Size matters when it comes to farming

Rules make it tough for smaller farmers in urban counties

Renee Harper, an Iowa City resident who has worked as a farm hand for two years, harvests romaine lettuce among other fa
Renee Harper, an Iowa City resident who has worked as a farm hand for two years, harvests romaine lettuce among other fall season crops at Salt Fork Farms in Solon on Friday, October 17, 2014. Smaller niche farmers are seeing recognition because of Johnson County’s zoning codes that recognizes a farmer as having more than 40 acres, but local food markets are made up of smaller farmers with only a handful of acres. (Sy Bean/The Gazette)

SOLON — When it comes to farming, it’s a question of whether bigger is better.

Just ask Eric Menzel, of Salt Fork Farms outside of Solon. Menzel raises about 350 head of chicken and turkeys and grows dozens of vegetables such as carrots, asparagus, daikon radish, kale, okra, eggplant and more.

“Part of me doesn’t want to be any bigger,” said Menzel, who, as a new farmer starting out in 2010 buying three acres, is what he could afford and manage with more labor intensive organic practices.

“I’d have to make more money, have bigger machinery and more machinery. How I work now is more manageable. I have a small tractor, small tiller and the rest is done by hand,” he said.

Increasing demand for locally grown fruit, vegetables and meats have spurred entrepreneurs to launch small-scale farms that sell to farmers markets, community supported agriculture programs — commonly called CSAs — grocers, restaurants and face to face to customers.

The emerging breed of farmer has raised a seemingly odd question in a state where agriculture is king: How do you define a farm?

In Johnson County, a farm is defined as at least 40 contiguous acres used for agricultural purposes.

The threshold is designed to limit haphazard development or sprawl in rural areas, but it leaves out small farmers such as Menzel who subsist on small profit margins and creativity.

By Johnson County’s definition, conventional farms are exempt from most zoning ordinances that regulate what happens on the land, such as building a new structure. Salt Fork Farms and others of that size are not considered farms by this definition, and thus subject to requirements that can prove costly and time consuming.

Menzel confronted this issue when he considered building a commissary kitchen on the farm to jar produce and make meals for resale with the approximately 30 percent of produce that goes to waste. This would be a way to stretch profits, he said.

But the plan fizzled when he realized how much additional costs he’d face to meet code requirements.

“A conventional farmer can put up a building by himself, be his own plumber, his own roofer and save thousands of dollars,” Menzel said. “It’s not a fair situation.”

Michelle Kenyon, chairwoman of the Johnson County Food Policy Council, and Amanda Pieper, chairwoman of the Linn County Food Systems Council, said they hear similar concerns from many small farmers in their areas.

“They just want to be looked at as equals,” Pieper said. “The biggest thing is on the administrative side — there’s a lot more hoops to jump through.”

“Farmers report the zoning laws in Johnson and Linn counties are more constrictive than other counties in Iowa,” Sally Worley, of Practical Farmers of Iowa said in an email. “In Linn and Johnson, small farmers feel like zoning is creating more barriers than helping.

“The farmers in Johnson and Linn are cognizant and respectful of safety, but they feel Johnson and Linn zoning laws are going above that.”

Johnson and Linn Counties launched the food councils to find ways to better support the growing local food systems that are expanding to schools, rooftops gardens and backyard chicken pens.

Johnson County’s council recently issued a list of six recommendations, including redefining “farmers” to recognize those with fewer than 40 acres as well as allowing food processing on their land, which had been another no-no.

R.J. Moore, Johnson County Planning and Zoning’s assistant director who works with the food council, said while the county is familiar with the needs of conventional farmers, they are still learning how to work with smaller farmers.

“Local farmers want to do value-added agriculture, not just processing but retailing from their property and hosting dinners,” he said.

Moore said he recognizes the need to reexamine the definition of a farm while not loosening rules so much that retail buildings are being erected without permits, creating possible safety risks.

The county has changed rules to allow processing fruits and vegetables, and it is working on rules for meat and poultry processing, he said. He said the county also would look at whether size is the best way to define a farm.

“A level playing field has to be created,” he said.

Jason Grimm, the food system planner for Iowa Valley Resource Conservation and Development, is an adviser to both the Linn and Johnson County food councils. He said that while some rural counties don’t have zoning rules — which makes it easier for farmers — Johnson County’s rules are very tough.

Farmers just starting out face challenges with the high cost of land and the lack of insurance available for many of their products, which are not considered commodities. It makes it risky for a vegetable farmer to go big, he said.

However, with increased demand from sustainability- and health-conscious customers willing to pay a premium for high quality produce grown miles from home. these farmers typically can succeed on the small-scale in the right setting, Grimm said.

“Smaller-scale farmers are always having to prove themselves as being a farm,” Grimm said. “Most give up or don’t even try. It reduces the chance for Johnson County farmers and citizens to live with strong agricultural value and food ethics.”

Paul Lasley, professor and department chairman of sociology at Iowa State University, works on the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll.

He said Iowa needs to be looking at all models of agriculture, from large-scale industrial operations to the very small-scale, labor-intensive farms. He noted the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a farm as any place from which at least $1,000 of agricultural products are produced and sold.

A definition that includes sales might remove barriers for smaller farmers, he said.

“If we learned anything from the World Food Prize in Des Moines, we face the challenge of feeding nine billion people by the middle of this century,” Lasley said.

“We need entrepreneurial and inventive farmers, whether in rural areas or a city, to contribute to feeding the population.”

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