Guest Columnist

Proposed rules threaten Johnson County farm families

Three generations of farmers in the Wall family - John Wall, Tom Wall and Greg Wall.
Three generations of farmers in the Wall family - John Wall, Tom Wall and Greg Wall.

In 2016 my family’s farm, located in Johnson County, received a Century Farm Award, recognizing that our family had owned, cared for and cultivated the land for the last 100 years. With the birth of my niece and nephew this past year, our dream is that this farm would be passed on to the next generation and they would be stewards of the land and take care of it to pass on to their children someday. However, that dream we have worked so hard for is severely threatened with the Unified Development Ordinance being proposed.

From August: Johnson County development update is ready for review

Johnson County Planning, Development and Sustainability website

It is listed that the purpose of Chapter 8:1 Johnson County’s zoning regulations) is to protect, maintain and enhance the public health, safety and welfare, to conserve property values throughout the county and to lessen or reduce congestion on public roads and highways by ensuring that land uses are appropriately sited and regulated.

I too believe these are important issues, and my family works tirelessly to protect, maintain, and enhance our land through various conservation programs. In fact, since 2015, our family has voluntarily participated in the USDA’s Conservation Stewardship Program and plants on average, 400 acres of cover crops each year. It is in our own best interest to care for our land so it can be passed on to the next generation. However, there is a better way to go about this that doesn’t include a 300-page ordinance requiring a public hearing each time a farmer wants to construct a new building.

As a registered and licensed dietitian I am uniquely qualified to see the consequences of this ordinance, including increased food costs for the consumer. By raising hogs in a building that utilizes the most modern and environmentally conscious technology, we are able to protect them from temperature extremes, easily collect manure to fertilize our land, and more easily monitor animal health. If we were only able to raise a fraction of the number of hogs in the same space, many of the production costs remain the same (labor, shelter, property taxes) and so the cost to raise each hog increases. In the end this increased cost of production gets passed on to the consumer.

In 2014 the Johnson County Board of Supervisors commissioned a Johnson County Hunger Task Force to address the increasing number of residents facing food insecurity. According to task force’s February 2016 report, 14.2 percent of Johnson County residents are food insecure, which is higher than our state’s average of 12.7 percent. Having lived and worked as a registered dietitian in Johnson County for the past six years, I have interfaced with many of the county’s citizens who are food insecure. They are in need of high-quality, nutrient-dense foods, such as pork. The last thing citizens of our county need, particularly those who are food insecure, are increased food costs.

Another unintended consequence of passing this ordinance would be increased need to purchase fertilizer. Livestock production in Iowa supplies about 25 percent of Iowa’s cropland fertilizer needs. When livestock production is limited on a parcel of land to the proposed amounts (which page 73 of the proposed ordinance sets out to do), the amount of natural fertilizer available for farmers from their livestock is insufficient, so they need to purchase more, which in turn takes away from their economic viability. That purchased fertilizer is not the safe and responsible recycling of nutrients within our ecosystem; it must be mined, refined, and transported. The environmental impacts of supporting this ordinance are clear and scientifically backed: more mining, more carbon emissions, more pollution.

Speaking of natural fertilizer (manure), did you realize there are only a handful of days when the odor from the manure is distinct? Usually the smell is noticed when manure is being moved to the field. To help reduce odor during this time, some farmers even use a drag-hose to pump manure straight from the barn into the field. In addition, farmers who have pigs in modern barns will incorporate their manure into the soil to reduce odor and runoff. Before my family constructs a hog barn, we have conversations with our neighbors who live close to the building site. My family (as do many other farm families) lives close to many of our hog barns, so it only makes sense that we would be conscious of odor management. That odor management gets better every day as new technology and animal diet is tailored to make farm odor a thing of the past.

Animal care is a top priority on our farm, and we take that responsibility seriously. As part of the We Care initiative from the National Pork Board, we pledge to uphold a core set of ethical principles, including producing safe food, protecting and promoting animal well-being, and safeguarding natural resources in all of our practices. Any new building my brother would construct would be built to align with these ethical principals and use the best practices of the Coalition to Support Iowa’s Farmers.

If this ordinance is passed, it will be setting our county, and its citizens, up for failure. With the weather and markets out of our control, the last thing farmers need is another unpredictable variable. If ratified, my brother would need to receive a governmental blessing before he can remodel or construct any new building (pages two and three of ordinance) on our farm.

Keep in mind, some of our existing hog buildings were built in the 1960s and are in desperate need of replacement. If he is denied his right to construct a new building on his own property, he will be forced to rely on buildings that are less environmentally friendly and less safe working conditions for he and my mom. The technology of modern buildings has a proven record of being the most environmentally friendly, safe and odor-reducing in the history of the human race. Using outdated buildings can also increase our cost of production, because disease-risk among the livestock is higher and the necessary building repairs go against our bottom line.

If my brother were to decide to construct a barn outside the ordinance parameters, he would be initially fined $750, followed by a $1,000 per day fine, and even face a 30-day jail sentence (pages 279 and 280 of ordinance). Such extreme conditions are a surefire way to guarantee our farm would no longer be economically viable. I hope you see the arrogance of this ordinance; live your life on your property how the government dictates, or you will be made a criminal. Land of the free and home of the brave, indeed.

While I am able to illustrate an important piece of what is affected by this ordinance, I have only scratched the surface on the 300-page document of overbearing governance. I urge each of the Johnson County supervisors to withhold passing the radical restrictions presented in the Unified Development Ordinance. They have been elected to their position to represent all citizens in our county, and an ordinance such as this would run contrary to their duty. These actions being proposed are not representative of our county’s, state’s, or nation’s principals or laws.

I ask for you to consider how you would feel if you were bullied in your own home to submit to the will of people who have no knowledge of your way of life, no knowledge of the passion held for taking care of the land, and no remote understanding of the science to which that knowledge and passion is applied for the betterment of our fellow man.

Rachel Sweeney is a registered dietitian whose family owns a century farm in Johnson County.

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