I covered the Heartland Forum, where five 2020 presidential candidates discussed their visions for rural America with Pulitzer-prize winner Art Cullen and others.
A ClipArt monkey and five bananas lit up on a high-tech SmartBoard in the University of Iowa Teacher Leader Center. “Help Feed the Monkey,” instructed the display. Creators Allie Seelau and Lizzy Leu stood before it dreamily, envisioning their own students using it to take attendance in their own classrooms. A junior and sophomore majoring in elementary education, the girls cannot wait to be teachers.
“Just, like, becoming one I feel like is so exciting,” Seelau gushed. “Like when you get to decorate your room, and make Power Points, and cute little everything.”
She and Leu created the monkey display for their “Technology in the Classroom” course. They made it with their ideal classrooms, full of sunshiny second graders, in mind.
“Sometimes being around adults all the time is depressing, and then being around kids is like, they’re all so sweet and happy,” Leu said. “ It’s hard to be mad around kids in my opinion.”
Teaching is not all smiles and bananas, though. Professionals around the U.S. are leaving the field at alarming rates, pushed to the point of “teacher burnout” by the demands of their career. The Iowa Department of Education found that 26 percent of teachers who started in 2009 left by 2013, compared to 25 percent of more experienced teachers at the time, including retirees. Other U.S. states face similar burnout rates, but Iowa has one of the highest concentrations of newbies—15 percent of Iowa’s teachers are in their first or second year.
“The job itself has become even more challenging as time goes on,” said Roark Horn, executive director of the School Administrators of Iowa. He largely blames policies that hold teachers accountable for students’ standardized testing scores and funding cuts that stretch administration too thin to provide adequate support. A $35,000 starting salary is not worth the stress, so teachers bring their valuable skills elsewhere.
Iowa spends $1 to $2 billion annually recruiting and training new teachers when positions turn over, but the cost to student learning may be even greater. Horn said lack of competition allows low-quality teachers into vacant positions. If current trends continue, he fears some openings will start to go completely unfilled.
The University of Iowa College of Education, one of 29 teacher preparation programs in the state, believes the solution lies in their stringent admissions process.
“The work of a teacher is difficult work, it’s demanding work, and so the individual that’s setting out to be a good fit for that work needs to be well-suited and well-prepared,” said Nancy Langguth, associate dean of teacher education and student services. “I think a lot of the retention challenges are really when people don’t recognize it’s not a good fit.”
After teaching-hopefuls complete 30 credit hours, they undergo a wholistic, full-faculty review. The college considers GPA, scores on required praxis tests, and a personal statement, but they also carefully examine each candidate’s personality.
“We actually don’t feel that it’s ethical to the profession nor to the student to admit them to our program and not have a confidence we can prepare them to be a highly effective teacher,” Langguth said.
She and her colleagues look for professional qualities such as flexibility, reliability, cultural competence, and communication skills. Langguth said such traits are vital during the transition from student to teacher. Once admitted, students undergo five more assessments on these qualities, two of which they complete themselves.
She said it is particularly important for teachers to feel confident making decisions on the fly to address the unforeseen needs of a classroom, to collaborate with other teachers and staff for the sake of the students, and to constantly reflect on what they could do better.
“These characteristics may actually be the best booster shot we give against burnout,” she said.
The ultimate test of suitability arrives when candidates student teach. They spend their final semester mirroring a real teacher’s everyday routine, gradually building up to at least two weeks of lead teaching. Student teachers are reviewed throughout the process, by UI faculty and externally by videotapes sent to national assessors.
If student teachers fail to meet expectations for planning, instruction, and assessment, Langguth and her College of Education colleagues will not recommend them for licensure. The candidates can try again for one more semester before it’s time to choose another profession.
Some realize on their own that they are not well-suited during student teaching, but Langguth said this is rare. By the time candidates student teach, they have already spent ample time in the classroom, completing three mandatory “practicums,” in which they assist and observe in classrooms up to 2 hours a week and designated local schools.
