The Sustainable Iowa Land Trust thanked its first farmland donors on Nov. 12 by presenting them with shining buckets of potting soil - symbolizing silt - and vegetable seeds. "Our farmers grow great food in Iowa soil," explained SILT president Suzan Erem after the event. "We wanted to remind everyone that silt isn't a dirty word when it stays in Iowa where it belongs, through good farming practices."
The unorthodox gifts were another surprising approach SILT is taking to land ownership and farmland access since it launched in January with a broad array of leaders. SILT is proposing long-term, inheritable leases on land donated to it, making farming accessible to future generations of food producing farmers who are dedicated to sustainability.
Land is donated to the trust, which leases it to farmers
"On a $650,000 loan, the annual interest alone is $31,000. That's money not going to tractors, not going to hoop houses," Erem told the crowd at the event. "That money that is charged for interest on a loan is not going to anything about farming. It is just going to someone with money to make more money. We can do better for the next generation. That's what the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust can do."
The dinner drew a broad crowd as well, including Republican Sen. Mark Segebart of Vail and Democrat Rep. Chuck Isenhart of Dubuque, real estate developer Dorrance Brezina of Des Moines and award-winning conservationist Erv Klaas from Ames.
"Guess what?" Erem told the gathering as she described the skepticism the group expected when it was first launched. "There are Iowans who can and want to donate their land to SILT so the next generation can grow good food on it. There are next generation farmers who just want to farm with security. They don't have to own the land. They don't need the mortgage debt. They don't want to become millionaires by selling to developers when they're old."
Retired farmers are being asked to donate farmland to SILT
The celebration of SILT's first year in existence drew nearly 100 people to the Hotel Pattee in Perry, in central Iowa. They celebrated SILT's "first birthday." The commemorative birthday gifts were presented to Mary Ellen Miller by former state Sen. Jean Lloyd-Jones, and to Joe and Sue Driscoll by Atlantic family farmer Denise O'Brien and Pottawattamie County Supervisor Melvyn Houser, a retired conventional row crop farmer.
Landowners Joe and Sue Driscoll of Honey Creek donated 53 acres in the Loess Hills including 35 tillable and an oak savanna. SILT leaders said they are working to fulfill Joe's dream of a "young people's farm" located just 15 minutes from downtown Omaha and Council Bluffs. In the short term, the tillable acres are being transitioned from conventional row crops to organic hay by a nearby livestock farming family, Ed and Tricia Jackson.
USDA estimates 2.6 million acres of Iowa land will soon change hands
Mary Ellen Miller, executive director of the nonprofit 50-50 in 2020 and member of the Iowa State Board of Education, donated 40 acres near Corydon in southern Iowa she inherited from her brother. At 71 years old, she was already planting nut trees for the next generation when she learned about SILT.
"Scores of farmland owners are stepping up, to participate in SILT," says Erem, who cites USDA statistics that estimate 2.6 million acres of Iowa land will change hands in the next five years. "We work with landowners dedicated to sustainable food production and come up with ways to give them peace of mind while getting that land into the hands of sustainable farmers."