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Image credit: Iowa State University

Iowa State University builds innovative public private partnerships for a more sustainable future

January 9, 2023

As one of the nation’s first land grant institutions, Iowa State University has embraced the land-grant mission of access, practical education and shared knowledge for more than 150 years. It brings that mission to modern agriculture with a unique approach to public-private partnerships, where some of the leading names in modern agriculture work with world-class faculty, researchers and students to solve some of the most pressing challenges for our planet and growing global population.

One of the university’s most prominent examples of a successful collaboration is its 25-year relationship with industry leader Deere & Company, which brings its own 186-year legacy of serving farmers around the world. The multi-dimensional partnership includes ongoing research collaborations and interactions with ISU faculty members and a significant number of ISU interns and full-time employees hired by Deere each year. Deere also participates in college and department advisory councils.

“Through public-private partnerships, Iowa State University brings to bear the talents of our world-renowned faculty and their cutting-edge research and innovation to help partners, like Deere & Company, grow, improve, add value and strengthen their position in the marketplace,” said Dr. Wendy Wintersteen, President of Iowa State University.

Deere has also had a significant physical presence at the Iowa State University Research Park since 2018 when it opened a technology innovation center. It also opened a 33,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art research facility designed for testing and innovating on Deere’s new sprayer technologies there in 2019.

“Our collaborations with universities, like Iowa State University, allow us to bring together some of the brightest minds in the industry to gather diverse perspectives to deliver solutions that meet the challenges our customers are facing today, and in the future, in the most sustainable way possible,” said Cory Reed, President of John Deere’s Ag and Turf Division.

Demonstration farm for sustainability solutions

In 2022, John Deere and Iowa State University announced a new strategic partnership to establish an 80-acre demonstration site with eight different fields and processes that will allow Deere to test sustainable solutions for large grain production systems in real world scenarios.

“Farmers are working in constantly changing environments where every decision can impact their productivity and efficiency. As a result, they can’t afford to adopt experimental practices that aren’t proven to deliver the yield they anticipate,” said Jill Sanchez, Director of Sustainability at John Deere.  “This demonstration farm, in partnership with Iowa State, allows us to experience the same uncertainties and challenges as our customers, so that we can test and identify which methods are successful, and deliver proven, innovative, and sustainable solutions to farmers.”

The demonstration farm will also enable Deere and ISU to share real-world machine, field and yield learnings with Iowa State students and faculty and Deere employees, customers and dealers.

“The demonstration farm is a great example of Iowa State University’s approach to collaboration, providing opportunities for research, learning and sharing results in an impactful way,” said Matt Darr, Professor in the Agriculture and Biosystems Engineering department at Iowa State University. “By testing and proving new technologies and practices before they are delivered to farmers, we can ensure that they provide measurable benefits in productivity, efficiency, and sustainability.”

Hands-on, results-driven focus

Across the university, focus on experiential, results-driven education and research is evident in leading programs such as BioCentury Research Farm, Bioeconomy Institute, and research, demonstration and teaching farms that allow students and faculty to learn and solve problems with real-world experts and projects.

An example of the real-world work underway at Iowa State University is the Digital Ag Innovation Team led by Dr. Darr.  The 60-person team of full time professionals and Iowa State students partner with private companies to bring agricultural innovations from the lab to commercial reality.  The Digital Ag team has developed over 70 separate Intellectual Property (IP) products and more than 30 products that include the team’s IP are sold around the world, including work on reduction of sprayer drift, sensing moisture and yield of crops and more.

The ISU Research Park is also a hub for the growing entrepreneurship ecosystem at the university and across the state.  A wealth of resources for entrepreneurs, including the ISU Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship, ISU Startup Factory, America’s Small Business Development Center – Iowa, and the Ag Startup Engine are located at the park. Iowa State ranked 11th in the nation in The Princeton Review’s 2023 annual survey of undergraduate schools for entrepreneurship studies. It’s the third year ISU has maintained this spot after jumping from 26th in 2019.

Partnerships bringing sustainable solutions to the farm

“Iowa State’s mission as a land-grant university means our research and innovation doesn’t stay in the lab,” said President Wintersteen. “We deliver our knowledge and discoveries directly to those who need it. Farmers and ag industry leaders know they can count on Iowa State University for science-based solutions that will make them more efficient, sustainable and productive.”

Dr. Lisa Schulte Moore, Iowa State Professor of Natural Resource Ecology and Management was named a 2021 MacArthur Fellow, often referred to as a “genius grant,” for her work to build more sustainable and resilient agricultural systems. She has led groundbreaking research into the development and use of prairie strips, which are now in use in 14 states on more than 115,000 acres of cropland through the STRIPS (Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips) project.

“We started as Iowa State scientists working across several departments and with U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service managers. Once our initial data showed promise, we began partnering with farmers, landowners, commodity groups, government agencies and NGOs, and then private industry,” she said. “While we still have a ‘one strip at a time’ mantra, the only way we grow to a scale where we’re solving challenges as big as climate change is by building bridges across traditional boundaries, sharing knowledge and resources, and working together.”

Dr. Schulte Moore leads the Consortium for Cultivating Human and Naturally reGenerative Enterprises (C-CHANGE), which received a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop new value chains for U.S. farmers, particularly the generation of renewable natural gas using biomass from perennial grasses. She also is the lead developer of the People in Ecosystems Watershed Integration (PEWI) computer simulation.

“Agriculture, energy and the environment are basic building blocks for our society, upon which other activities and outcomes are founded. The challenge we face at their intersection are multidimensional and complex, and ripple across regions, economic sectors and even culture,” she said. “No one person, lab, discipline, or enterprise has all the solutions, or can even really understand all the dimensions of a potential solution on their own. Collaboration is crucial, and being willing to listen and to learn from others coming from outside one’s own sphere is a big part of what we need to do to provide people with safe, abundant and nutritious food, and clean renewable energy.”

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