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63 Acres In Johnson County Permanently Dedicated To Sustainable Ag

Courtesy of Sustainable Iowa Land Trust
A land trust has permanently set aside 63 acres in Johnson County for sustainable food production. This image depicts another protected farm in Western Iowa.

An Iowa non-profit organization is permanently setting aside 63 acres in Johnson County for sustainable farming. Due to the work of the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust, or SILT, the farmland 10 miles north of Iowa City will never be developed or used for row cropping. The group hopes the land will make getting into the business of growing food affordable for young farmers.

Near Rapid Creek in rural Johnson County, scatterd across 63 acres, there are rows of chestnuts, paw paws, peaches, persimmons and apples due for some pruning, a stand of hardwood trees ideal for cultivating mushrooms, plus a hoop house and some farm buildings, all waiting for farmers interested in integrated livestock, vegetable, fruit and nut production. 

Suzan Erem and her husband Paul Durrenberger have donated the land to SILT, which they helped found. Erem says the farm is ideal for someone who has the same vision for the land that they do, someone who is a "good farmer" as well as a "good neighbor."

"We wish for this land to become a gift to future generations of sustainable food farmers, so that when you and your heirs are done farming it, another family may have a chance, whether that's a decade or a century from now," they wrote in the lease application.

Interested farmers have to agree to "chemical and GMO-free" practices, to put more into the land than they take out of it, to build soil health and improve water quality. These restrictions are formalized in a legal agreement called a Reserve Life Estate, which allows Erem and Durrenberger to dictate the management of the land, though SILT now retains the right to sell it. These strict rules lower the value of the farm, cutting land rents considerably, and making the operation more afforable for those starting out.

"This is going to build natural capital," said Stuart Valentine, head of SILT's board of directors. "We're doing the exact opposite right now," he said, referring to conventional row cropping, which requires extensive fertilization. 

According to a survey by the National Young Farmers Coalition, access to land is the top concern for young producers and ranchers. Johnson County Supervisor Mike Carberry heard similar stories from local farmers who travel from miles away to sell their produce in Iowa City.

"The key issue is access to land," Carberry said. "Access to land is preventing farmers from getting into the field."

According to Iowa State University researchers, the average farmland rent in Johnson County is $235 per  acre. For Erem, lowering the barriers to entry to newer, younger farmers is vital in order to sustain the state's rural communities.

"I do believe that there's hope that this could be one ingredient in helping rebuild our rural communities. Absolutely. Not the only one. It’s not a panacea," Erem said. "But without access to land, small parcels, then it’s all over. That option is just gone. We want to keep that option alive."

With the land valued at $516,000 in one of the fastest-growing parts of the state, the couple considered selling it to a conventional ag operation or to a commercial real estate developer, and investing the profits.

As metro areas across the state expand outward and exert more development pressure on neighboring farmland, Johnson County Supervisor Rod Sullivan says it's significant this parcel will be permanently dedicated to food production.

"I hope people at this table understand the magnitude of this gift," Sullivan said, saying those 63 acres could have been used to build "McMansions."

SILT's leadership and supporters see the Johnson County farm as part of a larger effort to simply grow more food in Iowa. The state boasts some of the most productive soil in the country, but imports an estimated 90 percent of its fresh produce.

In a state with some 25 million acres dedicated to the production of corn and soybeans, Erem says she doesn't want to transform Iowa's entire modern agricultural system, which she credits with sustaining local economies and communities across the state. But at a time when the USDA estimates average on-farm income is at a 12 year low, Erem argues there is merit in diversifying Iowa's economy beyond corn, beans and hogs.

"So when things like tariffs happen, Iowa's economy doesn't go into grand mal seizures. If we're relying only on two or three crops then we are dependent on other countries for the health our economy," Erem said. "Why wouldn't we want to diversify our economy, trust in the markets, because there are markets for this food, and let our young people do what they know how to do, which is work hard and grow food?”

SILT's organizers are hoping their approach strikes a chord with like-minded farmers. Those interested have until November 15th to apply for the lease. 

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter