Guest Columnist

Johnson County plan will boost small farms

Cyclists make their way to the Johnson County Historic Poor Farm during the Farm Cycle ride on Sunday, September 16, 201
Cyclists make their way to the Johnson County Historic Poor Farm during the Farm Cycle ride on Sunday, September 16, 2018. A reincarnation of prior RadTour/Culinary Rides, September's bike ride from Iowa City had multiple stops, including the Johnson County Poor Farm, shown here, and featured local food, local music, and farm tours agricultural tours. (Ben Roberts/Freelance)

This month, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors voted in favor in the first of three votes to approve the new Uniform Development Ordinance (UDO) presented by staff of the Planning, Development and Sustainability department, with all of the 16 recommended changes from the Johnson County Planning and Zoning Commission. The UDO is the combined codes for Johnson County, including zoning code, which dictate legal uses and development opportunities for property in unincorporated areas. If the next two votes go the same way, Johnson County will have a new rule book that demonstrates increased support for agriculture.

The UDO is being updated to reflect the priorities identified in the Johnson County Board of Supervisors’ new Comprehensive Plan adopted in 2018, which includes language calling for “expanding the availability of local food across the county” and to “promote and support local food and small farm operations.”

From August: Johnson County development update is ready for review

Johnson County Planning, Development and Sustainability website

While serving on the Johnson County Food Policy Council and the Comprehensive Plan Committee, I, along with others, advocated for changes to the UDO that will reduce barriers for beginning and small-scale local food farmers, as well as to allow more opportunities for farmers to market crops and for community members to engage with agriculture.

Specifically, I support an updated UDO that includes a pathway for small-scale farmers to achieve ag-exemption, which is only currently available to farmers over 40 acres. Ag-exemption is something that was created to support farmers, but under the current county UDO, it isn’t available for those farmers who need it the most. It allows farmers to build a home for their family and/or farmworkers without applying for a building permit with the county. It also allows for the construction of necessary outbuildings without following county regulations. This saves money and time, something farmers do not generally have in excess, especially smaller market farmers. The fact that it is available to large farmers and not smaller farmers is the issue. The draft under consideration includes this pathway by a process similar to other Iowa counties for farmers who own less than 40 acres to be granted ag-exemption.

Ag-exemption was the primary topic of conversation when the board created the Food Policy Council in 2012. The council has recommended to the board annually to level the playing field and offer ag-exemption to small farmers. We import the majority of the food citizens consume here in Iowa. Farmers growing food for our community are primarily located outside of the county. To support a more community based food system, one that enhances our economic, environmental and public health, we need more farmers growing food for those living here for our growing population. Offering ag-exemption for small farmers is one small way the board can encourage more farmers growing fresh, local food here in Johnson County.

The vote last week was the first formal opportunity for the members of the Board of Supervisors to show their level of support for this change, a change that clearly supports current farmers and encourages new farmers to come to Johnson County, and a majority of the board did it without he itation. The level of supportfor agriculture is now on the record and it is clearly a priority of the majority of the members of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors.

The new draft UDO also includes new ways for farmers to offer agritourism opportunities.

Agritourism is the nexus where agriculture and tourism meet to provide consumers with educational and cultural experiences on working farms. Agritourism allows farmers to diversify their enterprises and income by sharing their farm with members of the community. As fewer people farm, more people are disconnected from the way food is grown — agritourism is a way to connect farmers, food, and eaters.

Most agritourism enterprises in Johnson County are required to apply for and receive annual conditional use permits. The permits are not permanent, only allow for limited operation and increase the level of risk for new investments. The new draft UDO allows more predictability and economic security for farmers diversifying their land-based businesses here in Johnson County.

With a majority of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors voting in support of the new draft UDO, their vote demonstrates strong support for agriculture and if it ultimately passes it will encourage more farmers to live in Johnson County and grow food for our community.

The community dialogue about the new UDO has centered on many issues that are not under the county’s purview. Farming and the regulation of farming is under state and federal jurisdiction. No county in Iowa can dictate whether a farmer has a confined animal feeding operation or limit the number of children they have or prevent rural residents from choosing farming as a profession, as citizens who spoke at the first public hearing last week declared.

The current county law regarding confined animal facilities is unchanged in the new draft. County law has no jurisdiction when it comes to these types of facilities — it is exclusively under state and federal laws. Including this topic in this debate is misleading. The Johnson County Board of Supervisors is simply updating current law to reflect the updated Comprehensive Plan adopted last year. I understand the board and many members of the public want to encourage more sustainable farming practices — I am right there with them — but the new draft UDO exclusively covers what the county has jurisdiction over.

Taking action for an elected official is always a risk. It is perfectly acceptable to keep the peace and ride out your term, citizens are unfortunately used to that and regularly enable that behavior. With the vote taken last week by the Johnson County Board of Supervisors to approve a new UDO with the recommendations from the Planning and Zoning Commission, it is clear that they are working hard to encourage the production of local foods and provide support to farmers and our agricultural community at-large.

Michelle Kenyon of Iowa City is a member of the Johnson County Food Policy Council and the 2018 Comprehensive Plan Committee.

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