“There’s no surprises when you’re out there,” Langguth said. Students seem to appreciate the experience.
“You don’t have to go through years in the program and then student teach to find out that you don’t like it,” Leu said. “I think there need to be more programs like the University of Iowa’s that get you in the classroom as early as possible so that you know.”
Junior elementary education major Kelli Gustafson said she gets a lot of practice planning lessons in her current practicum. It has helped her consider the needs of different types of students, though she is not quite ready to lead a classroom on her own.
For Seelau, the practicums’ value is in exposure. “We’ve also seen so many scenarios or situations where if something does happen we probably would know the steps to do to take care of it,” she said.
Langguth said the college pays special attention to diversity and grade level when placing students in practicum classrooms to help students determine the sort of district in which they will be most effective. Many students grew up in fairly homogenous areas, so racial, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity in the Iowa City area is a plus.
“I think it helped me see a diverse group of children so I can be prepared for anything when I’m looking for a job,” Seelau confirmed.
Senior Erin Klage, who wants to be a high school social studies teacher, said she is most looking forward to working with different kinds of students and getting them all excited about history. Langguth fears that candidates like Klage, who love their subject area and cannot wait to share it, may overlook less obvious kinds of diversity, however. Not all students are so eager to learn.
“They come to this as the student they were,” she said. “They are that social studies candidate who probably loved history, loved psychology, so much so that’s what they’re majoring in here. So that is their experience, but they’re going to be responsible for 150 students for whom maybe about 20 that’s the way it is. For the others it’s ‘I’m here for third hour American history.’”
Langguth said the college really tries to drive home this point. Teachers must be prepared to encourage success in all sorts of students, regardless of how interested they are in the subject, by showing them the value of the content and that they can be successful. Otherwise, even passionate teachers may turn students off to a subject.
Klage said her expectations are realistic, though, and believes that will help keep her resilient against burnout.
“It’s really understanding going into the field that you’re never going to have that perfect, idealized classroom,” she said. “It’s never going to happen.”
She and others feel the College of Ed has done a great job preparing them to enter the field.
“They’re always just there,” said senior Kedi Ochs, majoring in English and secondary education.
Horn feels the same. He said Iowa’s teacher prep programs have done a phenomenal job addressing the changing needs of incoming teachers. To him, preventing burnout is up to individual school districts. Part of that comes down to money.
“Districts have more flexibility to put together compensation packages to attract high quality teachers,” he said, in praise of recent legislation that has allowed schools to move dollars around more freely.
This solution favors schools with more resources, however, and increases inequality between more and less wealthy districts. Horn believes all districts, regardless of their wealth, can be more teacher-friendly by being conscious not to overload newbies and encouraging beginning teachers to contribute their thoughts and ideas from the get-go.
He said a statewide “teacher leader” program helps as well, by providing funding for districts to take high quality teachers out of the classroom for part of the day to go support their peers. This semi-promotion supplements inadequate administration, and creates an incentive for teachers to be exceptional.
As long as the teacher burnout issue persists, though, Horn said incoming teachers with proper training, skills and confidence will have no trouble finding jobs in the state. He advised them to really shop around for the right district.
“You’re interviewing them as much as they’re interviewing you,” he said.
Students are aware of these good odds, but know they must still work hard to be qualified. Even once they secure jobs, the future teachers know it may require tremendous effort to stay resilient. Some professors in the College of Ed make sure their students know what lies ahead.
“They talk to us in classes about how your first year is going to be pretty much the hardest thing, and then it gets easier from there, but they do tell us about the burnout rates, and it really is kind of scary,” Gustafson said.
Some of her peers are not so worried, though. Ochs, for one, is not fazed by teacher burnout.
“I’m well aware of myself, I guess,” he said. “I know that this is something that I want to do, so I’m going to try to not be one of those statistics.”
When Gina Buelow was just a fourth grader, she watched a swarm of wasps devour her prized collection of insects.
