Ensuring a Permanent Place for Sustainable Agriculture
By Matt Low
Those of us living in the Greater Omaha stretch of the Missouri River Valley are fortunate to be in close proximity to the Loess Hills, a geologically and ecologically unique landform similar to few places on the planet. For millennia the hills offered diverse habitat and sustainable resources for its plant, animal and human communities, but the last century of intensive agriculture and recreational use has depleted a good deal of that diversity and sustainability, and an additional burden has been placed on those who live in and around the Loess Hills to ensure that the region remains vital and bountiful for future generations.
Fortunately, visitors can come to learn about the sort of stewardship necessary to secure a sustainable future for the hills at places like the Hitchcock Nature Center (HNC), an oasis of ecological diversity located between Crescent and Honey Creek, Iowa. The diversity, complexity and beauty of HNC is the product of management practices learned through attentiveness to thousands of years of environmental history in the Loess Hills.
HNC’s restored prairies and oak savannas offer important models of ecological sustainability, but there’s an equally important need to make sustainable agriculture a permanent fixture within the hills. That’s why a recent addition to the landscape of the Loess Hills, located just a mile or so down the road from HNC, gives so much reason to be hopeful.
The Loess Hills Young People’s Farm, launched by the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT), will soon separate itself from the adjoining farmland by “instituting nature-friendly farming practices that predate industrial agriculture, while using the best of modern technology to help a next generation food farmer succeed,” as SILT co-founder and president Suzan Erem explains.
The Loess Hills Young People’s Farm is a partnership between landowner Joe Driscoll and SILT, an organization that formed last January with a mission to preserve the health of Iowa’s soils. Similar to the practice in other land trusts, keeping land out of the most intensive forms of development is an important first step. Erem sees SILT setting itself apart by emphasizing small-scale farming and offering “long-term, even inheritable land leases to qualified farmers who wish to grow food sustainably.” Ideally, she says, “The farmers will own the house, barn and business on top of the land.”
A unique area of focus for SILT is reaching out to retiring farmers throughout the state who, like Driscoll, want to see their land kept permanently in sustainable agriculture, which can be a tall order. The pressures to sell to large-scale farm operations and land developers with deeper pockets than nonprofit conservation organizations is just one of the obstacles faced by SILT and its partners. In its short existence, SILT has received positive feedback from the sort of landowners who want to see their land treated as more than just a financial investment and would rather ensure that the land’s abundance lasts far into the future.
Joe Driscoll is just such a landowner. With deep roots in the Loess Hills and a strong desire to keep a large portion of his family’s land in long-term sustainable agriculture, Driscoll and SILT came into each other’s lives at just the right time. Looking for a way to secure retirement for himself and his wife, Susan, it was evident that the farmland he had lived on for most of his life was this homeowner’s best option. Though not as profitable as other options might have been, the unique arrangement that SILT and Driscoll forged ensures that the land will not be stripped, gutted or otherwise degraded in the name of development or added to the surrounding monoculture.
There is risk in this venture for both Driscoll and SILT, as over the next few years enough funds need to be raised to keep all 53 acres in sustainable agriculture. For Erem, the upshot of Driscoll’s initial generosity becomes “a challenge for the community to raise the funds to make [the Loess Hills Young People’s Farm] permanent.” As Driscoll puts it, the risk taken is well worth it, in large part because his property has the potential of becoming a showcase for SILT.
Upon visiting the Loess Hills Young People’s Farm it becomes abundantly clear just what that showcase will entail. For instance, this spring, Driscoll and SILT invited more than two dozen young people from Omaha and Council Bluffs to walk the farm and talk about the possibilities. Driscoll noted that a gently sloping east-facing hillside was already slotted to be planted to pumpkins with help from the Trailblazers of the Heartland, one of the community partners that Driscoll envisions having a stake in the Young People’s Farm.
Other highlights of this recent tour of the property included: a ridge with slightly higher elevation, currently planted in soybeans, that will hopefully soon be converted to an orchard; a number of acres of flatter land easily planted in vegetables to be sold at nearby farmers markets; and a beautiful oak savanna at the highest point of the property that once served—and could again—as grazing land for free-range pigs feasting on the acorns dropped by the oaks each fall. These are just a handful of the potential transformations that could soon come to this farm, with some changes already taking place—the Trailblazers planted their pumpkins this summer, a tenant is set to begin growing non-GMO hay for grazing, and space is being set aside for community gardens.
The final component of this farm’s transformation is the educational opportunities it will provide for children and adults alike throughout the region. It will demonstrate the hands-on labor of sustainable agriculture, not unlike the farming many of our grandparents and great-grandparents once practiced. Furthermore, stemming from his background in architectural restoration, Driscoll envisions “an iconic farmstead with house, restored barn, greenhouses and outbuildings all powered by renewable energy.” Driscoll hopes this “concept farm” emerging on his family’s property can serve to educate others in this region and throughout the state about a form of agriculture that gives back as much to the land as it takes.
SILT launched at a time when more and more people are interested in local foods. But the leaders who brought SILT into being are hoping to do more than capitalize on what may or may not be a trend. Erem wants to emphasize this point as one of the organization’s top priorities: “Let’s make sure local food lasts forever, that it’s not just a fad.” She says the only way to do that is to secure ownership of the land in perpetuity.
Once the Young People’s Farm and other SILT farms are fully operational, visiting the farm to purchase produce directly, or finding their products at local restaurants and farmers markets, will be the most surefire way to ensure a permanent place for sustainable agriculture. In the meantime, however, large and small donations are needed in order to make land trust ownership of the farm permanent, so that, like HNC, the focus becomes restoring balance and unity within the Loess Hills environment.
To stay up on all of the happenings at the Loess Hills Young People’s Farm, visit their page on Facebook.
To donate to SILT and the Loess Hills Young People’s Farm, visit silt.org/donate.
Please designate your donation to YPF.
Volunteer opportunities are also available by visiting silt.org.
Matt Low lives and teaches in Omaha. He and his family enjoy exploring the growing number of sustainable food options available throughout the area.