Landowners in Iowa have developed what could be a nationwide model for land conservation specifically for growing sustainable food through a newly-formed nonprofit, Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT).
It's a first-of-its kind partnership between landowners, land developers, farmers, local food advocates and planners, the Globe Gazette (http://bit.ly/1wK4y1p ) reports.
SILT is a nonprofit land trust that allows Iowans to donate land or protect it with permanent restrictions, called easements, before that land is paved over by development or plowed under by a larger farm.
In return, the group commits to protect that land for sustainable food production in perpetuity. Land and easement donations can come with long-term tax benefits. Landowners can choose to donate all or part of their farm and continue to live on their land for as long as they choose.
Former Mason City resident Mary Ellen Miller is the first person to donate arable land to the program. The land is in south central Iowa.
"I've worked for the past 25 years independently and though various organizations advocating for this type of program in Iowa," said Miller, noting there already are programs in place to protect natural spaces but not farmland for growing food.
While Miller has been in support of such a program for many years, she said two cultural shifts make it timely.
She said Iowa's demographics have been moving from rural to urban areas, which has put pressure on cities to develop more housing. That in turn has caused areas such as Des Moines to develop farmland to meet its needs.
The second cultural shift is that the movement to urban areas doesn't allow people to grow their own food; however, there is growing demand for locally grown food.
Iowa imports 90 percent of its food, according to Crossroads Resource Center, which has studied the state. Decreasing that reliance on out-of-state production increases farming opportunities for Iowans, SILT leaders say.
"In the face of food insecurity, commodity price fluctuations and climate change, growing more of our own food just makes sense," said SILT President Suzan Erem, a farmland owner from Cedar County. "If we don't start protecting land near our cities and towns, we can say goodbye to the whole notion of local."
Both cultural shifts show the importance of protecting Iowa land for growing food, Miller said. She hopes other land owners will follow in her footsteps.
"For me it is sustainable food production," she said about her land donation requirements. "I'm not requiring it to be organic. I want to limit or prevent someone to be able to develop the land for housing."
Row crops also won't be allowed on the land, she added, noting that it's not suitable for corn or soybeans.
SILT also will help new farmers get into the field. By permanently protecting land to grow healthy food, SILT removes development and commodity price pressures, reducing land costs for farmers and eventually lowering the price of the food that's grown on it for their customers.
SILT is launching with Miller's donation and more than 1,500 acres of farmland being considered for permanent protection.
The Iowans who started SILT hail from all backgrounds and regions of the state. The group's advisory council and board include farmers, planners, Democratic and Republican leaders, health and local foods advocates and philanthropists in a blend of political and geographic diversity.
SILT is also bringing together unlikely partners: farmers and real estate developers. Through SILT, well-known family farm advocates like O'Brien, dairy farmer Francis Thicke and beginning farmer Jason Grimm are joining forces with real estate interests, such as People's Co., the state's largest land broker, and Hubbell Realty Co., its largest developer.
Row crop farmer Harn Soper, founder of Sustainable Farm Partners LLP (SFP) in Emmetsburg, which owns 4,000 acres, says SILT would be the ideal solution for his investor group as it transitions land to the next generation.
"SILT provides the mechanism through which SFP can make sure that when its farmland ownership is passed along, that farmland will remain organic into the future," Soper said.
The state's largest developer also sees SILT's potential.
"Hubbell Realty works to provide options to home buyers as well as solutions to community needs," said Joe Pietruszynski, vice president of land development for Hubbell Realty in Des Moines. "Our Conservation Communities have been very successful in providing a water quality solution and a different lifestyle choice for the homebuyer - now we are researching how we can assemble the right team to offer developments with organic farms. Hubbell applauds SILT's efforts to keep markets and farmers close together and build organic farms into communities."
Hubbell Realty plans to partner with SILT on future projects to protect those farms forever. This new approach fundamentally redefines "community" to include food production alongside housing_two social and environmental ecosystems that sustain both community and farmer. Preserving healthy farms affects city residents as well, and could inspire urban farming practices to take hold.