Jennifer Zwagerman is stepping up one rung on the organizational chart at Drake University’s Agricultural Law Center, but it’s a big leap in the sense that she’s replacing a legend — center founder Neil Hamilton. 

Hamilton has run the show at the center for 36 years, keeping Drake in the forefront of discussions about farm trends, water quality, regulations and land use. 

Zwagerman graduated from Drake Law School in 2004 (with a certificate in food and agricultural law), then left for three years split between Cedar Rapids and Fayetteville, Ark. She returned to Des Moines to do private legal work and then to join Drake’s staff. 

She has been the longtime director of career development at the private university, and eventually became associate director of the Agricultural Law Center, where she rejoined one of her mentors, Hamilton. Drake announced in December that Zwagerman would replace Hamilton in the high-profile center, and she’ll continue teaching. 

Zwagerman is in a position to map out the next four decades of the center’s work. We asked her about her transition to director. 

What was your path to this new position? 

So I’ve been director of career development for the last almost eight years at Drake. I’ve been teaching that entire time. I became associate director of the Agricultural Law Center maybe three years ago now. That mainly added the title to reflect what I was already doing. I’ve been teaching at Drake since about 2010. 

Neil Hamilton has been sort of phasing out to retirement the past several years. He’s been teaching in the fall, and I’ve been picking up classes in the spring. 

I think it’s been something that has been a long process coming and something I don’t think when I first came to Drake in 2001 that I had even thought of. I came to Drake for the Agricultural Law Center, and it was Neil’s work and recruiting that really convinced me that moving from Michigan to Des Moines was the best option for me for my interests and what I wanted to do. I’d been working in agriculture for a number of years. I love the industry, and I love the people. 

When I looked at law school, I wanted to continue that. Drake really had the only agricultural law program. A lot of other schools maybe had biotech or environmental studies. But nobody else had true agricultural law. That’s what I wanted. 

It was through working with Neil and his classes, and the internships and all of those experiences that I was exposed to, that I realized that the field was much broader than I ever realized. It really just kind of opened up my mind and opportunities into what that all entailed. Over the years, Neil knew I always had an interest in teaching. I come from a family of educators, my parents were both elementary educators, and I have a love of learning and teaching, but I didn’t have the patience to be an elementary school teacher like they were. 

I grew up in a small town. It was about 800 people. My best friend and I always laughed that somewhere along the way you can tell our families’ influence on each other. Entertainment for us was to go ride the sugar beet trucks. And somehow, I went into more of the agricultural path and she became an elementary school educator.

Was it hard to think about moving to Iowa?

It was. The biggest thing for me was the water. I grew up next to Lake Huron. I remember when I first moved here people would say, “Well, you live near Gray’s Lake.” Well … it’s not quite the same. 

Does it seem weird replacing Neil Hamilton, founding director of the center?

Oh, absolutely. It’s intimidating. At the same time, Neil has been a mentor and friend and teacher for over 15 years now. When he went on sabbatical in 2010, he helped get me the opportunity to be a visiting professor for the year, which gave me the opportunity to see if teaching was something I would enjoy. It turns out, I loved it.

What types of issues do you address in class and in contacts with the industry?

I take a very broad view of what agricultural law and policy really is, and its role in thinking about our food systems as a whole. 

That includes environmental issues, access to food issues, nutrition issues. I mean, anything that you can think of that involves our food system, agriculture plays a role in it. And I’d like to help others continue to understand the importance of agriculture in that food system as a whole. And that when you have people at any level of government looking at issues – whether it be environmental, or trade or business or in land use, whatever you can think of – that they’re including, and incorporating, the concerns and issues of agriculture as well. Because we can’t look at trying to fix these problems without looking at the whole picture.

Who studies at the center? 

They are all law students, We have certification programs that are kind of like majors. We have an agricultural and food law certificate. In their electives, some will take legislative practice, or wills and trust or tax and administrative law. We have courses that look at regulatory practices, safety, food labeling and environmental regulation of agriculture. 

Do you get into the debate over whether agriculture is regulated enough?

That often comes up in class because there are usually a lot of different viewpoints on that. I try to talk about why we do things and why certain things were regulated and some things were exempted from regulation, and do those same reasons or rationales exist now. Part of my point was not to necessarily decide that answer in class. It’s to make them ask questions.  

Any early plans for the center? 

I don’t plan to scuttle everything. Neil has built such a wonderful center with a wonderful reputation, an international reputation, and some amazing work. I don’t have all the same expertise he has in certain areas. I have some different passion areas. The center can be an independent source of information on issue such as water quality.

How are you wired?

I like to be involved, in the best ways. Some people would say I have a hard time saying “no.” 
My view is I’m here for the students. And if there’s an opportunity for me to learn something, do something, or engage in an experience that will directly or indirectly provide opportunities or knowledge for students, then I’m going to do it. It’s the same thing from the industry side, from more of a center side, it’s almost an education role. I’m always looking to learn. That’s kind of my core thing is I’m always looking to learn. 

The reason I went to ag communication was there were a lot of people who ate food but didn’t understand how it was produced. And I feel like in the ag law center, that’s still the core function of what I wanted to help people understand. Now, it’s not just agriculture in general, but the attorneys who are going to be out there and the policymakers who are going to be out there to understand what it means and the connections that are out there. I have a hard time sitting still. So I’m constantly on the go. 

Are you tough in class? 

If you ask my students about my finals, I think they might take a different tack. 

What do you do when you aren’t working?

I have the boys, so that keeps me busy. I like reading romance and mystery novels and industry books. I like to crochet and cross-stitch. I’m an assistant coach in baseball.