Michael Fields Agricultural Institute logo
At the intersection of food, soil, climate, farming and water.

Remembering Bill Liebhardt

Michael Fields Agricultural Institute mourns the passing – and celebrates the vigorous life and generous heart – of our friend, former Board Member, and former interim Executive Director, Bill Liebhardt, who died May 5 at age 84.

I first met Bill back in the late 1980s; I had written a publication about leaders in sustainable agriculture programs at colleges and universities around the nation, and he was the founding director of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program at University of California-Davis. Bill came to national meetings of policy advocates interested in improving USDA’s support for sustainable agriculture research, in particular. A soils scientist, Bill carried moral authority on many issues not restricted to soils, including technologies that influenced the increasingly polarized structure of agriculture.

Given his national stature, it was an honor when Bill agreed to serve on the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute’s Board. As we came to know Bill a little more personally, we discovered that he had an additional reason to join our Board; his parents had bought a farm just outside of East Troy when he was a teen, and he had spent his formative years in the area, later attending and receiving his PhD in Soils Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Bill had been an active Board member for several years when the Institute went through a transition that left us without an Executive Director. Without missing a beat, he offered to move across the nation from his home in Davis and serve – pro bono! – as our director; his wonderful wife Kitty joined a few months later. For more than six months, Bill and Kitty became the glue that helped MFAI regroup and move the Institute forward to new opportunities and new vigor. Bill’s practical, fact-based assessment of situations guided our fiscal planning. His deep commitment to agricultural sustainability, unquestioned honesty, broad engagement of board and staff in organizational decision-making, and willingness to take strong measures when needed inspired confidence among all the staff and Board, and the organization flourished under his care,. He oversaw the hiring process that resulted in a permanent Executive Director and stayed in Wisconsin several weeks longer to assist our new leader in the transition…before moving with Kitty to Vermont to help their son and his family at a time when they needed some grandparent presence with their children.

Humble, smart, curious and interested in details as well as broad theory, and willing to put hard work into the causes he believed in, Bill Liebhardt made a difference in every enterprise and every person he engaged with. Michael Fields Agricultural Institute Board and staff will always be extremely grateful that he cared enough about us to bring that magic touch to our doors at a time when we needed him. Our healthy state and productive programming are a living tribute to his efforts.

  

Bill’s tree at the Institute

 

Obituary

William C. Liebhardt, a pioneer in sustainable agriculture research and the first director of the University of California’s statewide program in sustainable agriculture, died at his home in Davis on May 5 at age 84 from complications of Q Fever.

The UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP), the first such program at a Land Grant university, began in 1987 with state legislation and financial assistance. Liebhardt served as director for 11 years, beginning a competitive grants program and the long term farming systems comparisons on the Davis campus.

Throughout his tenure the program and Liebhardt personally was the target of criticism from state commodity groups and professional colleagues steeped in post world war II technologies that prompted the “Green Revolution” such as heavy machinery, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Science and farm experience showed the dark side of this production success with environmental degradation and small farm economic failure. As this evidence grew, younger scientists took up the work and “sustainability” became a goal for many industries.

Born in 1936 in Duluth, Minnesota, Liebhardt grew up in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. When he was 15 his father bought a rundown farm in Troy Center, Wisconsin despite several heart attacks and no farm experience. Bill took up vocational agriculture in high school to become the resident farm advisor, a chapter ahead or behind the latest catastrophe. He later went on to the University of Wisconsin to receive a PhD in soil science in 1966.

After research work in Honduras and grower consultation in the Southeast, he went to the University of Delaware where he received tenure for research that included studies that showed excess fertilizer flowing from agricultural fields polluted ground and surface water, costing the environment and farmers. In 1981 he left academic agriculture to join Rodale as assistant director of their research center in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, setting up the farm comparison study that continues today.

During all these years Liebhardt’s research seminars at the agronomy and soil science professional meetings drew intense interest from professional colleagues, not always supporters. Yet in 2003 he received the Seventh Generation Award from the American Society of Agronomy and Soil Science. In 2018 he received the organic pioneer award for research science from the Rodale Institute.

Following retirement from UC in 2001 Liebhardt served on several research and land trust boards. In 2002 he returned to Pennsylvania as interim director for the Rodale Institute for a year and in 2010 became interim director for Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy, Wisconsin, just miles from his family’s dairy farm.

He is survived by his wife of nearly 60 years, Kathleen and four sons, Karl in Davis; Derek with daughter Geneva in Vermont; Martin and wife Julia with daughters Amanda and Audrey in Pennsylvania and Steven and wife Annette with daughter Adelaide and son Gibson in Oregon. Siblings Thomas in Wisconsin, Janet Heflin and husband Robert in Pennsylvania and David in Montana survive.

He disliked funerals and the current pandemic provides a welcome excuse. But many will remember him fondly with stories and laughter. A Memory keeper has been set up online for those who wish to post stories and pictures to share https://www.mykeeper.com/profile/WilliamLiebhardt/