2018 SOIL Conference, and much more!


Director Neil Hamilton launched the weekly educational video series Our Water Our Land, which is now up to 19 episodes. The series is featured on Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter.


Hamilton and Assistant Director Jennifer Zwagerman spent five days in Cuba participating in the International Congress on Agrarian Law.  The conference was attended by over 90 lawyers from at least 15 nations. Hamilton was honored by the Cubans for his work in agricultural law and received an award from the Cuban Agrarian Law Society. Hamilton presented on the topic of “Feeding Our Future: Reflections on Forty Years of Agricultural Law in a Changing Agriculture,” which was then translated and published by journals in Cuba and Argentina.


Hamilton and Policy and Outreach Coordinator Anna Jordan continued drafting on new installments for the “Landowners Legal Guide” video series being funded with a grant from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.


Hamilton spent several days at the University of Arkansas Law School in Fayetteville teaching the introductory class on food and agricultural law to the new LLM students.

Looking Forward

On September 19, the Center will sponsor SOIL 2018: Turning Our Vision for Iowa’s Water and Land in to Action, at the Olmsted Center.  The conference is the third in the series of SOIL – Sustaining Our Iowa Land conferences organized by the Center. To register, click here.

In October, Hamilton will visit Harvard Law School to take part in the First Annual Conference on Food Law and Policy, organized by the Academy of Food Law and Policy, for which he is a founding board member.  Later in October he and Assistant Director Jennifer Zwagerman, AALA President, will attend the American Agricultural Law Association conference in Portland, Oregon. Hamilton will participate on a panel on the topic of Sustainability in Agriculture: Legal & Policy Considerations for Economic and Community Development.

An Introduction from the Center’s Newest Staff Member–Anna Jordan

Greetings! I hope this post finds you enjoying a beautiful summer day. I am writing to introduce myself as the newest member of the Drake Agricultural Law Center staff. My name is Anna Jordan and I am excited to be working as the Center’s Policy & Outreach Coordinator! While my position with the Center is new, I am well acquainted with Drake Law School and the Agricultural Law Center—I recently graduated from Drake Law in December 2017, with certificates in Food & Agricultural Law, Public Service, and Environmental & Sustainability Law.

Raised on a farm near Centerville, Iowa, I have long had a love and appreciation for the land and the people it sustains. I took this passion to Iowa State University where I studied Agricultural Business and Economics. My personal and educational background in agriculture spurred an aspiration to gain a deeper understanding of the intricate agricultural and food systems of our world. I began to consider graduate and professional programs that would help achieve this ambition. I became impressed with the malleability of a legal education, and chose to attend Drake Law School based on the outstanding reputation of Agricultural Law Center and curriculum.

The education and experiences I gained while in law school exceeded my expectations. I learned legal fundamentals and had the opportunity to take classes such as agricultural law, environmental law, food law, and land tenure law. Working as an editorial staff member on the Drake Journal of Agricultural Law, I was challenged to develop my research and writing skills while writing a student note, which I am honored to have published in the Journal. Drake also provided an array of experiences outside of the classroom. I completed internships with the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, Iowa Legislature, and the Drake Agricultural Law Center. By hosting the Student Food Law Leadership Summit and supporting student attendance at the annual American Agricultural Law Association conferences, the Agricultural Law Center connected me with hundreds of food law students and agricultural law professionals from across the country.

The legal education, internships, and networking experiences from Drake give me confidence as I begin my professional career. I successfully passed the Iowa Bar Exam and was sworn in as an attorney in May. I and am eager to continue my journey with Drake and work with Professor Hamilton on producing and distributing important agricultural law resources!

All the best,


ALC to Issue Guide for Farmers and Landowners on Navigating Public Programs to Improve Water Quality

The Drake University Agricultural Law Center will release a new report “How to Improve Water Quality on Iowa Farms: A Step-by-Step Guide for Navigating Conservation Programs for Farmers and Landowners” next week. The 65-page report will be available for download from the Center’s web site at http://aglawcenter.wp.drake.edu/research/.

“Our goal is to make it easier for Iowa farmers and landowners to understand the public cost-sharing programs available to protect our soil and water,” said Professor Neil Hamilton, director of the Center. The Guide was developed under a 2017 grant from the Leopold Center at Iowa State University, which is now coordinated by the Iowa Nutrient Center.

