All Farmers Are Farmers

The Board of Supervisors is working our way toward the finish line on the nearly year-and-a-half-long process of writing the County’s first-ever Comprehensive Plan.  As its name implies, this plan is far broader than the preceding decennial efforts called “Land Use Plans,” though land use is certainly a major factor in it, and was certainly the focus of Thursday’s 30th public opportunity for the people of Johnson County to weigh in directly.

This public hearing was held during our formal meeting, and the overflow crowd was a testament both to the importance of this document and the strong public interest in it.  A sizeable majority of those who came to speak wanted to talk about the “40-acre rule,” which has been used for decades to “define” a farm, for zoning and tax purposes.  Simply put, currently in Johnson County a property must be a minimum of 40 contiguous acres to qualify to be taxed as agricultural land (as opposed to the more expensive categories), and to qualify for the “ag exemption” to various building requirements.  But the courts have ruled that we can't do it that way, so it will have to change in some way fairly soon.

Among the many things the Comp Plan seeks to address is finding a remedy for the growing number of farmers, many of them young and/or beginning farmers, who want to grow local food for local families on smaller plots of land, but cannot afford to because those farms would not qualify for the aforementioned exemptions.  All who know me know I am a vociferous advocate for small farms and local food.  So why not simply repeal the rule, right?  After all, as one farmer there said, “All farmers are farmers.”

Indeed they are.  Whether they are growing five of acres of vegetables, or tending a small herd of goats; whether they operate large feeding operations or plant corn and soy from fencerow to fencerow on a thousand acres, all farmers are farmers.  They are deserving of respect for the work that they do, for the food they provide, and like all of us, simply for being fellow human beings.  Too often we get so enraptured by our particular viewpoints and so defensive of our particular “tribes” that we forget to show compassion for – and work toward understanding – other people.  I do not exempt myself from this statement, although I am always striving.

Sometimes I wonder if our shorthand name for this process, “The Comp Plan,” might better stand for “Complicated” rather than “Comprehensive.”  In my short time in this office so far, this has become the best example I have seen of the old cliché, “The devil is in the details.”

Before I get into said details, it bears reiterating, as I have said in this space and elsewhere, the Comp Plan is a broad guiding document, a “30,000-foot view,” which lays out where we want to go rather than specifically how we will get there.  Much of the “how” happens in the Unified Development Ordinance, or UDO, and revisions to that will occur over the next year or so, heavily informed by whatever we end up deciding in the Comp Plan.  The Comp Plan cannot, for example, amend or repeal the 40-acre rule. Whatever that change may look like in the end, it has to happen though an ordinance.

So, about those devils and those details.  They are likely too complex for me to lay out in a couple of pages, and in fact seem to breed their own additional complications as each idea is addressed, so there will be obstacles we still have not recognized yet that we will want to overcome.  But obstacles are what you see when you take your eyes off the goal, and the goal in this case is to help the strong, dynamic local food farmers like the ones we saw in our board room Thursday.  Or that is my goal here, hopefully without doing any harm to any other stakeholders.  Perhaps you can already see how this is getting sticky.

I see two broad challenges.

  1. How do we repeal or reform the 40-acre rule in a way that does not create a backdoor route to urban sprawl?
  2. How do we prevent this revision from leading to CAFOs stacked like cordwood across our southern townships?

Let’s say you’ve decided that you’ve decided that you want to become a blueberry farmer.  So you buy 8-10 acres of ag-zoned land just outside of Morse, build a nice house on an acre or two of it with a yard and a playground for the kids, and plant the rest to blueberries.  There’s no more 40-acre rule and you’re growing a crop on what was ag-land when you bought it, so, you get taxed at that rate and you can build whatever outbuildings you want without adhering to the codes the residential properties have to abide by.

A year or two goes by but then a particularly harsh winter kills half your blueberries, or you simply discover that farming is hard, and you plow it all under and replace it with turf grass.  Now you have 8-10 acres of residential property on ag-zoned land.

Anticipating such a scenario, the county instead places use requirements on such a piece of land, and if you stop farming, you lose your designation.  Two problems arise here. The first is policing – how does the county ensure the rules are being adhered to?  One suggestion is the use of what’s called a “Schedule F,” which is a federal tax document farmers use to report farm income (thus, farm activity) to the Feds.  Perhaps the county could require that a copy be filed each year with our zoning folks.  I had thought this was a good answer until “Farmer Kate” Edwards of Wild Wood Farms reminded me at the meeting that state code says we can’t use the income a farm makes to define it as a farm.  Perhaps this can be figured out by lawyers, but it is definitely a sticking point.

The second challenge is that even if we have a way to police it, how do we enforce it?  Say for a moment the Schedule F thing is workable, and you stop filing your blueberry farm’s Schedule F with the county because you plowed your bushes under 18 moths ago.  It is not as if the county would be empowered to take the land, and no one would want that to be the remedy anyway.  But it could tax it at a much higher residential rate.  If you’re struggling financially you could lose your home.  If, however, you are wealthy, perhaps you won’t care that the taxes are higher, and presto, you have your back door to a mini-estate, out in the country, far from anything, with a house and maybe a pole barn that are not up to code.

