Thursday, July 12, 2007

Leopold Celebration Brings a Minnesotan Home to Iowa

From Ames to San Francisco to Minneapolis, Mark Ritchie's journey in life has been about much more than the places he has lived. But after spending most of his professional life in Minnesota, he still considers Iowa home.

Ritchie is now serving as secretary of state in Minnesota, the culmination of decades of work as an activist in politics and agriculture.
Ritchie is no stranger to Iowa State University and the sustainable agriculture movement, so he was a perfect choice to deliver the keynote address at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture's 20th anniversary celebration Wednesday.

"This turned out to be a different kind of invitation," said Ritchie, who graduated from ISU in 1971. "Because as I sat down a few weeks ago -- kind of talking with my wife and thinking about what I was going to say -- it began to come back how much this is, in fact, home for me. Tom Harkin was the first person I ever voted for. Iowa State was the first place I ever skipped classes. I grew up in Nevada, Iowa. I'm an Iowan."
But, he admits, "It's a little complicated to get elected in Minnesota if you're an Iowan."

Ritchie, now age 54, first came to Iowa as a youngster. His father had worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. "Some of you know there was a research laboratory, used to be a research laboratory there, then they turned it into a nerve-gas research facility, and now it's a beautiful library. But it used to be one of the premier research laboratories -- until they built the big one here in Ames, the National Animal Disease Laboratory. In fifth grade, my brother and I were informed that we were moving to Iowa. To a town called Nevada. And we were instructed how to say it properly."

His father, who was part of the "first wave" of major research at the animal disease research laboratory in Ames, had plenty of life experiences to impart to his son. "He was a Marine in the Second World War, was stationed in China, and saw people dying of starvation. As he would say, not just hungry people, dying people."
"And it so affected him, it affected him from a faith, a religious faith, so he decided to dedicate his life to finding the solutions to hunger. And from his point of view that had to do with solving the problems of production." Those experiences gave his father a path and a direction in life.

Likewise, early life experiences helped shape Ritchie's worldview and gave him a cause for action.

He attended ISU during a historically tumultuous period. "You could pay for college detasseling and roguing corn and baling hay and walking beans," he said. But he added, "it was a time, in 1968, when things could get in the way of studies. In particular, for me, the war in Vietnam."

He said he began looking more carefully at his world. "Looking at my little home town and Iowa State and my country. And it was a time of great movement, of great upheaval, of great activity. And there were movements. There was a civil rights movement and there was an anti-war movement and there was a women's movement. There was a movement around education."

That time and that place and those movements, and a supportive community at Iowa State and in Iowa,(comma) gave Ritchie "the ability to see and to hear and to understand and to be inspired." Those movements gave him "the internal belief that we can do something. And I was blessed to have Iowa State here as part of that path. In that moment of activity and of change, it also began to change me, in terms of my understanding of a community that I was part of and what I should be doing to make a contribution to that community."

Ritchie went on to explain how agriculture became his cause for action. "My first thinking about agriculture didn't really come to me because my father was a lifer in the USDA," said Ritchie. "What moved me to start thinking about agriculture was the physical things that I could see that were easy to understand. You know, I could drive from Ames to Nevada, that eight miles, and I'd know that I was driving past the richest farmland on the planet and I was watching farms going broke. What was that about? I knew that there was plenty of food, but I was working with kids who didn't have enough food. What was that about? We were becoming increasingly aware that there was an ongoing impoverishment and exploitation of farm workers in the middle of the richest nation on the planet. What was that about? Those contradictions were just part of the process for me, of beginning to think about what I could do and what role I could play in making a difference."

Like many others during the 1960s and 1970s, Ritchie ended up in San Francisco. He moved there with a group of people from Iowa, who went about trying to create an alternative food system. "It's kind of easy to say no to a war that's based on lies and hubris. That's one thing, but how to build a different economy -- how to build a different approach to agriculture, how to build a different kind of food system so that children and everyone has access to not just plenty of food, but healthy food -- that was a different problem."

"For me, beginning to understand that when there was a direction in society that needed to be changed, that there were policies, government decisions that were central to that, then I began to understand. This process of understanding how policy makes the future, and people make the policy, began to affect how I understood what my role should be."

He became active in what he described was a "quiet revolution of sustainable agriculture."

Then the farm crisis began to tighten its grip on rural America. Land values began to plummet. "It turned out as land prices fell and banks started foreclosing and small farms started being squeezed, then middle-sized farms started being squeezed and going out of business. Then we started seeing the kind of consolidation that we're still talking about today," he said.
The situation began moving people to "extreme thought and extreme action and to extremism. And it took awhile, for those of us who had the experience of political movements to understand that what was needed was another movement. To go from the quiet revolution of sustainable agriculture to the public movement of changing policy -- of legislation."

Ritchie's path did not take him right away to elected office. He worked by creating nonprofit organizations to further his goals. But others in the movement became active in politics and in their faith communities. "We had the understanding from other life activities that we had to put them together, that we had to push. And we began to think about what we could do about policies in the future. And the policies being made by people. And there was this 'catalyst convergence' that happened when the Leopold Center was born," he said. "There was a convergence of the passions that people were pursuing in different parts of our society that helped give birth to the Leopold Center."

That's why, Ritchie said, he's very proud, wherever he is, to say he is an Iowan. "Because the Leopold Center was that kind of vision turned into action that brought forth the consensus, and that's what gave it the strength and the vitality to survive the counter-assault that took place."

Ritchie, a member of the Democratic-Farmer-Laborite Party, was elected Minnesota secretary of state in 2006. He previously worked in the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, and served 20 years as the president of the Minnesota-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a public research center working with businesses, churches, farm organizations, and other civic groups to foster long-term economic and environmental sustainability in Minnesota. He and his wife, Nancy Gaschott, live in Minneapolis.

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