Environmental Stewardship is Life’s Work for Lemke

Dean Lemke’s interest in environmental stewardship began as a young boy on the family farm.

“Dad repeatedly made the point we have to leave the land and natural resources for future generations in better condition than when we got them,” he says.

As an undergraduate, partly triggered by the first Earth Day in 1969, Lemke (’72 agricultural engineering) felt his life’s work come into focus.

“I knew the emerging environmental movement needed to extend to food and agriculture,” he says. “I wanted to be part of guiding that environmental renaissance in the most effective direction, while optimizing critically important global food production.”

Most of Lemke’s career was spent at the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS), where he developed and administered water quality programs and collaborated in research to develop environmental technologies for farmers. Most recently, he was lead author of the agricultural nonpoint source section of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

“The level of engagement by farmers, landowners, crop advisers, ag retailers, agribusinesses, the Iowa Legislature, plus many others, far exceeds that of any previous effort during my 43-year career,” he says.

Lemke praises the work of Iowa State University and other scientists who developed the strategy’s science assessment.

“Iowa enjoys the best-understood science on how to achieve agriculture’s water quality goals of any state in the country,” he says.

“The best days of my career were those spent working on science issues with colleagues in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, other colleges on campus and extension,” he says. “We pondered new understanding of environmental responses, worked to develop technologies and new approaches to environmental stewardship, and brought science to sometimes contentious public policy discussions.”

In 2013, Lemke retired from IDALS and took a part-time position with the Agribusiness Association of Iowa as its nutrient management and environmental stewardship director.

“We are seeing rapid acceleration of proactive environmental culture among Iowa’s 150 ag retailers and 5,000 crop advisers,” he says. “The agribusiness sector increasingly will provide the technology leadership farmers need to reach environmental goals.”

When Lemke isn’t helping others reach their environmental goals, he’s working on his own. Following his IDALS retirement, he and his wife Peggy moved from Des Moines onto the family farm near Dows.

The farm was homesteaded in 1876 by his great-great grandparents. Lemke and two sons are equal partners in the 800-acre corn and soybean operation. Bryan, a banking and financial institution consultant, lives in Minneapolis with his wife and their three children. Nathan is a lead scientist for the Air Force Research Laboratory in Albuquerque where he lives with his wife and their two children.

All come to Iowa each year for a couple of weeks during planting and harvest. The farm’s mission statement makes it clear the Lemke conservation ethic continues today—“Six generations since 1876 producing food and environmental stewardship of land and water resources.”