SILT: Preserving land for young farmers who want to grow food

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — Just 15 months old, the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust, or SILT, has an impressive list of accomplishments.

Julie Falcon, of Black Hawk County, and John Sewell, of Dubuque County, volunteered at the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust booth at the Hawkeye Farm Show in Cedar Falls.

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — Just 15 months old, the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust has an impressive list of accomplishments.

Two farms have been donated, the group is expected to take on several thousand acres of organic easements, and it hired its first executive director. SILT has scores of advisers and dozens of volunteers.

"There is no way this could have happened without volunteer support," said SILT president Suzan Erem, who lives in rural Cedar County. "People believe in the mission. The response has been so incredibly positive."

The idea began when Erem and her husband, Paul Durrenberger, hosted volunteers on their Cedar County farm through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.

"We met these smart, bright hardworking kids who wanted to farm, but they never would because they couldn't get access to land," Erem said.


The couple heard the same thing from young farmers when they got involved with Practical Farmers of Iowa.

"We thought maybe we could buy a small piece of land for a fruit and vegetable farm as a way to help someone get started," Erem said. "We found a farmer, went to an auction and paid way more than we thought we would. We went into debt to help this farmer out."

The young farmer pays the note every year, but he didn't have the ability to get credit to buy the farm.

"We financed it when he couldn't," Erem said. "Within five years when he can get credit together, he will pay us what we paid for the farm."

They took care of two things they wanted to do — heal the soil and get a young farmer on the land affordably. The young farmer has planted thousands of fruit trees and is rotationally grazing livestock.

The farm is just 10 minutes from Iowa City and Erem and Durrenberger wanted to protect the land so it would remain in healthy food production permanently. They found that no one in Iowa or the country was interested in permanently protecting a food producing piece of land.

An elegant solution

As they researched, they realized that permanently protecting the land for food production automatically made it cheaper for the next generation.


"It's an elegant solution," she said. "By putting a legal restriction on the deed so that it can only be used to grow food sustainably, that takes away all the competition from developers and production farming. The price drops significantly. Permanent protection makes it affordable to future generations. That's what land trusts do, permanently protect land."

The established land trusts protect natural lands — trees, prairie and wetlands.

"We're importing 90 percent of our food," Erem said. "While we need natural lands, we also need land that grows food."

Much of the food can be grown 12 months out of the year with hoop and greenhouses.

"The cool thing is that we're aiming for land around our communities because food farmers need to be close to their communities to sell their food," Erem said. "We'd like to circle communities with our farms. Everyone's heard of golf course communities. Imagine neighborhoods with friendly diverse food farmers. They would sell vegetables to the homes around the farm. These kinds of developments are all over the country."

Erem talked to people about the problem and the solution.

"We talked to farmers, developers, planners, lawyers, everybody we could find," Erem said. "We kept fine tuning until we came up with SILT."

Young farmers who apply for SILT land must grow food for human consumption. SILT will protect organic corn and soybean operations because of the feed produced. On parcels it owns, SILT will offer qualified farmers long-term inheritable leases.


Donations and easements

SILT is expected to take on an estimated 3,000 acres of organic easements on row crops over the next decade. A 1,000-acre Century Farm is talking to the group about organic easements as well.

SILT has talked to about 40 landowners, representing 4,000 acres mostly made up of parcels ranging from 10 to 350 acres, who are interested in donating land or easements over the next 10 years.

Two farms have been acquired. Joe and Sue Driscoll donated 53 acres 15 minutes from downtown Council Bluffs/Omaha. There is a beautiful oak savanna where goats will rotationally graze this year, and 32 tillable acres have been transitioned to organic hay. The second farm, 40 acres near Corydon, was donated by Mary Ellen Miller. She has a reserve life estate. SILT holds the deed but she lives on the land as long as she wants, collects rent and has a say in tenants who farm the land.

Fundraising has gone well.

"Iowans responded in such a way that we had the support to hire Regenia Bailey as our first executive director," Erem said. "Regenia, who has worked in the not-for-profit sector for more than twenty years, is helping us build this organization on a rock solid foundation."

Erem has spoken to 100 organizations about SILT.

"There are so many people who want to leave a legacy of healthy food production in Iowa," Erem said. "I've talked to them. We sit down and figure out a way to make it work."


There are 16 and 20-year tax benefits for donations of land.

Erem believes that local food production can coexist with corn and soybean production.

"Farmers can continue to feed the world, but on 10 to 15 percent of the land in Iowa, let's feed Iowa fresh food," she said.

Sewell hopes to farm

John Sewell, of Dubuque County, first heard about SILT in a podcast. He got in touch with Erem and he's volunteering for the organization. He recently staffed a booth at the Hawkeye Farm Show in Cedar Falls with volunteer Julie Falcon, of Black Hawk County.

"Taking land farmers are willing to donate, preserving it and using it to produce healthy foods inspired me to get involved," Sewell said.

He works as farmers market manager for East Mill Bake Shop and Catering in Dubuque. The business hosts its own farmers market in its parking lot during the spring, summer and fall. East Mill buys food from the 20 farmer vendors, and neighbors shop at the market.

Sewell, who gardens for himself, would like to farm one day. He likes SILT's model where he can lease the land long term and doesn't have to worry about buying it.


"It's difficult to get started when land prices are so high," Sewell said. "I would like to grow food on a local scale to sell to people in my neighborhood. It's a quality of life issue offering people good, fresh healthy food options."

To learn more visit

Tyler Magnuson and daughter, Mira, of Hancock, talk to Suzan Erem, president of the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust at the Practical Farmers of Iowa annual conference in Ames.

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