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Remembering two giants of Iowa agriculture
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Remembering two giants of Iowa agriculture


Well-known Iowa agricultural leaders Paul Johnson and Merlin Plagge both died recently. Johnson, 79, was a farmer, state legislator and conservation leader in Iowa and nationally. Plagge, 91, was a former president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.

“Paul never gave up trying to speak out on the need for conservation and taking care of our natural resources,” said Mark Rasmussen, head of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.

It was Johnson’s legislation in the 1980s that led to the start of the Leopold Center.

“Even in retirement he kept writing,” Rasmussen said. “He celebrated the achievements we have made even when there was backsliding. But he would also note that agriculture has a long way to go in terms of achieving conservation goals.”

Johnson grew up in South Dakota and graduated from high school in suburban Chicago. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in forest ecology at the University of Michigan before joining the U.S. Forest Service. He also served in the Peace Corps in Africa.

He eventually settled on a farm near Decorah in northeast Iowa and was elected to the Iowa legislature, where he served from 1985-91. He helped author the Iowa Groundwater Protection Act of 1987 and was one of the architects of the Iowa Resource Enhancement and Protection (REAP) Program.

After leaving the legislature he served as chief of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service from 1994-97 and was head of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources from 1999 to 2000.

Brian Campbell, executive director of the Iowa Environmental Council, said IEC members were saddened to hear of Johnson’s death.

“We in the environmental community are remembering this week that his life is a reminder of the importance of good environmental policies, strong government oversight and tireless advocacy to improve and protect the places we love,” he said.

Plagge also made a mark in agriculture.

“He was such an unselfish individual, always seeking what was in the best interest for the Iowa Farm Bureau,” said Iowa Farm Bureau President Craig Hill.

Plagge was born near Latimer, in northern Iowa. He graduated from Sheffield High School and served in the Air Force in Alaska during the early 1950s before settling down to farm with his wife near Sheffield. In 1987 he was elected president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation and he held that position until 1995. It was during that time that much of the work was done on the 1996 “Freedom to Farm” farm bill, and Hill says Plagge was part of that effort.

“He knew that agriculture needed help in the 1980s, and he wanted to help farmers and our state recover from the farm crisis,” Hill said, adding that Plagge “also knew that we eventually needed to get to closer to a market-oriented policy in farming.”

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Gene Lucht is public affairs editor for Iowa Farmer Today, Missouri Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.

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