A biographical sketch by Travis Cox
John Ikerd was raised on a small dairy farm in southwest Missouri. This was a time when electricity, running water, and indoor plumbing had not reached his part of rural Missouri. However, this also was a time when people of very modest means could afford a college education at a state university. He worked his way through the University of Missouri were he receiving a BS, MS and PhD degrees in Agricultural Economics. John worked three years with Wilson Foods between his BS and MS in product merchandising. After finishing his education, he worked in Extension Agricultural Economics positions at North Carolina State University, 1970-76 and Oklahoma State University, 1976-84 and was Head of Extension Agricultural Economics, University of Georgia,
In the 80’s, John had a “conversion” of sorts. During the farm crises of that era, he experienced first-hand the failures of the policies he had been advocating to farmers. John then reoriented his work towards sustainable agriculture and economic sustainability. He returned to the University of Missouri in 1989, under a cooperative agreement with the USDA, to provide state and national leadership for research and education programs related to sustainable agriculture. From 1989 to 2000, in addition to working on several National Sustainable Agriculture Projects with USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education organization, John authored book chapters, journal articles, magazine and trade publications, and conference proceedings all on various aspects of the sustainable agriculture movement—farm size, systems thinking, profitability, policy, socio-economic considerations and more—even giving congressional testimony in 1989 and 1992.
John retired as Professor Emeritus from the University of Missouri in 2000. Since then John has written six books on sustainable agriculture and sustainable economics. The first, Sustainable Capitalism: A Matter of Common Sense (2005), was written for a wide audience of people concerned with the future of the planet and with the continued vitality of global capitalism. Next came A Return to Common Sense (2007), with its call for social change based on our collective notions of what is true, right, and good—our common sense. 2008 saw John publishing two books, Small Farms are Real Farms: Sustaining People Through Agriculture and Crisis and Opportunity: Sustainability in American Agriculture. In Small Farms, John builds the case for the importance of small farms in sustainable agriculture specifically, and for sustainability in general. Crisis and Opportunity has John writing in the style of Thomas Paine, but for an academic audience, critiquing industrial agriculture, reviewing the history of the sustainable agriculture movement, and then providing instances of hope in building a sustainable future. Revolution of the Middle…and the Pursuit of Happiness, published in 2011, “goes a long way” said Fred Kirschenmann, “ towards helping us envision how we might…change our vision from pursuing wealth to pursuing happiness.” Finally, in 2012, John wrote The Essentials of Economic Sustainability, a synthesis of principles from capitalist, socialist, and sustainable thinking viewed through common sense, with the brilliance of this book lying both in its capacity to be used and understood by people of any ideological or political persuasion and in its cooperative and reconciliatory tone.
In 2011, John moved to Fairfield, Iowa. There he has been co-teaching Sustainable Economics courses, putting on conferences, and collaborating with others to develop the concept of Deep Sustainability—an obvious extension of John’s later work, whereby sustainability’s economic concerns are bounded by social relationships, with both being ultimately bounded by ethical and moral beliefs. Deep Sustainability goes to the root of unsustainability, questioning the exclusive roles that science and economics play in making decisions about our future, and reintroduces the concept of “purpose” (including human, non-human, and historical) as a way of reorienting sustainability beyond efficiency and substitution to a radical redesign of the human project. John is also on the board of Jefferson County Farmers and Neighbors, which is a local organization organized to stop the spread of Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and the national Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, which has a similar mission. John’s expertise in this area is global as well as local, with John even traveling to Wales in 2013 to help stop the first industrial dairy in the county’s history.
Thus, John has become a leading figure in the sustainability revolution—one who is capable of deep insights but also has the capacity to engage everyone in the conversation and work. He has found himself at the edge of what is possible in the discipline and has turned his efforts to using his voice and position to advocate for radical change and to help others to both understand this necessity and to be able to advocate for themselves. In 2014, John as asked by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to develop the North American report for the International Year of the Family farm. In his report, he makes the case for multifunctional farms of the future that protect and renew natural ecosystem and create and nurture caring communities as they provide economic livelihoods for farm families. Should we make it through this great transition facing humanity in the 21st century, it will be in, in part, thanks to John, his thinking, his engagement, and his work.