One of the world’s preeminent experts on sustainable agriculture, Neil Hamilton has never had more influence. Find out why.

Written by Ken Fuson
Photos by Duane Tinkey

It’s a revolution you can taste. 

Today’s grocery store aisles are stocked with organic foods, the number of farmers markets has doubled in the past decade alone and Michael Pollan’s books encouraging people to eat “real” instead of processed food are best sellers.  And on the South Lawn of the White House, Michelle Obama and her two daughters have planted a vegetable garden, which Neil Hamilton calls “the most powerful garden that’s been planted in America since World War II.”

These are hopeful and busy days for Hamilton, the 56-year-old director of the Agricultural Law Center at Drake University. He has spent much of his adult life in two pursuits: leveling the legal playing field for small-time farmers, and promoting the notion that expanding opportunities in sustainable agriculture is about something more important than taste, nutrition, health and commerce. It’s about democracy.

He’s never had more influence. Hamilton advised Barack Obama on agricultural issues and rural affairs during the 2008 presidential campaign. He and Tom Vilsack, the former Iowa governor and current U.S. secretary of agriculture, are close friends, kindred spirits and former teaching partners at Drake. The “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative that Vilsack’s department launched last year has Hamilton’s fingerprints all over it. “He’s a great guy,” Vilsack says. “He’s helping us a lot.” 

Hamilton gives as many as 30 presentations a year and writes frequently about agriculture issues for newspapers’ opinion pages. He is invited to testify before Congress. He is considered a pioneer and expert in the field of agricultural law. When Iowa Public Television sought opposing viewpoints to discuss the controversial documentary “Food Inc.,” they matched Hamilton, as a promoter of sustainable agriculture, against Craig Lang, president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation. 

“We have some general disagreements about agriculture policy, but I think he’s a good person,” Lang says. “He’s honest, and he speaks of what he believes. He has a very, very deep loyalty to Iowa.”

Neil Harl, a retired professor of economics at Iowa State University and one of Hamilton’s mentors, says Hamilton has become “the world’s expert in the problems related to small-farm agriculture and a different system of moving food to the supermarket and to the consumer. And that’s a growing area.”

Hamilton—who, with his wife, Khanh, also oversees Sunstead Farm, a 12-acre vegetable garden near Waukee—downplays his influence in the burgeoning local food movement, saying, “There were a lot of people with their hand on the oars.” But it’s not the water Hamilton has had his hands in most of his life; it’s the fertile Iowa soil, certainly long enough to know when the time is ripe. 

At Sunstead Farm, Neil and Khanh Hamilton grow about two dozen different vegetables and herbs, and some 80 varieties of heirloom tomatoes.

Behold the tomato.

Or don’t. It’s your choice, and that’s fine with Hamilton. If you don’t care who grew the tomato, or why the tomatoes found in grocery stores often taste blander than the kind grown in an Iowa garden—well, it’s a free country. 

“But don’t tell me that can be the only system we can have,” Hamilton says.

There are people who care deeply about tomatoes, who understand there are more than 7,500 varieties, who want to grow them or simply enjoy them, who think that farmers selling their tomatoes in the city is good for the urban people who buy them, as well as for the farmers who take that money back and spend it in their small town. Hamilton says they deserve the same respect as someone who takes the food supply for granted.

“I don’t want to be seen as saying that if people don’t do this, they’re making the wrong choice,” Hamilton says. “What I want is to make sure that we have a system that preserves the opportunity for them to make that choice.”

That has been Hamilton’s guiding philosophy since at least the mid-1990s, when he traveled the country talking to people who were concerned about the growing size of farms and the influence of corporate ownership. In a 2004 essay, he coined the term “Food Democracy” to describe what has become known as the sustainable agriculture movement.

