William ( Bill) Liebhardt who grew up in Lake Geneva, the son of Dwight and Eleanor Liebhardt, and graduated from Elkhorn High School in 1954 died at his home in Davis, CA on May 5 at the age of 84 from complications of Q Fever. He was a pioneer in sustainable agriculture research and the first director of the University of California’s statewide program in sustainable agriculture.
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 where his father had a small grocery store and then a bar. When he was 16 his father bought a rundown farm in Troy Center 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 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 director for the Rodale Institute for a year and in 2010 became interim director for Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy, just miles from his family’s dairy farm.
He is survived by his wife of nearly 60 years, Kathleen (Byrnes) 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/
Sign up to get the most recent local obituaries delievered to your inbox.