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Young farmers argue for changing Ag Exemption

Travis Spevacek and his son Garrett addressed the Johnson County Board of Supervisors during a public hearing Thursday, May 10, regarding the proposed comprehensive plan and the supervisors’ advocacy against Animal Feeding Operations (AFO). Travis spoke about his operation and how it benefits the animals while Garrett read a short piece he wrote about his love for their cattle barn. (photo by Chris Umscheid)

IOWA CITY– Young farmers in Johnson County raised their voices loud and clear to the board of supervisors: change or scrap the county’s agricultural exemption policy.
The young guns blazed away during a Thursday, May 10, public hearing on the proposed county comprehensive plan, citing the immense difficulties many budding farmers encounter in trying to purchase 40 acres (the minimum amount of land required to be considered a “farm” in Johnson County).
In Johnson County, the policy defines a “farm” as, “No less than 40 contiguous acres of land, or a ¼ of a ¼ of a Section, as legally described and recorded, while used for agricultural purposes. Residential structures occupied by persons engaged in farm operations shall be included in the term farming as are roadside stands for the sale of farm produce.”
However, Iowa Code, Chapter 335.2 County Zoning, Farms Exempt states, “Except to the extent required to implement section 335.27, no ordinance adopted under this chapter applies to land, farm houses, farm barns, farm outbuildings or other buildings or structures which are primarily adapted, by reason of nature and area, for use for agricultural purposes, while so used.”
Put another way (and borrowing from Dr. Seuss), according to the state, “a farm is a farm no matter how small.”
The 40-acre rule is addressed in the draft comprehensive plan on page 118. The draft states, “Consider updates to Johnson County’s agricultural exemption policy.” The Johnson County Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission, as one of 24 recommended changes to the draft, called for changing the statement to, “Update Johnson County’s agricultural exemption policy,” and revised three “action steps” to state, “Expand agricultural exemption to smaller farming operations,” and “Limit residential development for small-scale agriculture.”
Josh Busard, Johnson County Director of Planning, Development and Sustainability (PDS) told the Supervisors, “Legally, this planning document, this comprehensive plan, cannot change that (40-acre) definition (codified in county ordinance).”
Busard also noted concerns that the plan does not do enough for local food producers and defended the plan by pointing out 12 action steps across nine strategies and six goals, which he said, “Will directly or indirectly benefit the local food producers of Johnson County.”
One such local food producer, who farms on less than 40 acres, is Kate Edwards, better known as “Farmer Kate.” She owns and operates Wild Woods Farm located near Interstate 80 and Highway 1, and provides “seasonal, hand-selected, organically-grown vegetables.” In addition to selling produce, Farmer Kate donates a significant amount to area programs for low income and other disadvantaged individuals. She has addressed the supervisors several times during previous public input sessions and has pointed out, “I’m considered a farmer everywhere except in Johnson County.”
Edwards addressed the board during the public hearing and pointed out as a tenant farmer, she has been on two different properties, but desires to own land. As the inaugural Chairwoman of the Food Policy Council, Edwards told the board of supervisors in 2012 that the 40-acre rule is, “problematic for young farmers, and we need to change it. You all agreed and said ‘Yes, we will look into that.’ In 2014, your very own P&Z staff prepared a memo saying that the rule was illegal and needed to change.”
The memo stated, “It appears by the recent court decisions that you cannot use a minimum acreage standard or an income standard. Therefore, the county’s challenge is to update its ordinances, and land use plan to include the appropriate definitions and criteria for determining when a parcel of land is agriculturally exempt from our zoning ordinance and our building permitting requirements. This is an effort to ensure compliance with state law, recent court rulings, and hopefully facilitate the ability of local farmers that farm smaller parcels of land.”
“You guys have had over four years to do that,” Edwards scolded the board. “There are members of this board who have been on this board a long time. Who have known that this is an issue. And who know that they need to change it. I want to farm. There is a lot of people in this room tonight who want to farm. And you have the opportunity to give us the state-enacted exemption that all large farmers have. By saying you will not give small farmers that exemption, you are essentially saying that you do not care about small farmers in Johnson County.”
To be profitable, Edwards said, farmers need options between 5 and 40 acres. “Right now in Johnson County, you can only live on something that’s less than five (acres) for the homestead split rule or over 40 for the farm rule.” She told the board, “You have a huge opportunity. You say you care about local foods. Please, start caring about the local farmer, because this is the number one issue we face.”
