40 Acres Sans Mule

Flooded Farm Near the Cedar River, Sept. 27, 2016

There is nothing magical about 40 acres in the 21st Century. Today’s American farmers can make a living on much less, largely because of crop diversification, technology, and emerging markets for locally grown food.

For a beginning specialty-crop farmer, 40 acres might be too much to handle.

“40 acres and a mule” entered the vernacular as a way of dealing with the question of what to do with newly freed slaves during and after the Civil War. Give them 40 acres and a mule to get started as free men, or so the line of thinking went.

In 1865, William Tecumseh Sherman provided for confiscation of 400,000 acres of land in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, to redistribute in 40-acres parcels to formerly enslaved farmers. The arrangement did not persist, although even today, presidential candidates posit the United States should pay reparations for slavery.

While specialty crop farmers work hard, long days to make ends meet and sometimes take a job in town to provide enough household cash, they increasingly seek to own their future. To a person, that means buying land. In Iowa good farmland is expensive.

For farmers, the desire to create a farm on less than 40 acres has to do with start up capital. To make a go of it as a specialty farmer on 40 acres, that means $350,000 or more for land, another $100,000 or more for an on-farm dwelling, and more for at least one barn, a couple tractors, and other equipment for cultivation, mowing, tilling, fencing and general operations. Finding a banker to finance such an operation is difficult without collateral other than the land. There is also the hurdle of what to do with all that land. While a small farm can grow into 40 acres with success and over time, a beginning farmer has much to learn and the scale can be intimidating.

Shouldn’t there be opportunities to start a farm on less than 40 acres? The county board of supervisors said no. Couldn’t you move to another county? The market is in urban centers.

In Iowa farms have an agricultural zoning exemption. Beginning farmers seek the ag exemption in order to make ends meet on narrow gross margins. To be defined as a farm in our county, and get the exemption, 40 acres is required. Some of my farmer friends have been asking for accommodation of smaller farms for many years and none has been forthcoming from the county board. The future belongs to the young and they will not be stopped.

That brings us to House Study Bill 239, an act relating to the county zoning exemption for property used for agricultural purposes. Farms are defined as follows:

The bill provides that property is used for agricultural purposes if at least 51 percent of the annual gross revenue derived from the property comes from the growing, harvesting, or selling of crops and livestock raised and produced on the property or brought to the property and not more than 49 percent of the annual gross revenue derived from the property comes from the sale of agricultural experiences and other farm-related activities.

The number of acres defining a farm becomes irrelevant should the measure pass the legislature and be signed by the governor.

This bill amounts to an end run around the county board of supervisors. While it didn’t clear the state government committee this session, it remains eligible for consideration and debate next year in the second session of the 88th Iowa General Assembly.

A representative from our county made it to the bill’s subcommittee hearing on March 5. In what was described as a long, arrogant speech, the official characterized rural residents who had been working with the county board of supervisors as “loud complainers.” Not a good look for anyone, especially a county official.

Today was a great day of spring-like weather. We can feel it in the air as farmers prepare equipment, tend livestock, and prepare for another crop. Whether on 40 acres or 4,000 there are many common threads running through farming. Whether they will be defined according to the same standard is an open question. It’s time to see if the legislature can resolve the issue for beginning farmers, since the county won’t.

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