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Sustainable Iowa Land Trust Is Transforming Iowa Food System

Iowa is an agricultural state and wants to ensure that its local farming communities can reap the benefits. Over the past few years, agriculture in Iowa has trended toward consolidation, a practice hurting small and medium-sized farmers. To manage this situation, the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT) has created a program to ensure that farmland is in the hands of small farmers who will actively improve the environmental resources of the land.

The program helps farmers enter “voluntary permanent landowner agreements that make farmland affordable for future generations of sustainable table food farmers.”

These agreements, or easements, allow farmers to remain in control of the legacy of their farms by ensuring the use of their land for food farming rather than the unhealthy monocropping practices used by the industrial farming system. 

SILT also ensures that the farms will use sustainable farming practices. This effort is valuable for the future of Iowa farmers, as the region has suffered from the overuse of fertilizers and pesticides, resulting in water quality issues that affect both farmers and the community as a whole.

The initiative helps the Iowa farming community achieve a more sustainable future for their farmland, and it sets the stage for more home-grown produce. Under SILT, the community has started the Circle Our Cities campaign. It will use the land the trust has protected around 10 Iowa cities to develop a food farming program to supply those cities with fresh, Iowa-grown fruits and vegetables.

Photo Courtesy Chris Ensminger

Circle Our Cities was born out of issues that came to light during the the pandemic. “COVID proved how fragile the [food] system is,” said Kiara Fish, a SILT staff member who helps recruit farmers into the program. “Supply chain issues hit Iowa hard. We import 90% of our food, and so many went hungry.” Turning to local food became more accessible and efficient to produce the community’s food.

Dave Swenson, an Iowa state economics research scientist, and SILT board member, found that it took only 50 well-cultivated acres in Iowa to produce enough fresh fruits and vegetables to support the seasonal demand of 10,000 people. “And that’s just one farmer working really hard,” Swenson said. “The fantastic part of that is that one acre, well-cultivated … on average, an acre produces enough fruits and vegetables to feed 200 people.”

The ambitious initiative wants more than 4,000 acres of farmland across those 10 cities to fulfill the seasonal demand and diversity of crops required to feed communities. 

Photo Courtesy Somi Jaiswal

This sort of food supply is incredibly beneficial to the community. Cornelia Flora, a founding SILT member, says, “when you eat seasonally, you’re eating really good and healthy foods,” adding “and things last longer when they don’t have to travel across the country.” In addition, any food leftover or unused will be sent to food pantries to combat food insecurity.

The campaign has protected over 1,100 acres across 14 farms and is a positive transformation of Iowa’s food system. Flora sums it up, saying, “This is sort of what we’re looking for: The notion of a circular economy with short value chains. I could see a number of farms around here that could really relate to that.”

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