Derek Lehman, a sixth-generation Iowan, also supported changing the ordinance, saying, “Align the county regulations to our Iowa State Code.” Lehman is Edwards’ fiancé’ and pointed out his great-grandparents were allowed to live and work on a farm they owned, but he and Edwards, “will not be allowed the same privilege, all because of the way Johnson County has legally decided to define a farm by size and not use.” Lehman added, “Farmland access is a major problem. The ability to access small tracts of land is critical to the financial stability and sustainability of beginning farmers.”
Sisters Carmen and Maya Black, who farm a little over 40 acres north of Solon, spoke of the importance of young people taking up farming, and the barrier to doing so posed by the 40-acre rule. Family support made it possible to buy their farm, they noted, pointing out not all young, would-be farmers have such support available.
“It would’ve been a lot easier if I would not have had to buy that 40 acres,” Carmen said, noting the bulk of their income comes from less than 20 acres. “It is impossible to finance 40 acres for a lot of young people,” she added.
“I’m an aspiring farmer,” Maya said. “There are a lot of us in the room. It shouldn’t be our responsibility to come advocate for even the chance to start and own our own farm. I want to live here, I want to work here and I want to farm here. And I currently don’t have the resources to pursue that dream.”
Several others also spoke in favor of scrapping, or at least revising the ordinance.
Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) or Animal Feeding Operations (AFO), as the P&Z Commission calls them, were mentioned again with one speaker, Lynn Gallagher, vehemently opposed and three AFO owners supporting. Mark Ogden with the Johnson County Farm Bureau spoke of farmers with AFOs operating with, “responsibility, pride and dignity.”
Travis Spevacek, who raises cattle, said, “We’ve been listened to the least.” Spevacek said the term “CAFO” is used very loosely and rejected the notion that such operations are “factory farms” as many opponents claim. Spevacek’s young son Garrett read a piece he wrote titled, “My Barn,” which described his love of the cattle barn. “I love to hear the cows mooing and I like smelling the fresh feed,” Garrett read.
Another livestock producer with an AFO stated, “When it’s minus-20 (degrees) outside, it’s 75 degrees (in the confinement building). I am the face of CAFOs,” he added.
Jesse Burns of North Liberty had a different take on the 40-acre rule, calling for abolishing prohibitions on creating lots for development, noting an “immense scarcity” of land for residential development in the county, which has led to a higher cost for land overall.
The Future Land Use Map (FLUM) has been a point of controversy throughout the comprehensive plan drafting process. The comprehensive plan committee was split roughly into thirds with those in favor of leaving the County Land Use Map as-is, others wanting to expand land for development, and others wishing to reduce the amount of land for development, particularly in the area known as the North Corridor Development Area (NCDA).
The supervisors removed part of the NCDA, while the P&Z Commission restored it. Busard told the board county PDS staff did not support P&Z’s recommendation to do so, siding with the Supervisors.
Local activist Tom Carsner spoke in favor of the draft FLUM and the reduction of the NCDA, stating the move conformed to what he called, smart growth principles. Carsner also defended the supervisors’ actions, which have been called into question by P&Z Chairman Mike Parker and Commission Member Terry Dahms, stating they were, all done in public. Carsner also said P&Z’s recommendations, “hold no more weight than anyone,” while praising the Supervisors’ efforts to curtail development including ensuring landowners earn the privilege of rezoning based on the merits of their request.
Board Chairman Mike Carberry moved to close the public hearing after 26 speakers, including one who rose a second time. Supervisor Janelle Rettig asked for a work session to discuss the public’s comments, and wanted to continue the public hearing before the board’s vote, which was anticipated to occur on Thursday, May 17, with the possibility of being delayed until Thursday, May 24.
“If we close it, we’re done hearing from the public,” Rettig said, lobbying for the additional public hearing. Carberry disagreed and ticked off a list of the many public input sessions, open houses, listening posts, surveys and other venues, which have been available. “We’ve had two years of public comment,” Carberry said. “We have to move forward.”
“If we’re going to evaluate and give any consideration whatsoever to anything that P&Z or the public has commented on tonight, then I think we owe it to them to continue the public hearing,” Rettig said, “So that they could listen to our work session or attend it, and then have an opportunity to talk about the decision we make. I don’t believe we’re in a rush. I believe that we should get it right, and to shut off public discussion when we haven’t even made a decision about what we’re voting on seems wrong.”
Busard recommended a Wednesday, May 16, work session for the board to give direction to the PDS staff for final changes to the draft, which is dated Jan. 29, thus creating a final plan for the Supervisors to vote on, and dated either May 17 or May 24, depending on when the vote actually occurs.
Rettig made a motion to continue the public hearing on Thursday, May 17, at 9 a.m., seconded by Lisa Green-Douglas and approved unanimously.