Guest Columnist

Remove barriers to Johnson County small farms

Pepper plants grow at the Johnson County Poor Farm in Iowa City on Wednesday, June 7, 2017. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Pepper plants grow at the Johnson County Poor Farm in Iowa City on Wednesday, June 7, 2017. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

There is a huge need for more farmers, as Iowa’s population is aging and a tremendous farmland transition is taking place. Fifty-six percent of Iowa farmland is owned by people over the age of 65, according to Iowa State University. Thirty percent of Iowa farmland is owned by those older than 75. Fortunately, more than 2,000 people are coming to our organizations — Practical Farmers of Iowa, Johnson County Farm Bureau, and Renewing the Countryside Farmland Access Hub — to learn how to successfully become the next generation of farmers producing food and fiber.

In every Practical Farmers’ annual survey for the past 10 years, beginning farmers have identified their biggest barrier is access to land. Together, we urge Johnson County to support ordinances that help these aspiring farmers access land and embark on farming careers.

Currently, Johnson County zoning ordinances define a farm by size, not farming activities. To even be considered a farm, one must farm at least 40 acres. This 40-acre rule is cost prohibitive for beginning farmers and keeps them from long-term land security, creating a void in Johnson County’s agricultural economy.

We realize the 40-acre rule was not intended to create barriers for beginning farmers to gain land access. However, it brings unplanned negative consequences. With its current land use plan, Johnson County has the opportunity to ensure all farmers are able to farm in this county.

The current Johnson County code contradicts the state code which ensures all farmers of all land sizes are able to access land and are granted exemption from county zoning for their land, barns and farmhouses. Iowa Code chapter 335.2 states “No ordinance ... (regarding county zoning) applies to land, farm houses, farm barns, farm outbuildings or other buildings or structures … for use for agricultural purposes.”

We appreciate the Board of Supervisors has committed to reviewing the 40-acre rule. We urge the supervisors to make sure the Johnson County Comprehensive Plan ensures farms of all sizes are allowed this exemption without additional requirements.

Please provide the opportunity for young and beginning farmers to own farm parcels less than 40 acres, raise families on their farm and provide healthy food for your dinner plate and our community’s grocery shelves. Please make it possible for farmers of all types and sizes, including livestock farmers, row crop farmers, vegetable farmers and more, to have the opportunity to farm.

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Johnson County is in the heart of one of the most diversified consumer food markets in the state. Johnson County farmers are amazingly diversified in order to meet local, state, national and international markets.

We encourage Johnson County residents to let their supervisors know you value land access for beginning farmers. You can help more young people stay in Johnson County and commit to making a healthy and sustainable living off the land. Don’t we all want to see what our young people can accomplish by living here, raising families here, and helping to bring innovations to agriculture?

• Sally Worley is executive director of Practical Farmers of Iowa. Mark Ogden is president of the Johnson County Farm Bureau. Jan Joannides is executive director of Renewing the Countryside Farmland Access Hub.

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