Newstrack: Johnson County supervisors chart future for 'Historic Poor Farm'

Adoption of master plan kicks off years of work on new projects

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IOWA CITY — The Johnson County Board of Supervisors spent much of its summer working on a master plan for the 160-acre poor farm property, which opened in 1855 to provide housing to mentally ill and poor residents in exchange for farm work.

In recent years, there have been modest changes on the property, including new restrooms for visitors as well as two nonprofits — Grow: Johnson County and the Iowa Valley Global Food Project — starting to grow produce to benefit the food insecure and immigrants to Iowa.

In June, the supervisors were faced with choosing one of three options for how the master plan might shape the Johnson County Poor Farm in the future, each choice with more features than the last.


Earlier this month, the county held an open house so residents could view the most current plans for the poor farm.

The Board of Supervisors recently chose a concept called “New Century Farm,” which includes features like trail connections, permanent affordable housing and farm incubators, in addition to what’s currently at the property. Supervisor Mike Carberry said the consultant, HBK Engineering, also is developing a five-year implementation plan for the project.

“It was a little bit of a lot of stuff,” he said. “So there’s more concepts that are being done.”

The board also recently voted to change the facility’s name to the Johnson County Historic Poor Farm.

“We did want to honor the activity that went on out there and then to respect that,” Carberry said. “That’s why, in my mind, we put the name ‘historic’ on it.”

Also included in the New Century Farm plan is weatherproofing and ventilating the historic buildings on the property, although there won’t be heating or cooling installed.

While the asylum structure currently is open to the public by appointment for tours, uses for the other buildings are still up in the air, Carberry said. He said the county imagines the west barn could be an event center and space for programming, and the dairy barn might be an agriculture museum, a space to can food or a combination of both.

Additionally, Carberry said the county hopes to hire an employee to manage the farm’s operations, although the supervisors have yet to develop a job description for the position.

“Because there’s 160 acres and there’s a lot of projects, we’re going to be writing a lot of grants trying to find money to do some of this work,” Carberry said.

Residents will be able to see more and more changes at the farm each coming year. Carberry said up next is new signage, thanks to a grant the county received.

“As the clock ticks, you’ll see more activity going on out there and in five years it’ll be just a beehive activity,” Carberry said.

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