Matt Russell, who helped create the Guide in his role as the Resilient Agriculture Coordinator with Drake, noted, “Iowa has a wide range of programs to assist those interested in putting conservation on the land, but being able to understand who administers the programs and the process for applying can be confusing.”

The Guide examines the programs in two ways: first, the discussion describes various conservation and water quality practices available—such as cover crops or installing grass waterway—and lists which federal or state agencies have financial assistance programs that can help support each practice. Secondly, the report takes a detailed look at federal and state conservation and water quality programs to explain how they actually work for interested farmers and landowners.

Popular federal efforts such as the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) are explained in detail. Similarly, various state cost sharing programs such as the Water Quality Initiative, Financial Incentive Program for Soil Erosion Control, and the Iowa conservation practices revolving fund are explained, including how they are administered. The Guide uniquely features a set of common questions for each program, including who is eligible, how one applies, what documents are required, how selections are made, how practices are implemented, how payments happen, and how programs are enforced.

“If we expect farmers and landowners to use public programs to protect soil and water, we feel it is important to take the mystery out of how to actually apply to use them,” Hamilton said.

The Guide explains how many programs are delivered through the county Soil and Water Conservation Districts. It gives suggestions for working with the districts, especially the value of developing a personal relationship with the conservation professionals so an effective plan can be developed for a farm.

The final section of the Guide covers Private Conservation Initiatives. These are typically programs where a private business involved with food or agriculture works with farmers to implement a soil or water conservation project. The Guide is one of the first efforts to evaluate and discuss the potential these programs may have for providing additional support for soil and water conservation.  A case study of how one Iowa farm is using both public and private programs to improve soil health and water quality is used to demonstrate this potential.

For more information and to find other resources for farmers and landowners, visit http://aglawcenter.wp.drake.edu/research/

Farewell from Matt Russell

For the past six weeks, Pat and I have been trying to burn some pasture at our Coyote Run Farm. Finally, on Easter Sunday, we were able to get the job done.  The Easter holiday seemed like a terrible day to try to do this big job, but with good weather and family and friends coming together, burning off the dead prairie of last year and celebrating the new life that will poke out of the blackened earth turned out to be perfectly timed.

Just like burning the pasture brought an end and a new beginning, tomorrow marks the end of 12 years of working at the Drake University Agricultural Law Center and a new beginning as the Executive Director of Iowa Interfaith Power & Light. Iowa Interfaith Power & Light is a statewide organization mobilizing the religious community to become leaders in the movement for climate action. My new position combines my life’s work in faith, sustainability, public policy and agriculture with my passion for the value non-profits bring to individuals, communities and the greater good. My work and colleagues at Drake have prepared me well to lead efforts to find hopeful, empowering, unexpected solutions to the great challenges of climate change.

As I reflect on these years of serving farmers and landowners, I’m honored to have helped key agriculture stakeholders make profitable and sustainable decisions regarding our nation’s land and agricultural production alongside our director Neil Hamilton.

The list of interesting projects I got to work on is long and diverse.  Some of my favorites include exploring rural community ownership of grocery stores, coordinating Central Iowa’s Buy Fresh Buy Local campaign, developing a tool to help farmers craft fair manure management agreements, identifying opportunities for the state of Iowa to purchase more food from Iowa farmers, promoting food policy councils, educating landowners and farmers about crafting leases to put more conservation on farms and increasing agricultural opportunities for under-severed farmers.

I am proud that I was able to help Neil host more than a dozen statewide and national conferences.  We filmed and produced scores of videos. I was able to travel to Cuba—twice.  Whenever an opportunity came to go speak about agriculture, rural communities, or conservation, Neil’s response was always yes, and he always found the resources to make it possible for me to go.

After speaking at different events and writing many articles, including an article on agriculture and climate change for the Drake Journal of Agricultural Law, I am prepared for my last day tomorrow and my new career at Iowa Interfaith Power & Light.

I am fired up for the work ahead, because I believe we can solve climate change. Iowans can lead the world in finding the solutions, and Iowa farmers can innovate on our farms to sequester carbon and reduce emissions.

Looking back, I have so many fond memories of the exciting work and inspiring people at Drake.  Looking forward, I can see Drake Agricultural Law Center has prepared me well for this new leadership position.

ALC Quarterly Update

The Agricultural Law Center team has been busy in the first quarter of 2018.  We’ve traveled north of the Arctic Circle, spoken at numerous conferences, appeared in stories in multiple media outlets, screened a new documentary film and even hosted a former U.S. ambassador.


