Preparing The Next Generation

When planning for a year, plant corn,” says a Chinese proverb. “When planning for a decade, plant trees. When planning for life, train and educate people.”

Preparing the next generation of farmers and ag professionals is a passion for Mary Wiedenhoeft, a professor of agronomy. “I want to help others under- stand the importance of agriculture and sustainability,” says Wiedenhoeft, who chairs Iowa State University’s graduate program in sustainable agriculture and researches alternative cropping systems.

Wiedenhoeft was the first female at her high school to take agriculture classes, and she went on to earn her bachelor’s in agronomy at Iowa State in 1980. After completing her doctorate in crop physiology at Washington State University, her career took her across the country to the University of Maine. When she had the opportunity to return to Iowa State in 1999 as an associate professor of agronomy, she didn’t hesitate.

“During my time away from Iowa, I’d gained a deeper appreciation for how well regarded Iowa State University is world- wide,” says Wiedenhoeft, who values Iowa State’s willingness to invest in technology and resources to benefit students.

This includes the agronomy learning community Wiedenhoeft coordinates to help new students make a smooth transition to college life, which improves their academic success and satisfaction. One of the highlights of the program is the two-day field trip to visit agribusinesses and farms. Students meet practicing agronomists and alumni and observe Iowa agriculture.

This real-world perspective is enhanced through Wiedenhoeft’s systems analysis management course connecting students with Iowa farmers to make recommendations for fertilizer applications, insect control, manure nutrient management and more.

“I love working with people and try
to prepare students for the transition from college to their career,” says Wiedenhoeft.

She also leads the week-long agroecosystems field course, which takes students to farms in Iowa, South Dakota, Minnesota and Nebraska. She’s taken students abroad for a closer look at agriculture in New Zealand and Cuba. And she studied the interface between agriculture and environmental issues related to nitrogen leaching in pastoral systems in New Zealand in 2006 during faculty improvement leave.

For students who work closely with Wiedenhoeft, these experiences can be transformational. “Mary has made a huge influence on my life,” says Stefan Gailans, a doctoral candidate from Wisconsin who is studying cropping systems diversity and agroecology at Iowa State. “She’s quick to encourage others, she goes out of her way to help students succeed and her enthusiasm and passion for teaching have inspired me to become a college instructor.”

Wiedenhoeft’s research program focuses on agronomic and economic potential of fall-seed crops and cover crops to reduce erosion, increase efficient use of sunlight and diversify cropping systems.

“Financial advisers warn us against the disastrous consequences of not diversifying our economic portfolio. I think the same is true with Iowa agriculture; we desperately need to diversify our cropping system portfolio,” she says.

Online Extra: Mary Wiedenhoeft and her students were recently featured by Country Calendar, New Zealand’s longest-running television series.  Click here to see the video.