On a side street near the Des Moines Water Works, a tall fence surrounds three garden plots. Geese fly overhead while trucks drive past a sign between the road and the fence. It says: “Industrial Development Land For Sale, Contact City of Des Moines.”
Until recently, the city rented the land for growing vegetables, but now it’s been rezoned and put up for sale.
“Because it was flood zone, it hadn’t been developed so the soil here was just nice soil,” said Zachary Couture, land and production specialist for Lutheran Services in Iowa (LSI). This is one of the places where LSI has helped immigrants grow vegetables. One man ran a small business selling Asian eggplant and other produce he grew here.
There’s already been a hard frost, but Couture stoops by a row of lettuce, picks some and eats it.
“Oh yeah, it’s still good,” he says, handing some to Tika Bhandari. “I mean, I’ve had better, but…”
Bhandari takes it and agrees it’s good lettuce. Originally from Bhutan, Bhandari has lived in Des Moines for nearly a decade. Once she and her father settled here, they set about trying to grow ginger because that had been the backbone of her dad’s business back home.
“Coming here, growing ginger was hard because of [the] environment and whatnot and we went to a couple trainings but it still didn’t work,” she said. Her father passed away before she found success. “I’m growing some ginger in my greenhouse. I think my dad is looking from up and he is proud of me.”
Now, Bhandari is one of the LSI farmers who doesn’t know where she’ll grow her produce next year.
Across the Midwest, development in urban areas is increasingly putting pressure on the value of land that could be used for food production or has historically been in agriculture. Couture said one private business that rented a plot to LSI suddenly sold it this year.
“I just came from that other site in West Des Moines that was sold,” he said. “They’re going to build a parking lot on it.”
LSI still has a training farm on land that a church owns and has some immigrants growing produce in community gardens. But when someone graduates from the training farm and is ready to start a business, LSI has typically been able to find two to five acre plots available for rent. Now they’re considering a larger plot within commuting distance of Des Moines that would have space for many small farmers, but that’s an even more daunting proposition.
Even though the agricultural economy has been struggling for the past few years with low prices for corn and soybeans, weather challenges, the tariff exchange with China and other trade uncertainties, land values have stabilized.
Iowa, Nebraska and other states conduct annual surveys of farmland value and areas close to cities show values that exceed what farming alone would suggest.
“Best use for a property that's an hour west of Lincoln or Omaha might be in farmland, but if the towns or the cities grow over time—southern Lincoln, northwest Omaha would be two examples—some of those properties might be in a transitional state,” said Jim Jansen, an ag economist at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. That means the price a developer might pay for it contributes to the valuation.
In Iowa, this year’s survey found the highest farm land values in Scott County.
Wendong Zhang, the Iowa State University economist who conducts the annual survey, says that’s partly because the county borders the Mississippi River but also because the Quad Cities continue to expand.
LaVon Griffieon has been a witness to urban expansion for decades. Her farm in Polk County, Iowa is now almost completely surrounded by the city of Ankeny, though when she moved to the land her husband’s family has farmed for more than 100 years, Ankeny was three miles away. Housing subdivisions are visible from her fields and across the gravel road from her home a sign announces the field will soon be the home of a new MidAmerican Energy substation. In 1982, Griffieon and her husband bought a parcel for $1200 an acre and found that price exorbitant. Now, she’s seen land near her going for $8-10,000 per acre.
“If a developer wants it, it's $25 to 50,000, depending on how big a chunk he's buying, whether he's buying the whole farm or just a little section of it,” she said.
Griffieon says realtors and developers don’t come knocking on her door asking her to sell because she’s been an outspoken supporter of maintaining quality farmland for years. She helped found 1000 Friends of Iowa, a nonprofit focused on what it calls responsible land use. Griffieon says she is not categorically opposed to development, but she absolutely values the quality of the fertile land she farms.
“The soil, it can be seven foot down before you can hit clay. And it's just phenomenal,” she said, “It's the kind of land that other people in the world can only pray about. And probably most of them don't even know such land would exist where you can plant a seed and it's going to grow. So it's ridiculous to be putting ticky tack little houses on that.”
For about 20 years, though, her family has rented a small piece of land to Hmong farmers so they can grow vegetables. She has four children and their generation intends to continue farming. They’ve also pushed the family into raising more livestock and the nearby housing means there are plenty of people to buy the meat and eggs the family direct-markets to customers.
Griffieon says with her children planning to continue the farm operation, she hasn’t looked at any sort of legal protection such as an easement. But west of Des Moines, Bob Winchell has 25 acres he’s trying to guarantee will continue to be farmed in perpetuity. His wife died about 18 months ago and he’s the executor of her estate, which includes the land near Earlham, Iowa, that is currently farmed by a tenant.
“I’m responsible for seeing that her wishes are carried out so that whatever happens to it in the future, it’s maintained in agriculture,” Winchell said. So he contacted the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust, which acts as an intermediary connecting farmers in search of land with acres that are preserved for farming.
Winchell’s wife bought the land about 10 years ago and he had it appraised as part of the probate process, which is ongoing.
“It has shown almost a 300 percent increase in the value of the property,” he said.
He invited some of LSI’s farmers to come see the land and continues to explore a possible arrangement with them.
Zachary Couture says another landowner also is in discussions with the agency about renting some land for the immigrant farmers. LSI is hopeful longer-term leases on larger properties will allow it to sub-lease to graduates of its farm training program without having to turn around every year or two to look for new plots.
Back at the plot in Des Moines, Couture continues to poke around the near-frozen rows of dark soil and pulls up a carrot. Then he tugs hard on the chains around the gate to secure the fence before leaving. But he says the fence will eventually have to come down. LSI hopes to salvage the materials, now that this site won’t be farmed again.
Maybe next season he’ll help some farmers erect it again on some of Winchell’s acres.