Farmers Talk Land Use

Ready to Exit Stage Left if Proceedings get Dull

The room was packed for the Johnson County Board of Supervisors public hearing on the County’s comprehensive plan. Current and would-be farmers were present and spoke about their profession. The hearing took two and a half hours.

Supervisors have been working on the plan for two years and would like to finish it and move on to what matters more, the Unified Development Ordinance, which codifies how the plan will be implemented. Last night’s public hearing brought the county closer to closure, even if the subject of land use will continue to be debated well beyond my years of walking the earth.

The main points were the 40-acre rule for definition of a farm is an obstacle to beginning farmers, and there is a wide difference of opinion regarding the role of animal feeding operations in producing the beef, pork and chicken non-vegetarians love to eat.

The Frequently Asked Questions page of the plan website addressed the first issue, “Will the new Comprehensive plan change the 40-acre rule?” Short answer is no. While officials expressed a desire to accommodate smaller farms during the process of developing the comprehensive plan, one expects the 40-acre rule to remain intact. A farmer can make a living on less than ten acres, especially if they can benefit from the State Code’s agricultural exemption from county zoning regulations. The path is unclear to enable farmers to acquire smaller parcels that would be zoned as ag exempt. There may not be a path, except by supervisors establishing special criteria and deciding each parcel individually on its merits. That’s no way to go. Not only is it labor intensive the politics of the board can and will change over time. People have spoken on the issue. Now it’s time to see what supervisors do.

If people want meat and meat products, livestock will be raised to meet demand. The words “concentrated animal feeding operation” have become a lightening rod of tumult about livestock production. Many do eat meat and few non-farmers want to live next to a livestock production facility. In any case, the State of Iowa maintains preemption over concentrated animal feeding operations. Under Republican control of government, preemption is here to stay. I doubt that would change under Democratic governance. People like their pulled pork, fried chicken, hamburgers and steaks, and it has to come from somewhere. Environmentally it would be better for humans to source protein from plants. If you believe they will over the near term, stand on your head.

The highlight of the hearing was a grader and son of a farmer who read an essay titled, My Barn. “I see my cows Jake and Nick coming up to me because they’re excited for me to rub their noses,” he said. “They feel as soft as a teddy bear.” The hearing engaged several livestock farmers. The ones who raised cattle and hogs took issue with persecution of their trade and the appellation “CAFO.” They said treatment of animals was humane on their farms.

There was insider baseball about the new map to accompany the comprehensive plan. My view is “whatever.” Let the supervisors decide based on best practices. There’s no going back to the way the land was before it was settled. It’s already been ruined by development and that happened in the 19th Century. The North Corridor Development Area has been designated as a buildable area in the plan in order to preserve county farmland. When one flies over it, it’s clear it has been settled from the outskirts of Iowa City and Coralville all the way to the county line. Everyone who has a strong opinion on the NCDA has an ox being gored. Speaker and naturalist Connie Mutel made the best case about how the new map was developed using “best practices.” Managing development in the county is like carrying water in a half empty leaking bucket.

Despite the serious nature of the presentations last night was fun. I got a chance to see friends and acquaintances in the context of working together to resolve issues of beginning farmers. That counts for something and in these turbulent times where would we be without that?

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