“I kept it in my teacher’s classroom,” she said. “It was a bulletin board and I would just pin the bees on it— bees, and cicadas and wasps and everything. Then I brought it home for spring break and my mom made me keep it on the picnic table underneath our deck in the backyard.”
The Iowa native discovered the massacre on a trip outside to check on the collection.
“I was really surprised how quickly the wasps just tore it apart,” she said. “That was very depressing as a child.”
The carnage was not enough to discourage the aspiring entomologist, however. Now a senior environmental science major at the University of Iowa, Buelow still hopes to study insects professionally one day. She’s already gotten a head start on her career researching bees in a campus lab and in her free time.
Buelow eagerly accepted an invitation to work in professor emeritus Steve Hendrix’s biology lab last fall, sorting through data in the lab’s vast collection of bee specimens. His group was attempting to identify rare bees, but ran into several challenges.
Major inconsistencies, duplications and holes in the larger database, shared among regional scientists, created a lot of work for student researchers. Energetic, outdoorsy Buelow was not thrilled to spend hours verifying data points and crunching numbers, but the occasional opportunity to practice species identification made the tedium worth her while.
“The thing with bees is there’s 20,000 species, and you have to be trained on how to identify them or else it’s really hard,” she said. Even her boss struggled to identify certain types, and had to ship entire boxes of samples off to “some guy in Ohio.”
For what the Iowa group could identify, they used a special book, similar to the “Choose Your Own Adventure” sort Buelow read as a kid.
“I want one,” she said, “but they’re like $400.”
The book guides users from page to page based on certain traits present on the specimen, like the number of antennae segments and patterns of veins on the wings. These features are all clues to the specimen’s genera, a taxonomic order above species. Apparently, getting down to the species level is even worse.
As much as she enjoys bee identification, Buelow said it can be frustrating because it is almost impossible to reach certainty without DNA sampling, which is expensive and destroys the specimens.
“I guess that’s one of the things I don’t like about entomology, and science and general,” she said, her big, bright smile dimming for a moment. “It’s all guesswork, and you don’t really get to know for sure if you’re right.”
After one semester in the lab, Buelow took a break from bees to study abroad in the Netherlands, and since returning in June has gotten even more involved with the buzzing bugs. She now “pan traps” bees in bowls of water and dish soap, and identifies and mounts them herself.
Her first experience pan trapping was with a group of entomologists, including her lab boss, in collaboration with Herbert Hoover Prairie in West Branch, Iowa. She liked it so much, she bought her own net and decided to start doing it independently. With permission, she hunts for bees at places like Iowa City’s Eastside Recycling Center in her free time.
“I guess this is the part I was missing from the lab work,” she said. “I really wanted to just catch bees.”
The bees try to land on the bowls, thinking they are flowers. Buelow saves them from drowning then stores them in test tubes in bags of ice to put them to sleep until she can get them home.Then she sticks the collection in the freezer, and later pins their bodies on a slab of Styrofoam.
So far her collection is not very diverse.
“A lot of these bees are the size of maybe a big fruit fly, and I just can’t tell the difference yet while they’re flying,” she said. “I’ve just been doing bumblebees because at least I can tell they’re a bee.”
Though bumblebees are her favorites, she hunts them for the species’ own good. Ultimately Buelow hopes these experiences will lead her to a career in conservation biology, a field that tracks populations of species to assess their conditions and determine how to best protect them.
“With the rare species, we’re trying to figure out if they have certain needs,” she said. “How can we help these species not decline?”
To be officially classified as endangered, there must be evidence of a species’ falling-off, but in entomology that is hard to prove. Challenges identifying species and a lack of historical records create major holes in data collections.
“It bothers me that things aren’t getting classified as endangered or threatened and stuff when they probably should be,” Buelow said, making her passion for the issue clear.
