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How Will Beginning Farmers Get Out of the Poor Farm?

Vegetable Farm

The Johnson County Board of Supervisors disagrees on how to use the property known as the “Poor Farm” and that’s okay.

There’s no surprise something will be done with the property, especially to those paying attention. Supervisors recently decided what that may be.

In June, “The Johnson County Board of Supervisors on Friday voted (3-2) to move forward with a plan to restore and develop the historic county Poor Farm, including increasing the amount of land leased to small farmers and adding permanent affordable housing,” Iowa City Press Citizen reporter Stephen Gruber-Miller wrote.

I accept the 3-2 vote because we don’t elect supervisors with differing views to agree all the time. We want a diverse group of five supervisors. One that creates enough friction among themselves to hone the use of county assets and community resources in a way to make society better for everyone in this liberal-dominated community. Supervisor Rod Sullivan laid out the case for the board’s decision in a June 23, 2017 post on his website Sullivan’s Salvos. I’m confident something positive can come out of the board’s decision to develop the long-neglected county asset.

I like the idea of using county land as a way to help beginning farmers get started. The idea is different from reality. If they don’t have capital, farmers lease land — a temporary solution in which a lot of hard work building soil health can come to nought if they have to relocate. The cost of farm land remains high in Iowa. Every beginning farmer with whom I’ve spoken said their start-up issue is not only access to land, but the ability to purchase it. The county could help farmers by changing the definition of a “farm” from 40 acres to something smaller. In some cases an acre or two was all that was needed to get started in business. The point is local food operators can make a living farming less than ten acres. Resolution of this challenge does not lie in developing the Poor Farm.

In Johnson County there is a concern that if the farm size were changed, developers would take advantage of a smaller farm definition and build single homes on a larger acreages to serve the affluent local market of highly paid workers and retirees. The concern is not misplaced. This board of supervisors has the smarts to figure out how to enable beginning farmers to buy smaller acreages while protecting any changed land use ordinance from what the county deems undesirable development.

The key unanswered question about development of the Poor Farm is how do farmers make the transition from government dependency to independence via a stint there? Using the Poor Farm to provide land access presumes things I’m not sure are accurate — particularly a level of farming competence I’m not sure many have. It also presumes there will be a high failure rate from beginning farmers who take advantage of the program but then choose another career path. It seems obvious a better apprenticeship for new farmers would be to work on an established farm with an experienced farmer, as some local operators have done. On-site, subsidized housing is a way to help new farmers financially and makes some sense. Answering the question of how to enable a successful farmer to use and then leave the Poor Farm is the dominating question.

The idea of a “poor farm” is so Midwestern 19th century. I resist the idea of isolating beginning farmers from the agricultural community or outside the infrastructure of the city with its proximity to work, transportation, shopping and church. I would have thought we had learned a better way in the more than 175 years since Iowa was first settled.

We elected our board of supervisors to do what they think is right. If we don’t like it, we can elect someone else. That’s the way the system works. Based on the way they are handling development of the Poor Farm I’m not ready to fire any of them yet, despite unresolved issues.