DES MOINES — Some names are so closely identified with an organization, it can be hard to separate them. That’s certainly the case with Neil Hamilton and the Drake Agricultural Law Center.
Hamilton, who founded the center in 1983 and has led it since then, stepped down as director this summer. He still has an office at Drake University and will be an emeritus professor, but after 36 years, someone else will be running the show.
And that’s how it should be, Hamilton says matter-of-factly. He has made his mark.
Raised on a farm in Adams County, Iowa, he graduated from Lenox High School before heading off to Iowa State University, where he studied forestry. In the summer of 1975 he worked for then U.S. Rep. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and began considering the idea of attending law school.
He can still recall talking to legendary Iowa State professor Neil Harl, considered the nation’s top expert in agricultural economics and law. Hamilton had been accepted to both the University of Iowa Law School and the law school at Georgetown University.
“He just told me that if I was going to come back to Iowa that the people I would get to know at the University of Iowa would be people I would deal with for the rest of my career,” Hamilton says. “And he was right.”
After graduating from law school at Iowa he joined the Iowa Attorney General’s office in 1979, when newly elected attorney general Tom Miller established the department’s farm division.
He then went to the University of Arkansas, where he was an assistant professor and was part of the National Agricultural Law Center there.
Then in 1983 he came to Drake to start the Drake center.
During the next 36 years, Hamilton guided the center as it taught agricultural law classes to countless students, offered programs for farmers and legal professionals, and influenced the drafting of new laws.
Along the way he authored or co-authored a number of books aimed at helping farmers navigate a changing business. They offered legal advice on subjects such as direct marketing, production contracts, environmental law and nuisance law.
If there was a guiding principle, it was the desire to help family farmers, he says.
“Agriculture is always changing,” Hamilton says. “Today a few large operators farming mostly rented ground dominate the landscape. The land is mostly owned by children or grandchildren who inherited it. We have a lot of haves and have nots.”
That poses new challenges, he says. A rural landscape that used to have numerous small farms now is divided between a few large farms that make most of the money, some small farms where the farmer has another full-time job, and rural residents who are too often either retirees or people who live on the edge of poverty.
Lawmakers, economists and legal experts will need to find ways to effectively deal with those changes, Hamilton says.
For Hamilton, there will be more time for other things. He has sold farmland in Adams County that he inherited and rented to a local farmer for many years. He and his wife, Khanh, live outside Des Moines and run Sunstead Farm, a 10-acre property where they grow heirloom tomatoes as well as garlic and leeks.
“I don’t think of myself as a farmer as much as my dad and his neighbors were,” Hamilton says. “They were farmers. It’s what they did.”
Still, he says farming comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s clear he still sees family farming as a noble profession, but as a lawyer he also approaches agricultural issues with an open mind. For example, Hamilton says the agricultural community has long had a tendency to get defensive about items such as environmental rules, often arguing that they are already doing a good job. But the question needs to constantly be asked: Could or should they be doing something different or better?
Those can be uncomfortable questions, and others will have to answer them in the future, Hamilton says with a laugh.
Jennifer Zwagerman takes over as new head of the Drake Agricultural Law Center. A former student of Hamilton’s, she says the change is a bit daunting.
“It’s a bit intimidating, taking over for someone who is so identified with the center,” she says. “But Neil has been a great mentor and professor … and Neil’s not disappearing.”
The emphasis at the center may change under a different leader. Zwagerman cites rural development as a personal interest, for example.
As he steps down, Hamilton says he is grateful for a career at Drake.
“I’ve had a wonderful experience at Drake,” he says. “It’s a private school so nobody at the legislature is saying that ‘you can’t do that.’ We have some autonomy. That gives us some academic freedom.”
And, at the end of the day, he says the things that make him proud are the former students who have gone on to be leaders, including four of the last five presidents of the American Agricultural Law Association.
“I’ve had a wonderful career,” Hamilton says. “I’ve had a front row seat for all the things that have happened in agriculture.”