She looks out for endangered Rusty Patch Bumblebees and other imperiled types when she pan traps, double checking she hasn’t caught any before she freezes the catch fully. She said she’ll release endangered bees back into nature if she ever encounters them.
Buelow may a real-life embodiment of today’s high-profile “Save the Bees” movement, but she is no bandwaggoner.
While she believes it is important to acknowledge how humans impact bee populations, Buelow approaches the discussion with an expert perspective. The spread of inaccurate information within that discussion discourages her. She’s seen articles listing bumblebees as endangered, for example, though only a select few select bumblebee species actually are.
Honeybees, she said, get an undue amount of attention because they are well-known pollinators, though they are not native to the U.S..
“It’s not that I don’t care about them, because I do like honeybees, and I think they’re important,” she said. “But I think more energy should be spent into helping native bees because there are studies that show they’re probably better at pollinating anyway.”
Expert as she is, Buelow has never actually been stung by a bee. She said she’ll need to find out if she’s allergic before committing to studying them for the rest of her life, either by allergy test or first-hand experience.
“I don’t know which would be more fun,” she said.
Look at a map of public lands in the U.S., and Iowa appears almost naked. A splatter of state parks cover less than 2 percent of the state’s total area, supplemented faintly by county and city preserves.
So when Hawkeye ecophiles like me start to get restless, our options are somewhat limited; there just aren’t that many trees and trails. Fortunately for Iowa City, quantity doesn’t equal quality. Of its 42 parks and nature areas, only a few are what I’d consider “preserves,” but they get the job done.
On the last Thursday of September, I woke up early and headed to Hickory Hill park before work and class. I’d been anxious to enjoy some time outside before the weather turned too nasty, and the forecast said it would be the last beautiful day for a while. Fifty-five degrees felt perfect.
The 185-acre wooded park is an island in a residential sea—a preserve the size of a small family farm surrounded by the northeast neighborhoods of Iowa City. Even so, the built environment completely disappears three minutes into the main trail. All I could see ahead of me that morning was green, barely tinged with late-September yellow. Late-season wildflowers still dotted the ground.
A network of streams wind in and out of view from the trails, and the slow-moving water was barely audible above rustling leaves and calling birds. I heard soft thumps every so often as I walked, and deduced from the empty half-shells littering the ground that walnuts were falling around me.
In the middle of a week packed with deadlines and exams, I savored the opportunity to sink into nature. I considered minute details –lacy orange fungus on a decaying log, an eroded crater in the mud— instead of complicated academic concepts and my chaotic schedule. No one could bother me but fellow park-goers, who said nothing but hello as they passed.
In my experience, Hickory Hill is especially popular with dog walkers. I once met four fantastic dogs at once, two of whom were named Ruby. This time I only got to know one elderly lab named Harry, but he was a lot of fun.
Between Harry and the fresh air, I could feel my school-addled mind clearing up a bit. To me, the real beauty of a hike is not having to think at all. The only choices to make are which turns to take when trails intersect, and I tend to make my decisions haphazardly. The fleeting anxiety each cross-section brings almost always disappears within 15 steps.
At some point in my hike I crossed a narrow stream on a creaky-looking platform and was rewarded for my arbitrary choice with a peek at two deer. I pretended not to see them standing very still 50 feet away and continued up the inclining trail.
Hickory Hill is filled with abrupt landscape shifts. Turn a wide corner and suddenly there’s a clearing—tallgrass prairie and open blue sky. Soon after my deer sighting, I found myself at the bottom of a hill covered in browning grasses, flowerless milkweed sporting funky-looking seed pods and lots of what I think is late goldenrod.
It was beautiful and unfamiliar—a new discovery in a 0.28-mile-square preserve I’d visited several times before. I walked the prairie’s perimeter to investigate, and eventually made my way inside on a grassy path. At the top of the hill I found picnic tables, and a view of another open prairie across a thin border of trees.
I explored that one, too and found it just as charming as the first. At some point it occurred to me that my shift started in an hour, and I had no clear idea how to get back. After consulting an iphone photo of the park map I decided I was probably at the far north end of the park.