In Hamilton’s view, informed consumers are as capable of demanding change as an informed electorate. It’s why Wal-Mart stopped selling milk under its own label if the cows had been treated with a synthetic growth hormone. It’s why McDonald’s is considering buying a percentage of its eggs from cage-free chickens. It’s why Iowa’s 220-plus farmers markets produced nearly $60 million in direct sales and $12 million in personal income. 

“The fact that we can take our food supply for granted is wonderful,” Hamilton says. “At the same time, the fact that we can take it for granted divorces us from a lot of connections. And if people want to have those connections, they should be able to.”

Neil Hamilton and his wife, Khahn, run Sunstead Farm, a 12-acre garden near Waukee. 

If Hamilton hadn’t become a populist, the people of Adams County might have disowned him.

He was raised on Mercer Township land that has belonged to his family since 1870 (he still owns 60 acres). Lenox, a town of 1,400 people in southwestern Iowa where Hamilton graduated from high school in 1972, was a hotbed of the American Agriculture Movement. Nearby Corning was the home of the National Farmers Organization.

“There was a little bit of something in the water down there that was a little more populist/radical in terms of farm politics than maybe you had somewhere else,” he says, calling himself “a child of that.”

Hamilton’s parents, Lowell and Zella, raised their two sons on 200 acres. The house didn’t have running water until Neil was 6. There was no washing machine. Heat was provided by a fuel-oil stove. He first attended school in a one-room country schoolhouse.

Despite the economic conditions, Hamilton’s parents found the money to buy a set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and they encouraged their boys from an early age to think about college. Lowell Hamilton nicknamed Neil “Professor.” (“I was probably a know-it-all,” Hamilton says.)

Hamilton cut hay, walked beans and shelled corn, childhood rites of passage in Iowa that have mostly vanished. He participated in 4-H and competed for grades with his best friend, Greg Nook, now the chief marketing officer for a building contractor in Kansas City, Mo.

“Neil was always a pretty cosmopolitan guy, if I can use that term as it relates to Lenox, Iowa,” Nook says, adding that Hamilton’s classmates would have predicted a career in politics for him, not law. 

Hamilton might have agreed. Politics was a family passion. The Hamiltons held the township’s Democratic precinct caucus in their living room. In 1976, after graduating from Iowa State University with a degree in forestry, Hamilton worked in the Creston field office for then-U.S. Rep. Tom Harkin. After graduating from the University of Iowa College of Law three years later, he worked in the farm division of the Iowa attorney general’s office. 

But he steered away from politics in 1981 when the University of Arkansas invited him to join its new master’s degree program in agricultural law. Two years later, he moved to Des Moines to direct Drake’s Agricultural Law Center. 

Elective office still appealed to him. He considered running in the 1986 Democratic primary for Iowa secretary of agriculture, but decided against it. 

“I can tell you honestly that I have never really regretted it,” he says. “In politics, you have to suffer a lot of fools, let’s put it that way.”

Why suffer those fools when you can influence public policy anyway? Hamilton has written several books for farmers, including “What Farmers Need to Know About Environmental Law” and “The Legal Guide for Direct Farm Marketing.” 

If there’s a theme, it’s this: “I come at these issues from the perspective of people who I think need the help,” he says, “the people that I grew up with and farmed with and I think are the backbone of Iowa.”

It’s evidence of Hamilton’s integrity as a teacher that so many graduates of Drake’s Agricultural Law Center have moved on to represent some of the planet’s largest and most powerful agricultural concerns.  “I certainly don’t think I’ve failed if (students) go away and work for Monsanto,” says Hamilton. “I’m glad they got a job.”

Hamilton “has his viewpoints, but I think he does a very good job of teaching the law as the law is,” says former student Eldon McAfee, an attorney with Beving, Swanson & Forrest P.C., who’s legal counsel for the Iowa Pork Producers and a 1991 Drake Law School graduate. “We were taught to think for ourselves.” 

