Land for Young Farmers: When One Random Act Turns into a Movement

Chuck Isenhart

Today, we’re hearing from Suzan Erem, Executive Director of the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust. Suzan is a tireless advocate for keeping land in the hands of small farmers, supporting rural communities, and empowering the next generation of land stewards. She became involved in this first-hand when she purchased land and partnered with other concerned Iowan citizens to protect farms and now gets farmers started on their own debt-free parcels. Small, diversified farms are an irreplaceable component of regenerative agricultural and a sustainable agricultural system. Suzan is taking tangible action in this movement—we hope you enjoy her story!

My husband Paul Durrenberger and I lived through Iowa’s Farm Crisis in the 1980s, watching as family farmers were forced off their land. Farms grew larger as towns grew smaller. In the 1990s, the swine industry went vertical and giant confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) started cropping up. Farmers became wage and debt slaves, and neighbors lost their property values from the stench. 

Fast forward to 2010 and Monsanto’s name had been etched into the arches of ag buildings across Iowa, there were fewer farmsteads with more miles between each one. The machines had grown to Star Wars proportions and drove themselves. Water pollution was worse than ever, and everyone was 40 pounds heavier.

In Iowa, and all over the country, the gate was closing fast on family-scale, diversified farms that grew clean, healthy food for their communities. Yet at the same time, local, healthy foods were finally taking off. National sales had reached the billions and customers, the millions. Organic was something even the largest grocery chains now wanted to sell. Every aspiring farmer we met wanted to tap that market but couldn’t access land to do it.

Paul and I wondered how we could make a difference. We decided to use a windfall we had and purchase land for a young farmer who planned to grow tens of thousands of fruit and nut trees. Even with the windfall, we went into unexpected debt to get this particular parcel and knew we could never afford to do this again, so we decided to make it a permanent arrangement with an agricultural conservation easement. This way, whoever owned the land in the future would have to keep it in sustainable food production. But we couldn’t find an organization anywhere willing to enforce an easement like that. So eventually, we and 25 of the best people we could find across Iowa started one: The Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT). 

chestnut growing in a tree
Chestnuts like these can bring in $7,000 - $10,000 per acre after establishment, with no soil disturbance and often no synthetic chemical use. Photo Credit: Kathy Dice

The idea took off, and in just three years, SILT had $2.1 million in assets in five protected farms. So now we’re land rich and cash poor like every other farmer in Iowa! But we’re growing. This year, after selling enough of our farm to get out of debt, Paul and I are donating 63 acres to SILT. Once in the hands of SILT, young farmer(s) will get to walk right onto this land and start farming without any land debt, live there the rest of their lives, pass the lease onto their children, and have the option to purchase the buildings. We’re retaining some rights so that we can help in the next chapter of this land, but SILT will hold the deed for good. (At SILT we’re also breaking the cycle of farmers using their land as their retirement fund with plans to launch a savings program for our farmers. Two donors have already stepped up to seed it!)

SILT solves multiple problems. SILT farms are diversified, so they make everything more resilient from the natural environment to the farmer’s operation. The farmers are committed to improving soil health, water quality, and air quality, while reducing erosion and off-farm energy consumption, all important tenets of sustainable and regenerative agriculture. SILT farms grow fresh, healthy food that increases the supply of such food in our local economies, reducing our reliance on sodium-laced, corn syrup-saturated and processed food. SILT farming is labor intensive, which means at least for now it’s a job for young people and many of them, people who will revive what’s left of our small town economies. And, SILT farms employ whole-farm systems that use little to no synthetic chemicals and focus on retaining and building soils, improving the land’s resilience with every acre saved. 

We are facing the largest land transfer in the history of the United States, and we are losing 175 acres of farmland per hour to development. Our first job is to reach landowners and let them know they have options like SILT that value the land for its ability to sustain us in a way that regenerates it, not for the money it can make or the resources we can suck from it. Land does not have to be a commodity. It can be a common good. We’re proving that right here in Iowa. 

 

Please support your local farmland trust and all it’s doing to support regenerative and sustainable farming in your area. And, if you’re excited about how SILT is stacking the benefits of land preservation with healthy food farming, please visit silt.org for more information. 

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