On a hunch I turned into the woods. A few more guesses, and some things started to seem familiar—aforementioned fungi and craters became useful landmarks. I followed my gut left and right until my Toyota Forerunner appeared, just as suddenly as that first prairie had.
All the way across the park, essentially lost, and I was only 15 minutes away from the asphalt parking lot. Hickory Hill is tiny and manageable, but it does a fantastic job hiding the world for just long enough. In a state where such spots are few and far between, Iowa City is lucky to have such a gem just a spontaneous morning away.
Spring semester freshman year, my dorm room became an infirmary. I returned to campus without the innermost lining of my intestines after a gruesome winter break. My roommate Chrissy came back on crutches and oxycodone, the scars on her newly repaired knee still oozing.
I had spent most of January in the fetal position on the bathroom floor thanks to a mysterious and debilitating digestive disease that first attacked me New Year’s Eve. Even after two hospital stays, no doctor could diagnose it. Nevertheless, I was on strict orders to consume no dairy, grease, acid, sugar or spice until my devastated system could repair itself.
I survived until spring break on white rice, eggs and plain pasta, supplemented with dry bagels I needed special permission to toast in my room. I obsessed about food, and though I was constantly hungry and consequently cranky, weak and unfocused, I often hesitated to eat at all for fear of triggering another gastrointestinal episode. My anxiety was founded — random attacks twisted my insides on and off through July.
Chrissy may have had it even worse. For her, post-surgery life was more painful than the torn ACL and meniscus that had sent her to the operating room to begin with.
She crutched all over campus that winter and tried to navigate honors coursework through an opiate haze until she decided to trade her painkillers for mental clarity. For the first few weeks she couldn’t put on her shoes or even change her pants on her own. Worst of all, she had me as her nurse.
After four months living together, Chrissy and I were decidedly not best friends. We coexisted well enough, but I think we were both holding out for someone better. She wanted someone athletic and well-connected. I wanted someone who could speak intelligibly.
Had our bodies continued to function normally, I assume we would have maintained that distance through May. We both needed pretty intimate care, however, and in the absence of our families and hometown friends had to take what support was available.
I assisted Chrissy with her cast and clothes pre- and post-shower and woke up early to help her get dressed in the morning. At the dining hall I carried two plates: a sad one for myself, and another with Chrissy’s superior meal.
In exchange, Chrissy became my captive audience and listened to hours and hours of my paranoid, obsessive rants. She heard about my bowel movements in detail while I pulled her underwear up from her feet to her knees, but at least we understood each other’s misery.
As codependency began to bond us, we found some comfort in my Netflix account, filling time we would have otherwise spent eating or walking with science fiction series. It was surprisingly easy to close ourselves into a cheerless bubble, but eventually we tired of wallowing in self-pity. One Friday night after our friends went out, Chrissy asked for help getting her sweatpants off and her party pants on.
A slow, slow crutch down College Street brought us to an apartment shindig where we tried our hardest to have fun in spite of our pain, malnutrition, and compulsory sobriety. A creepy T.A. hit on Chrissy while I fell far too hard for a wannabe beatnik, but the non-medical nature of those misfortunes was refreshing. For the night, we had our real lives back.
Reality returned in the morning, but still, that night was a turning point; we started spending less time moping and more making progress. Chrissy dove into physical therapy. I focused on getting proper nutrition within my dietary constraints.
Chrissy recovered long before I did, but even once she could physically run away when I started to whine, she stayed and listened, still happy to commiserate. Though we weren’t each other’s ideal caretakes, its fortunate we needed each other at the exact same time. Being so incapacitated in a new place was scary enough as it was—I have no idea how we’d have done it on our own.
JOHNSON COUNTY, Iowa— Johnson County follows neighboring Linn County’s lead this summer with Solarize Johnson County, announced April 9. The program offers residents discounted solar panel installation through a county-hosted group buy.