Hamilton knows there are those who wish he would take a harder line against what’s pejoratively referred to as Big Ag. He’s a populist, but not the angry, red-faced kind. He prefers fact-citing to fist-shaking, and his boyish looks, blond hair and slightly high-pitched voice can disarm critics.

“Neil’s beliefs are driven by his personal set of values, backed up by facts,” says Nook, his longtime friend. “If you don’t want to believe what Neil believes…he might be disappointed, but he’s not going to take it personally.”

Take farm subsidies, for example. Some in the sustainable agricultural movement would like more federal money shifted from large operations to smaller ones. Or the elimination of all subsidies.

“You want to pick that fight?” Hamilton says. “Have at it. You’re never going to win it. These folks (Big Ag) are more organized, more powerful, and you’re foolish to try to do it. For you to win, you don’t have to tear down the other guy. If you want people to support you, explain why it’s important to them. People can then make a choice.”

It’s that approach that prompts Lang, the Farm Bureau president, to say how much he respects Hamilton, despite their philosophical differences. Smaller farms are fine, Lang says, but they’re not enough to feed the world, even if you could support a family on one.

“I try to deal more with the real world, and I think Neil tends to deal in a world that he wishes was (reality),” Lang says. “But that doesn’t make him an adversary. That makes him someone interesting to talk to.”

At Sunstead Farm in Waukee, Hamilton and Khanh grow about two dozen different vegetables and herbs each summer, and as many as 80 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, which they sell to local restaurants and chefs. Khanh also uses homegrown produce and flowers in Custom Made, her catering and design business.

“The garden is largely her enterprise,” Hamilton says. “We do it together, but I don’t want to take away from anything she does.”

Hamilton and Khanh, who’ve been married for 20 years, met at a party Hamilton hosted. Khanh had left Vietnam as a girl, lived in several countries afterward, and was working in Des Moines as a seamstress. The couple moved to Sunstead Farm about 12 years ago. They’ve landscaped the gorgeous oak savannah with thousands of flowers, stonework, and all those vegetables.

On a spring day, Hamilton stopped tilling and offered his visitor a can of lemonade (all-natural, naturally). He pulled a handful of arugula from the ground and offered it as well (it was delicious).

Ah, yes, arugula, the leafy vegetable that Barack Obama made famous while campaigning in Iowa in 2007. The fact that he would mention the rising price of arugula was pounced upon by Hillary Clinton’s campaign to suggest that Obama was an elitist, while she was the champion of shot-and-beer commoners.

This is the criticism that makes the normally calm Hamilton bristle, the perception that he and the people who operate smaller farms or gardens are elite pretenders, somehow less serious and less worthy than people who operate 20,000-acre mega-farms.

In fact, Hamilton says, it’s the small farmers and their families who present the best opportunity for restoring Main Street and repopulating rural America. That’s why he’s been involved with Vilsack’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative. The program is designed to establish, expand and promote farmers markets and other direct-to-consumer opportunities, giving more people access to fresh vegetables while generating income for rural communities. 

It’s also why he has urged the Obama administration to launch a New Farmer Corps, with a goal of establishing 500,000 new farmers in the next decade. “I now know that we have to develop a new economy in rural America,” Vilsack says. “Neil has always been interested in that.”

After Obama was elected, the Clear Lake-based group “Food Democracy Now!”  named six “sustainable choices” for secretary of agriculture. Hamilton was one of them. “If you didn’t find it flattering to be considered, there’s something wrong with you,” he says.

But he’s thrilled with Vilsack, calling him “one of the best secretaries we have had. His view is, if we’re going to try to revitalize rural America, it’s going to take a lot of people. I’m very pleased to be a foot soldier in their efforts.”

A foot soldier? He has again understated his role. In the food revolution, there are few people who have spent more time on the front lines than Neil Hamilton.

“Certainly we can find some satisfaction in the improvements and changes that have happened in Iowa’s food system in the last 10 years,” he says. “If I played some small part in that—which I think I did, I hope I did—then that’s great.”