Johnson County vegetable growers' message to Iowa Legislature: We want to be treated as farmers

Women who grow produce near Solon urge passage of bill they helped draft

Carmen Black (right) and Kate Edwards, both Solon area vegetable farmers, speak to Iowa legislators Tuesday, Jan. 21, 20
Carmen Black (right) and Kate Edwards, both Solon area vegetable farmers, speak to Iowa legislators Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020, in Des Moines about barriers they see to small-scale farming in Iowa. (James Q. Lynch/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — A pair of Johnson County vegetable growers asked state lawmakers Tuesday to approve changes that would free them from county regulations they see as a barrier to small-scale agriculture.

“We would like young farmers, like us, to be able to buy land and get started farming on small acreages and be able to do that without unnecessary barriers,” Carmen Black of Sundog Farm & Local Harvest CSA north of Solon told the House State Government Committee.

Black and Kate Edwards of Wild Woods Farm south of Solon called on legislators to approve House Study Bill 239, which they helped draft. Under the bill, if at least 51 percent of the annual gross revenue from a property comes from the growing, harvesting or selling of crops and livestock, it would be considered a farm regardless of how large it is.

State law, they said, is clear that farms are defined by use, not acreage. However, Johnson County for years had a “hard 40” rule that required farms to be at least 40 acres to qualify for exemptions from building permits, for example. For many young farmers, buying 40 acres is cost prohibitive, Edwards and Black said.

Under a change this month, farms smaller than 40 acres may apply for an exemption, but approval is at the discretion of the zoning director, according to Nate Mueller, assistant director of Johnson County Planning, Development and Sustainability.

“Now we look at the use of the property,” Mueller said, and an exemption may be granted “if the nature of the use of the property is farming.”

In a handout to legislators, Black and Edwards said “small-scale farming ventures need the agricultural zoning exemption granted to larger farms, and need to have it expanded to include modern-day agricultural experience activities such as on-farm education, events and markets that allow for consumers to experience the farm.”

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