“We’re just trying to make solar as easy as possible for residents of Johnson County to get,” County Supervisor Mike Carberry said in a phone interview.
Carberry set Solarize Johnson County in motion after hearing about Solarize Cedar Rapids & Linn County on public radio last year. As Johnson County has historically been at the forefront of Iowan sustainability, Carberry said he was disappointed Linn beat Johnson to the punch.
He resolved to run Solarize Johnson County in 2018, making it a Board of Supervisors priority despite uncertainty from the planning and zoning department.
“It’s a win-win situation for a lot of people,” Carberry said, as it allows environmentally concerned residents the opportunity to power homes cleanly and cost-effectively.
As more households enroll, the program’s official installer, Moxie Solar of North Liberty, offers a greater discount on installation per watt of power.
Watch for more on Moxie Solar.
Moxie beat out five other solar companies to become the Solarize installer, said Chris Hoffman, a business developer for the company. He said that Moxie’s presence in Johnson County and experience installing for Solarize Cedar Rapids & Linn County last year likely won them the job.
“We had a great relationship with the Midwest Renewable Energy Association in their Solarize Program in Linn County, and that transferred pretty well down here,” he said.
The Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA) administers solar group buys throughout the Midwest via their Grow Solar program, at no cost to participating localities, including Linn and Johnson.
Last year in Linn County, Moxie installed 607.22 kilowatts of solar power for 104 homes. Buyers maxed out savings at $200 per kilowatt, or about $1,164 per home on average, according to the MREA on the program’s official website.
The MREA estimates that Linn County participants will collectively save $100,000 dollars on utilities during the first year. The clean energy they produce will offset 927,000 pounds of carbon dioxide and 14 million gallons of water annually.
At least 70 Johnson County households will need to install 350 collective kilowatts of power to attain the same level of savings, according to program organizers.
Mount Vernon’s Tom Weisler took advantage of Linn’s group buy. He led informational “Solar Power Hour” sessions about the Solarize program there as well. He now brings his expertise a county over, presenting at the Johnson County Power Hours on behalf of the MREA.
Hear Tom discuss his involvement and advice for those considering going solar here.
The first Power Hour of Solarize Johnson County took place at the Health and Human Services Building in Iowa City on April 26 [VIEW LIVE BLOG HERE]. Twenty-one more sessions will run in cities throughout the county this summer.
Organizers anticipate a 5-10 percent rebate for the average residential system of just under 6 kilowatts. Factoring in state and federal tax credits of 15 and 30 percent respectively, participating homeowners may be able to install solar power for half price.
Solar powered homes slash utility bills down to almost nothing, contributing to further savings that will over time outweigh the initial investment.
Payback time depends on factors like roof direction, local permitting fees and consumer electricity rates, Moxie’s Hoffman said in a follow-up email. He said the group buy discount and tax credits help average payback time to eight years.
County Sustainability Coordinator Becky Soglin said over the phone the Power Hours target households, though businesses are welcome to attend. The Solarize program is open to all residents of Johnson County and West Branch, she said, whether they live in town or an unincorporated zone.
Johnson County drew the attention of the MREA last year by achieving a U.S. Department of Energy SolSmart Gold Designation, Soglin said. The award recognized county efforts to make solar power more accessible in unincorporated areas.
Soglin said the MREA brings funding, promotion and organizational knowledge to Solarize Johnson County.
“We’re providing ‘energy on the ground,’ if you will,” she said of the county, which hosts the Power Hours and has recruited cities within its borders as partners.
In the spirit of friendly competition, Soglin said she hopes Johnson will surpass Linn’s 607.22 installed kilowatts.
Soglin and Carberry both said that residents had expressed interest in clean energy opportunities even before Solarize Johnson County was announced.
Eileen Fisher of Solon is one such resident. At the first Johnson County Power Hour she said she has attended other information sessions on renewable energy over the years but had always found solar power “cost prohibitive.”