So that’s the “Back Door Challenge.”  What about the CAFOs?

First a word about the term, “CAFO.”  It is an abbreviation for either “concentrated” or “confined” animal feeding operation.  The DNR actually has legal definitions that kind of differentiate, stating that a “confinement” is one of two forms of AFOs, or animal feeding operations.  The other type has a partial roof and is part open-air, fenced-in dirt pen.  Nevertheless “CAFO” has come to be a sort of common vernacular for all the closed-in ones regardless of size, almost like calling all tissue “Kleenex,” and that can sometimes confuse the issues.

There were a few farmers at our public hearing who were there to speak for these types of farms, who like the young vegetable farmers were just trying to get started in farming.  They put forth strong arguments that they are good stewards of the land and take great care with their animals.  Meanwhile there was at least one person who came to speak solely and adamantly against such operations, arguing that they are cruel to the animals and a danger to the environment.  So who is right?  Probably both, and probably neither.

Unfortunately this argument, which I have followed closely and studied diligently for more than 20 years, has become a little bit like – if you’ll forgive me – like the abortion debate: in that anyone who has already made up their mind, one way or the other, is exceedingly unlikely to have their position swayed.

I have no doubt that the farmers from animal feeding operations we heard from at the public hearing, in fact an overwhelming majority of all farmers, are good people with good hearts who care deeply about the land and are simply trying to make a living in what President Kennedy once called, “The only business where you buy at retail, sell at wholesale and pay freight both ways.”  It is grueling, dangerous work with razor thin margins being done by an ever-decreasing number of ever-aging Iowans.  It is downright wrong to condemn them for the work that they do.

I suspect you can see the “But…” coming.

There are valid concerns about the impact of concentrating very large numbers of animals on very small spaces.  While the definition of “cruel” may be a subjective one, it is hard, for me at least, to look at any animal spending most of its existence crowded into a small pen with several others or locked into a smaller pen where it can hardly turn around, and not see that as cruel.  In addition, while anyone on any side of the issue can find studies that support their particular viewpoint, an overwhelming majority of the ones I have seen, from non-biased and peer-reviewd sources such as the National Institutes of Health, point to the strong dangers to our environment, especially our waterways, threatened by the proliferation of these types of operations.  Lastly, speaking as a chef with nearly four decades of experience cooking professionally, the resulting meat just isn’t as flavorful as that from animals allowed to live at least most of their lives outside, behaving and eating as nature designed them to.

Politically speaking though, one thing in particular has baffled me.  All the confinement operators I’ve met insist that they are good farmers who employ all the best practices – from the cleanliness and climate control of their buildings to the proper engineering of their waste lagoons to the judicious application of manure to fields.  I have no reason not to take them at their word.  But as with nearly any profession, there are bad actors who give the others a bad name.  And here’s the baffling part: why aren’t the good ones leading the charge in preventing the actions of the less-than-scrupulous?  It seems to me that all I ever hear is support for voluntary compliance with best practices.  And if you ask just about any professional who studies water quality in this state and many others, they’ll tell you: a lot of operations are not voluntarily complying.  If they were we would not have the hundreds of imperiled waterways that we do.

So back to the 40-acre rule.  How do we repeal or modify the rule to allow for the production of more healthful local food on smaller farms, without making it possible – even likely – that it would encourage the proliferation of CAFOs in Johnson County?  My simple answer is: I don’t know.  But I am working hard on it.  And it bears mention that the job would be a lot easier if the Master Matrix were not badly broken, and even easier still if the county had some measure of local control.  Sadly and admittedly, we lost that control at the hands of a governor of my party, Tom Vilsack, over 20 years ago, right when the proliferation of confinements began.  Today this can only be changed at the state level (so VOTE, y'all).

For more on how local control would help, read the work of John Ikerd.

So that is where we are on this as of today, from my viewpoint at least.  The next time the Board of Supervisors will be discussing this is Wednesday, 16 May, in a work session that begins at 9am.  The first chance that there may be a vote is at the formal meeting that begins at 9am the following day, or it may be put off again until the meeting on 24 May.

I want to voice my gratitude again to all the people who showed up Thursday, especially the young farmers, as well as in the other many opportunities to speak up, and remind you all that you still (and always) have that opportunity to speak with any of us on the board.  Email seems to work best for most folks, and we are all listed at this link.  I sure would love to hear solutions from you.

I also specifically want to offer my thanks to those with whom I have disagreed, or still do.  My father taught me that one of our most valuable rights as free people is the right to change our minds, and that is never possible without listening to people with whom we disagree.  I see you, I hear you, and I am trying to do what is best for as many of the people of Johnson County as I possibly can.