Jerry DeWitt: NCR-SARE Hero

June 3, 2015
Jerry DeWitt, image courtesy of Iowa State University

Coordinated by the NCR-SARE Alumni Organization, the term "NCR-SARE Hero" recognizes the leadership, vision, contributions, and impact that certain people have made in the field of sustainable agriculture in the region.

Jerry DeWitt is a Professor Emeritus of Entomology at Iowa State University. During his 38-year tenure with ISU, he served as an associate dean, assistant extension director and director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. He has served as interim national program leader for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Program three times, as well as serving as the project coordinator/state coordinator for SARE's Professional Development Program within Iowa for 15 years. He currently resides in North Carolina and is involved in local and organic agriculture with the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association where he serves as Board President. He also is involved with Slow Money NC, which supports local North Carolina entrepreneurs with targeted low-interest loans. DeWitt is an avid photographer of local, sustainable and organic agriculture nationwide. His images have appeared in many books, publications, and websites devoted to America’s agriculture.

The NCR-SARE Hero Recognition acknowledges individuals who 1) have provided service to NCR-SARE, sustainability, and/or national SARE, 2) have shown leadership in sustainable agriculture locally and regionally, and 3) have made lasting impacts to sustainability in the North Central region. 

NCR-SARE is one of four regional offices that run the SARE program, a nationwide grants and education program to advance sustainable innovation to American agriculture. Since 1988, NCR-SARE has helped advance farming systems that are profitable, environmentally sound and good for communities through a nationwide research and education grants program. The program, part of USDA's National Institute for Food and Agriculture, funds projects and conducts outreach designed to improve agricultural systems.

Leaders in sustainable agriculture offered tributes as DeWitt was nominated and selected to receive this recognition:

  • "I had the privilege of working with and for Jerry DeWitt from 1990 through 2009 while we both served various posts at Iowa State University. Jerry had both the vision and the courage to champion sustainable agriculture at Iowa State University, introducing sustainable agriculture principles to ISU Extension staff and forging a strong partnership between Practical Farmers of Iowa and ISU. In addition to his leadership as an educator and administrator at ISU, he remained in leadership positions with national SARE and NC SARE and helped mentor a number of researchers, educators and farmers who engaged with SARE over the years.  Jerry continued his role of service when asked to lead the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture from 2005 through 2009; Jerry worked hard to engage all aspects of Iowa agriculture, including the commodity groups and non-profit organizations who did not always have the same vision for the future of agriculture.  Jerry’s voice was one of engagement and inclusion.  Last but certainly not least, Jerry DeWitt was and is an amazing photographer.  His images of farms and people working the land tell amazing stories of strength, hope, and resilience. Jerry’s work has touched the lives of many of us who have been connected to sustainable agriculture and SARE over the years; we are all better off because of our relationship with Jerry." - Rich Pirog, MSU Center for Regional Food Systems
  • "Throughout Jerry’s career he has been a strong advocate and leader for sustainable agriculture in Iowa during times when many people were not certain that they liked these ideas or they saw it as a threat to the way they did things.  Jerry’s calm and non confrontational approach and his belief that sustainable practices like IPM, organic production, and cover crops were not threats to agriculture but rather opportunities, helped to relieve these concerns.  Additionally, through his leadership of SARE, the Leopold Center, and Iowa Learning Farms Jerry reinvigorated the traditional partnership of Iowa farmers and researchers and helped them to work together on Iowa farms to solve problems and to make agriculture more sustainable." - Tom Kaspar, USDA-ARS, National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment 
  • "Jerry DeWitt has been a long-time sustainable agriculture leader at the state, regional and national levels. His service to the broad goals of sustainable agriculture has helped build bridges among many different stakeholders and advanced understanding of common goals among many different perspectives. His vision led many from around the country to examine their agricultural practices and look to the future, both near-term and for generations to come. In 2009, DeWitt received the George Washington Carver Distinguished Service Award from ISU’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The award recognizes those who’ve demonstrated outstanding achievement in writing, teaching, research or leadership in the broad areas represented in agricultural, food, environmental, social and life sciences. 'Dr. DeWitt truly believes in sustainable agriculture as a means to honestly identify and address problems and improve our agricultural systems,' said Wendy Wintersteen, Endowed Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State University. 'His message, spread across Iowa and the nation, and hallmarked by science, education and extension, is that a sustainable agriculture provides a good living for farm families in ways that benefit the environment and support rural communities. It’s a message he continues to communicate and I firmly believe, because of his efforts, it is making a difference.' Jerry’s gifts extend to art as well as science. He is an accomplished photographer and his passion led him to excel in documenting the successes, challenges and opportunities of farm families nationwide in their efforts to maintain their land and livelihoods. His photographs have been published in two books, People Sustaining the Land (Vagnetti and DeWitt, 2002) and Renewing the Countryside-Iowa, a 2003 project supported by Iowa State’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture." - Iowa State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
  • "For someone who was an Illinois native, Jerry DeWitt left a large stamp on Iowa agriculture.  As an Iowa State University entomology faculty member, Extension specialist and administrator, associate dean in the College of Agriculture, and tireless advocate for SARE programs on campus, he made many contributions that advanced sustainable agriculture. After a conversation with some Iowa organic farmers about their needs, he led the drive to create the nation’s first tenured faculty position in organic agriculture at ISU. He arranged funding for new organic horticulture staff positions, he sponsored scholarships for farmers to attend SARE conferences, and he took pictures of farmers’ hands that would touch your heart. But, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture was a place where his abilities and advocacy shone.  He was part of the Center’s very first advisory board, served for ten years, and returned as Center director from 2005 to 2010. When pressed to describe his approach to leadership at the Center, he chose 'Bold and Balanced.' He emphasized the 'core issues of sustainability,' saying 'sometimes we worry about the process and all the ‘what ifs’ when we need to just ask.' Jerry believed in active listening, recurring dialogue, exploration and progress. He believed he could never know enough farmers, and that land grant universities truly do have a mission to help people.   In 2005, Jerry received the Spencer Award for Sustainable Agriculture, the most significant award of its kind in Iowa.  The award presenter said, 'sustainable agriculture is not only about maintaining the family farm…It requires a continued and deepening partnership between the smartest thinkers of the university and the smartest thinkers among Iowa farmers. To maintain that partnership requires Jerry DeWitts.' - Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Director and Staff
Related Locations: North Central