“With this group buy it might be more realistic to do it,” she said.
A concerned environmentalist, Fisher partially heats and powers her home with geothermal energy. She considered adding wind power but solar seemed more practical, she said.
Wind makes more energy in the winter, but Fisher said she needs extra power most in the summer, when solar capacity is highest.
Like Fisher, Iowa City Mayor Jim Throgmorton already uses renewable energy at home. He said that he and his wife generate more power than they normally use with a 3-kilowatt photovoltaic solar array on a shed in their backyard.
He said protecting the environment is “tremendously important” and attended the first Power Hour in support of the Solarize program.
“I’m proud of the county for starting it,” he said.
JOHNSON COUNTY, Iowa—Obstacles for beginning farms have prompted heated debate as the Planning Development & Sustainability Department works toward finalizing the Johnson County 2018 Comprehensive Plan.
Though tensions have increased, the county recognizes that supporting beginning farmers is especially important considering today’s farming demographics.
“We’ve got a serious issue with aging farmers, not only in the U.S. but in the state of Iowa,” said Mike Carberry, Board of Supervisors chairman, in a phone interview.
As of 2012, the average American farmer was 58.3 years old, up 15.45 percent from 1982, according to the USDA Census of Agriculture. Johnson County demographics align with that statistic, one year above state average.
For comparison, the average American worker is about 42, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Trends suggest that the 2017 Census of Agriculture, which will be released in February 2019, will reflect further aging. Need for a new crop of farmers is on the rise.
Young people have a harder time starting farms in Johnson than neighboring counties, however, in large part because of the county’s agricultural exemption policy, also known as the “40-acre rule.”
“This is the most important issue for young farmers in the county,” said farmer Kate Edwards, 31, of Wild Woods Farm in Iowa City.
Iowa State Code 335.2 dictates that land primarily adapted for agricultural use is exempt from county zoning codes. Farmers can build permanent structures on their land without rezoning, subdividing, and seeking permits.
Section 8:1.3 of the Johnson County Code of Ordinances says the same, however it only defines farming operations larger than 40 acres as farms. This differs from the State Code’s farm definition in section 352.2, which is based on commercial agricultural use.
Beginning farms, most often run by young farmers like Edwards, are small in size and profit 97 percent of the time, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture. Edwards’ farm is 8 acres. The 40-acre rule limits development on her farm and others like it.
Without 40 acres, Johnson County farmers cannot build essential structures, including barns and homes for themselves or their workers, nor can they raise livestock. With a $300k USDA loan limit, though, few beginning farmers can afford that kind of land.
Johnson County farmland ranks among the most expensive in the state, due to its high corn suitability rating. On average, an acre in Johnson County costs over three times as much today as it did in 1980, according to data from Iowa State University. A good acre of farmland can cost upwards of $10,000.
Edwards, like most small farmers in the area, rents land from a larger operation. She started farming in 2010 and said she would be able to afford her own land by now if buying and building on less than 40 acres were an option.
She stays in Johnson County, though, because it is where she was raised, a generation removed from farming.
“Home means a lot to me,” she said. “This is my homeland. This is the place I want to be.”
Many of her workers want their own small farms, however, and she said they will all most likely leave Johnson County to start them.
Majorly affected by the stress her grandparents felt during the farm crisis, Edwards wants Johnson County to be a friendlier place for young small farmers like herself.
She and other local farmers, like Shanti Sellz, 35, owner and operator of Muddy Miss Farms at Walker Homestead in Iowa City, actively advocate to the county for equal treatment of smaller farms.
“It’s being able to have a little more agency over how we run our businesses on our land, which is really limited right now in Johnson County,” Sellz said.
She said the size-based distinction disproportionately favors conglomerate, industrial-type operations, which often span thousands of acres. She, like Edwards, rents her land from a larger tract. Her vegetable farm runs on 4 acres.
“There’s still not enough [food farmers],” she said. “I think it’s in the county’s best interest to support those of us who are trying to do it here.”
