In memoriam: William Liebhardt
William Liebhardt, founding director of UC ANR's sustainable agriculture program and UC Cooperative Extension specialist emeritus, died May 5 of complications of Q fever at his home in Davis. He was 84.
Liebhardt was the director of the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP), the first sustainable agriculture program established at a U.S. land grant university, until 1998. He came to Davis to begin the program in 1987; he returned to research after 16 years as an administrator. Previously he was the director of research at the Rodale Research Center in Pennsylvania, an associate professor at the University of Delaware, and worked as an agronomist for Allied Chemical Co. in the southeastern United States as well as for Standard Fruit Co. in Honduras.
A soils scientist who was raised on a Wisconsin dairy farm, Liebhardt focused his research on soil fertility and farming systems comparison and analysis. He was the author of numerous articles and a book on soil fertility and farming systems performance.
Liebhardt earned his B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. in soil science at the University of Wisconsin.
Gail Feenstra, acting director of SAREP, noted that Liebhardt helped the program establish itself as one of the leaders in funding sustainable agriculture research in the nation.
“At first SAREP was controversial,” Feenstra said, “however, with Liebhardt at the helm, SAREP supported both farmer and researcher concerns about staying sustainable — which frequently meant juggling reduced inputs with increased management.”
“It would have been difficult to move forward without Bill's valuable and nurturing support,” she said.
David Campbell, UCCE community studies specialist emeritus, remembered Liebhardt's supportive leadership.
“He encouraged us to use our strengths for the program's benefit,” Campbell said. “Having such a champion in place was critical to our ability to work creatively, taking advantage of the distinctive values, skills, and proclivities each of us brought to the work. As SAREP director, his philosophy and values helped the program develop.”
Liebhardt's focus made him a champion of land grant universities.
“I'm a firm believer in the land grant concept and philosophy,” Liebhardt once wrote. “We do the state's business — what the people want, not some other grandiose concept or philosophy. Growing up in Wisconsin there was a significant rural community and it was fairly vibrant and healthy. The concept of a rural community was where small and medium-sized farms interacted around a town center. We've lost a lot of that in the Midwest, but that was the experience that shaped my vision.”
Following his retirement from UC in 2001, Liebhardt served on several research and land trust boards. In 2002, he returned to Pennsylvania as interim director for the Rodale Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to organic farming research and outreach, for a year. In 2003, he received the Seventh Generation Award from the American Society of Agronomy and Soil Science. In 2010, he became interim director for Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy, Wisc., just miles from his family's dairy farm. In 2018, Rodale Institute honored Liebhardt with its Organic Pioneer Award for his contributions to the industry's growth.
He is survived by his wife Kathleen; sons Karl, Derek, Martin and Steve; siblings Thomas, Janet and David; and grandchildren Geneva, Amanda, Audrey, Adelaide and Gibson.
A Memory Keeper has been set up online for those who wish to post stories and pictures of Bill to share with his family https://www.mykeeper.com/profile/WilliamLiebhardt.