Staff Editorials

Does the future of small town Iowa depend on lessons from our past?

Cliff Jette/The Gazette

Susan Erem, president of SILT (Sustainable Iowa Land Trust) stands Monday in the orchard at her
Cliff Jette/The Gazette Susan Erem, president of SILT (Sustainable Iowa Land Trust) stands Monday in the orchard at her farm near West Branch.

Iowa is a national and international leader in production of corn, soybeans, eggs and pork — even if much of what’s produced here is shipped elsewhere.

At the same time, produce departments at local grocery stores are home to tomatoes from Florida, grapes from California and apples from Washington — items that were once more easily sourced during the season from local producers.

Last Sunday, our editorial took a closer look at how federal agricultural policy pushed farms to grow larger and produce more per acre and how such consolidation has negatively affected the economies of smaller towns throughout our state.

There’s no going back to the old days when small-scale, diversified farms were the norm — nor would we necessarily want to — but that past just might provide lessons we can apply in our work to revitalize and expand local ag-dependent economies.


“Diversity builds resilience,” says Suzan Erem, president of the newly established Sustainable Iowa Land Trust. “When you look at a prairie, you know it is resilient because of all the different types of plants it includes. One insect or one disease can’t wipe out the whole thing. That’s what we learn from nature. We believe diversity within our agricultural industries will do the same thing.”

SILT’s goal is to acquire farmland and earmark it for sustainable, healthy food production. As a part of that primary mission, the group helps connect beginning farmers with land and local market opportunities.

“I believe this model of resilience from diversity is also true of our geographic landscape,” she said. “If we have a more diverse landscape — economic, social, cultural, or even population wise — it is more resilient, then no one thing can come in and cause a massive disturbance across the state. If we rely on everyone living in big cities and just a handful of people in our rural communities, or on massive farms of one or two crops, I think we make ourselves very vulnerable to outside forces, to the global economy, to climate change … to things I can’t even imagine. It makes us more vulnerable.


“But if our geographic landscape includes a variety of small towns, metro areas and suburbs, then I think we’re all in it together and, if one sector gets hit, the others can be there for them.”

Similarly, Sustainable Farm Partners hopes to provide options for producers who want to farm at scale, but in a different way. The company, founded by Harn Soper, an Iowa native and farmland owner who now lives in New Mexico, brings in investment partners, secures Iowa farmland and then begins a three-year process to convert the land to organic production. It has six farm team networks across the state and, as land is purchased for conversion, it typically moves into a crop share agreement with a local operator, who is given right of first refusal for purchasing the land after a 10-year agreement. The company establishes contracts to sell what’s produced.

“Damage was done to rural America decades ago, when farmers were told by the USDA to ‘get big or get out.’ That really turned Iowa into a mono-cropping state, concentrating on corn and soybeans, which just eviscerated our rural communities,” Soper said.

The difference between Iowa agriculture in the past and today, he says, is the difference between soil and dirt.

“In farming terms, a farmer can work hard to raise a crop, but if the land is deficient in essential nutrients and dependent on non-renewable resources, that farmer is poor … hence the term ‘dirt poor.’ If, however, his land is rich in organic matter and his farming practice is sustainable and renews the soil, he is ‘soil rich.’ That’s the difference between soil and dirt,” he said.


These organizations are just two of many working to diversify Iowa’s agricultural production and economies to complement large-scale conventional corn and bean production.

Erem and SILT believe farming to scale has pushed many beginning farmers from the marketplace. That is, few young people have the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to purchase the land and equipment needed to begin even a modest farming production.

Both are highly focused on sustainability — and not just in terms of the farmland and environment. They want to establish and enable farmers to support themselves, their families and communities.


“There are three legs to sustainability,” Soper says. Support people. Support the planet. Support profits.

“You must have all three legs on the sustainability stool. If you pull one out, the stool falls over. If you want to have something that’s lasting, it must include all three.”

It takes a lot of groundwork. Even after two years of research, SILT was born only after a diverse group of people — many of whom continue to serve on the board and as advisers — came together for two days in Perry to fully flesh out what they thought was missing from Iowa’s agricultural economy and how they might add those missing pieces.

Creating networks of landowners, farmers and markets, even given current demand for local, sustainable produce, can take a lot of work.

“We have begun reaching out to a wide variety of farm-to-table organizations, food coops and some of the largest food distributors in the state,” Erem said, indicating that all of outreach thus far has been promising. But the group is only getting started — it’s first farm launched only weeks ago — and their time horizon stretches 200 years into the future. “Our main effort is to get farmland under our control and farmers on it. We know those farmers will need markets to be sustainable, but the land has to come first.”

Soper’s stool of sustainability, specifically, the profit leg, is what he believes will ultimately influence Iowa’s agricultural future.

Not only are prices higher for certified organic produce — conventional corn is about $3.50 per bushel, while organic garners about $12 — but the marketplace for those goods is wide and expanding.

“The demand is so high mills are now asking for three year contracts,” he said. “We’re dealing directly with very larger manufacturer, and we’re discussing a 10-year contract. Imagine if a farmer knew that for the next 10 years the grain grown was going to sell for a really good price.”



If diversity is a path to resiliency, not only for Iowa’s agricultural industry, but for state and local economies, each Iowan can contribute.

“I can’t take responsibility for what other people are doing, but I can certainly take responsibility for myself,” says Soper, who jointly owns about 800 acres spread between five century farms near Emmetsburg.

Erem quotes a philosophy she’s repeatedly heard in her work with farming families: He has a right to do whatever he wants to do on his farm, but a good neighbor keeps it on his side of the fence.

“When [farm] people began spraying, they kept it on their side,” she explains. “But when things got bigger and bigger, people went to the coop and used the person it had hired to apply pesticide across a number of fields.”

“You could no longer walk over to your neighbor’s place to ask about not spraying your crops or the yard where your kids played,” she said. “It was no longer your neighbor doing the spraying.”

When it comes to rural communities, says Gary Taylor, a planning and development specialist with Iowa State University Extension and associate professor in community and regional planning, consolidation of agriculture and other industries contributes to these types of disconnections.

Linn County Planning and Development Director Les Beck, who serves as a technology adviser for SILT, says he sees potential for that model to reconnect communities and farmers. “I think many will be producing food that’s intended for a more local market in lieu of commodity agriculture,” he said. “Just from having access to foods where you know who is growing it, where it came from — not necessarily organic, but grown in a healthier manner — I think there are community health and economic development benefits from that type of model.”

But can programs like SILT or SFA alone be a revival for small town America?

“I think that’s asking a lot,” Beck said. “I think it can fill a niche, but as far as reviving, I’m not willing to go out on that limb. I certainly think it is a really important concept, really important opportunity. But as far as providing a hug influx — as far as returning us to 1940s agriculture, no, and I don’t think that’s what we want to have happen. We aren’t really looking for a replacement for modern agriculture, but things to fill the void it cannot.”


In other words, finding ways to create and support an “all of the above” agricultural economy that reaps the benefits of large-scale production and smaller-scale, interconnected agricultural producers that will help complement and support Iowa’s smaller towns.

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