Though beginning farms in 2012 typically made more money than older farms, more of their income came from “off-farm” efforts like agritourism, according to the Census of Agriculture, se. Many small farmers now sell trendy rustic, rural experiences to supplement income
Farms of over 40 acres can run these home businesses without permission, per section 8:1.22 of the Johnson County Code of Ordinances, but small farmers cannot build restaurants or event centers for agritourists without an approved and costly conditional use permit.
“You can grow crop,” Sellz said of smaller farms. “That’s all you can do.”
As a former local food planning specialist for the county, she has firsthand experience with the county’s approach towards the local food system, which she sees as problematically rule-based and punitive.
Ilsa DeWald, garden and operations coordinator at the North Liberty Community Pantry and member of the Food Policy Council since January, said that the council is concerned about the economic viability of small farming and wants a revised farm definition to promote local foods.
Small local farms minimize waste in an increasingly globalized food system and tend to donate excess harvest generously, she said, but those farmers are often unable to cut through sufficient red tape to make profit. The council believes that the size-based distinction burdens local foods.
Like Sellz, DeWald worries that Planning and Development is sometimes too focused on the black-and-white rules to “do right by people.”
Despite the limitations it puts on smaller farms, the agricultural exemption policy does have a purpose.
Josh Busard, director of Johnson County’s Planning Development & Sustainability Department, explained that the department has three main goals: to preserve agricultural land, to preserve environmentally sensitive areas, and to accommodate growth.
While the department supports all types of agriculture, it’s his job to balance all of those varied interests.
“We’re portrayed as the bad guy,” he said. “That’s completely not the case. There’s lots of different things that we look into.”
Busard said there is a difference between a “farmer” and a legal “farm” in Johnson County. He said he believes Edwards is a farmer, but not that her 8 acres are a farm.
“You can’t be a farmer without having a farm,” Edwards responded. “You cannot separate those issues.”
The size-based policy preserves agricultural land by limiting sprawl of urban development into unincorporated farmland. It ensures that housing developments do not overtake rural areas within the urban county by claiming exemption with small farms then building homes uninhibited by residential zoning codes.
County Supervisor Carberry said he believes that if Johnson County were sued, the 40-acre rule would not hold up in court, as occurred just a county over in 2013 per Lang vs. Linn County Board of Adjustment.
“Maybe if you’re considered a farm on the state and federal level, we should consider you a farm here,” he said.
Carberry said he would like to see the policy changed but acknowledged that agricultural exemption policies can be taken advantage of when farm size is not considered, which might indeed encourage sprawl.
Revisions to the agricultural exemption policy are in consideration for the 2018 Comprehensive Plan, a document updated every 10 years since 1998 to address developmental needs as population increases. Residents offered input at public sessions, as did focus groups including the Farm Bureau and Food Policy Council.
Proposed alternatives include basing exemption on use, tax forms, income, and/or a “Local Foods License.” Agritourism advocates would like to see a new zoning classification for mixed agricultural and commercial use.
All these options are still on the table, said Busard, who stressed that the agricultural exemption policy might not change at all.
Carberry said that the board is doing everything they can to investigate solutions and is open to suggestions.
Edwards said, “Anything less than what state code says is not a solution,” reflecting the position of most local farmers.
Currently seeking reelection, Carberry was voted into the Board of Supervisors in 2014 on a platform of both stopping urban sprawl and strengthening the local foods system. He aims to encourage old-fashioned farming over industrial operations that he said produce grain for high-fructose syrup and ethanol.
“We don’t feed the world,” he said of Iowa. “Hell, we don’t even feed ourselves.”
Carberry said encouraging young people to farm is vital since young people want to grow what he called “real food.” He noted that a large majority of sellers at the Iowa City farmers market farm elsewhere despite many being former University of Iowa students.
More Iowa alumni might farm in Johnson County were there fewer barriers to their success, he said.