Associate Director Jennifer Zwagerman is quoted in an Event Driven article, BG/ADM: Soybean Crushing and Grain Handling Markets Raise Antitrust Questions on January 24.  She also spoke to Farm World about food safety and regulatory oversite.

In January, Resilient Agriculture Coordinator Matt Russell gave an interview to Harvest Public Media about the need for farmers to partner with others to ensure conservation, disaster assistance, and nutrition assistance are supported in the 2018 farm bill.


Director Neil Hamilton was a guest on Iowa Public Radio’s River to River on February 20.  The hour-long program explored the history of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and implications of implementing America’s Harvest Box.  He argued the proposed change to SNAP looks like a solution in search of a problem.

The Center collaborated with the Drake University College of Arts and Sciences on their 2018 Engaged Citizen Experience Conference, Nourishing the World, on Feb. 22-23.  Neil facilitated a panel discussion following the screening of the new film “Farmers for America.”

At the Engaged Citizen Conference, Matt invited Jennifer Terry, executive director of the Iowa Environmental Council, to help lead the breakout session “Iowa Agriculture Reality Check—Environmental Sustainability.”  Drake University alumna and former Ambassador Darci Vetter gave the keynote address.  She is a strategic consultant on International Trade and Agriculture, diplomat in residence at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln and the former chief agricultural negotiator for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.


Neil traveled near the North Pole to pay homage to thousands of years of agricultural development and a million seeds stored at the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway, on March 2.

“Being inside the Vault makes real the stories I have read,” Neil said. “It also brings a new appreciation and understanding of the work of many people – the plant collectors, the seed breeders, the farmers, and the gene bank officials who have collected, improved and saved these seeds.  One does not need to be a person of faith to feel a visit to the Vault is moving in a spiritual way.”

Matt spoke at the 9th Annual Feed Greater Des Moines conference about local food policy and advocacy on March 3.  He also spoke about working-land conservation programs, CSP and EQIP at the National Farmers Union convention in Kansas City on March 5.

Looking Forward

Our project, Guide on How to Improve Water Quality on Iowa Farms, will be published in the next month.

Stay up to date on all of our actions by liking us on Facebook!

A Visit to the Global Seed Vault: Part II

Once we reach the entrance to the Vault, we are met by the representative from NordGen, the gene bank of the five Nordic countries who operate the Vault and approved our visit.  Once the outer door closes, we are briefed in the vestibule.  Then, we enter through a second door leading to the 100-meter-long tunnel descending into the mountain. Through the tunnel, a third door brings us into the anteroom in front of the three 30′ by 90′ chambers carved out of rock.  Only the middle room is now in use, but its shelves are 85% full of deposits, so soon another room will be active.  In this room, we can see the actual frost and ice covered door leading into the Vault.  Once this door is secured behind us, the final door is opened and we enter the actual vault.  It is here that the nearly one million deposits are stored, boxed as originally received and prepared to NordGen’s exacting standards. Each box is labeled with the name of the owner, barcodes and other identifying information to keep track of the deposits.

It is only now as we stand in this small frigid space no larger than a classroom, does the magnitude of what it holds strike you.  Collected in this room are seeds gathered from around the world – and over the time of our existence – representing the food crops upon which our lives are formed. It is not the gold bullion of Ft. Knox or the priceless art works secreted away in a Swiss bank – instead, it is the simple seeds we plant.  They reflect the cumulative results of nature, evolution, and humans’ efforts to identify and improve our food crops.

Being in the presence of the seeds makes one think about not just the human history they contain, but the fragile nature of our very existence.  Walking the aisles you read the labels of the seed banks from every corner of the world.  We can’t see inside the boxes – even NordGen officials cannot open them.  But we know they are filled with envelopes, each holding 250-500 seeds of a distinct crop variety selected by a seed bank for safe keeping.  Over 150,000 varieties of rice and 160,000 of wheat join the thousands more representing over 150 food crops important to people somewhere.

Being inside the Vault makes real the stories I have read.  It also brings a new appreciation and understanding of the work of many people – the plant collectors, the seed breeders, the farmers, and the gene bank officials who have collected, improved, and saved these seeds.  One does not need to be a person of faith to feel a visit to the Vault is moving in a spiritual way.

Next week, the story of our visit will conclude with thoughts on what the Seed Vault may mean for the future of agriculture and humanity.