Guest Columnist

Nature center invests in the next generation

Pictures of Etzel Sugar Grove Farm during an announcement at the Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Pictures of Etzel Sugar Grove Farm during an announcement at the Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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For the growing number of Iowans committed to sustainable agriculture and all its benefits, the Indian Creek Nature Center’s announcement that it will use its largest-ever gift to focus attention on sustainability and the twin topic of food security was welcome news.

George Etzel is to be commended for the generous gift of his 190-acre farm northwest of Marion. The nature center’s staff and board deserve praise for their extraordinary commitment to what will be a massive undertaking as they use this gift to educate the public, develop a nutrient reduction wetland and begin a permaculture farming operation.

Permaculture, as The Gazette’s Makayla Tendall wrote in her Feb. 27 story “Indian Creek Nature Center plans sustainable farming on donated land in Linn County,” involves organic farming practices that reuse resources to further minimize our imprint on the environment.

This project is an important step on a long journey to demonstrate the value of healthful food production and more sustainable agriculture enterprises. It also is a reminder that we should accelerate similar efforts in the best interests of our people and land.

We are seeing many positive effects as Iowa’s local food movement grows. More Iowans are enjoying the economic and lifestyle benefits that come with small-scale vegetable and fruit farming. Their customers reap the benefits of healthier, more diverse and locally grown products. And the environment is better for practices that go beyond sustainability to restore our rapidly depleting soil and improve water quality. Unfortunately, the picture is not entirely bright. Consider these sobering facts:

• Iowa loses 25 acres of farmland each day to development;

• Every year, up to 5 tons of topsoil per farmland acre blow or wash away;

• Iowa suffers some of the worst water quality in the country, and we are among the top contributing states to the algae bloom in the Gulf of Mexico;

• We import more than 90 percent of our food;

• High land prices have put the dream of growing vegetables and fruit out of reach for many young people;

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• More than half our farmland is owned by people older than 65, and one-third is owned by people older than 75, yet leaders have not stepped forward to address how we will keep this land producing food for the next generation.

As George Etzel demonstrates, Iowans are not helpless in the face of these trends. Landowners can donate land to help future generations; those who don’t still have tremendous power to support the cause. We can all be leaders and advocates for sustainable agriculture.

The Sustainable Iowa Land Trust was founded to permanently protect land in Iowa. Landowners may choose to donate property — even while retaining full use of it during their lives — or place a permanent land protection agreement on it, retaining ownership. Both options come with significant tax incentives to eligible donors.

On parcels that SILT owns, qualified farmers can secure long-term, inheritable leases that free them from a lifetime of debt. They enjoy the pride of ownership in their homes, barns and business, but SILT takes the price of the land itself out of the equation for sustainable farmers all across Iowa. Meanwhile, land protection agreements, called an agricultural conservation easement, can cut the purchase price by as much as half because of the permanent restrictions to grow food in a nature-friendly way, making land for sustainable food farmers affordable for generations to come. SILT monitors and enforces those easements. And, SILT works with city planners and private developers around Iowa to build small farms into the planning process. These independent, family farms will provide a diverse, healthy landscape, increasing nearby home values while attracting new businesses seeking a high quality of life for their employees.

In only a few years since its founding, SILT already protects five farms totaling nearly 400 acres across Iowa. This approach gives next generation farmers a chance to get into the game while giving their communities local, healthy, fresh food, jobs and a new way to look at the world.

Terry Strait, a board member for the nature center, said the goal of the Etzel Sugar Grove Farm project is to “influence the way people think about their food and how we utilize the land … to exponentially influence practices.”

That is a mission and goal SILT shares, and one in which we encourage Iowans from all walks of life to join.

• Suzan Erem is executive director and a co-founder of the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust.

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