Land Trust Is Stewarding Future Iowan Farmers

The Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT) is working to provide small farmers in Iowa with affordable land that improves environmental resources and access to fresh produce.

“Our food dollars travel around the world and into the pockets of people who don’t live where we grow [food], so they don’t suffer the consequences of poisoned water and pig manure air,” Suzan Erem, Executive Director at SILT, tells Food Tank.

Industrial agriculture’s excessive use of fertilizers is contaminating the water supply, hurting small Iowa farmers and the public, according to a study by the Environmental Working Group.

Farmers are also suffering from consolidated farmland. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) 2017 Census Report shows a decrease of almost three percent of farms over a five-year period. The small and mid-sized farms are not completely lost, but consolidated into larger units, according to Iowa State University.

“The industrial system that sealed the fate of family farms demands bigger farms growing fewer crops,” says Erem. “Most farmers own or lease many hundreds if not thousands of acres of land…They’re on a debt treadmill to pay off farm equipment, seed, spray, and either land or rent.”

SILT aims to redistribute farmland in Iowa and provide opportunities for small farmers who want to practice sustainable farming but do not have access to land. They do so through conservation easements – legal agreements that permanently limit the use of the land – and by leasing land donated to the Trust. 

SILT requires the easements to remain farmland and that farmers who buy the land receive a third-party sustainability certification. Because small-scale farmers are the only ones who can follow these requirements, SILT is able to sell the land to small farmers at half of its market value, says Erem.

“America was built on land theft from Native Americans, freed slaves, and farmers who couldn’t make the mortgage,” Erem tells Food Tank. “Our model changes the trajectory of that story to one of land as a common good, not a commodity.”

Farmers who do not want to make a long-term commitment also have the opportunity to enter a three-year lease agreement on the land donated to the Trust. After the lease is up, SILT may offer a lifetime lease to the farmer. And when the land is available again, SILT will reimburse the money that the farmer and their family put into structures on the land.

“We essentially take the land off the market for anyone but other sustainable food farmers,” says Erem. “We’ve already protected 935 acres on nine farms and helped put or keep 20 farmers on farms in just five years.”

SILT offers an ideal opportunity for young farmers to obtain land with little to no debt, explains Adrian White, who farms on land donated to SILT. And she says that donors appreciate that they can pass down valuable farmland that will continue to be conserved.

“We’re in the midst of the biggest wealth and land transfer in modern history,” Erem tells Food Tank. “When it’s over, what will the Heartland look like? Only people who own land can determine that.”

Photo courtesy of the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust

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