Johnson County: Land of the red tape

Land of the Red Tape
Johnson County’s 40-acre threshold for establishing a farm hampers using small plots for farm-to-table style operations. — photo by Miriam Alarcón Avila

Iowa City, like other locales in Iowa, has witnessed the growth of its own farm-to-table movement, becoming part of a growing national trend in the production, distribution and consumption of foodstuffs provided by predominantly local, small-scale agricultural operations.

Bustling farmers’ markets and innovative community supported agriculture (CSA) ventures offer Johnson County residents an education about and a deeper appreciation for locally produced food. In addition, the relationships that have developed between area restaurants, groceries and small-scale food producers have become an important cornerstone in our community.

But while our community’s local food movement is poised for success, current laws and practices in Johnson County, as well as incongruity between agricultural policies and practices at the state and local levels, are preventing the county’s small-scale farming operations from truly flourishing.

At the state level, agricultural entrepreneurs—regardless of the size of their operations—enjoy a certain amount of latitude to grow their businesses. According to Iowa Code Section 352.2, Subsection 4, a “farm” is defined simply as “the land, buildings and machinery used in the commercial production of farm products.” Although Iowa Code defines the size of an “agricultural area” as a plot of land constituting 300 acres or more that can be further divided into smaller subplots for agricultural use, what this document does not specify is what constitutes the size of a “farm.”

Furthermore, Iowa Code 352.2 Subsections 5, 6 and 7 provide for clear definitions of the terms “farmland,” “farm operation” and “farm products” respectively. Particularly germane to this issue is the state’s permissive definition of a “farm operation,” which allows growers options to establish plans and practices that foster a successful business such as “the marketing of products at roadside stands or farm markets.” Such latitude is useful in helping local growers promote and profit from their products in creative ways, such as at the various farm-to-table events that are becoming a significant part of our local food culture.

By contrast, local laws define what constitutes a farm and what one can do on land designated as such in much stricter terms. According to Section 8:1.6 of the latest version of the Johnson County Unified Development Ordinance, a “farm” is as a plot of land 40 acres or larger. Such plots are designated as “Class A District” agricultural areas.

Owners of lands categorized under this status enjoy a number of permissible uses. For those uses not clearly defined under the ordinance, owners can apply for conditional permission. For example, in addition to the area used to produce food, an owner of Class A-designated land can ask for permission to establish “accessory buildings” on their property that can be put to such uses as “bed and breakfast homes” and other undefined “home businesses.”

Plots of land 40 acres or less are classified under Section 8:1.12 of the Unified Development Ordinance as “Class C-AG” districts reserved for “agribusiness.” This designation is intended to “provide for the location of independently operated, agricultural-based commercial and industrial activities.”

Why the ordinance distinguishes a “farm,” from an “agribusiness” is puzzling (and arguably counterintuitive). What is clear is how current Johnson County planning and zoning codes and practices favor the growth of larger farm operations and put an emerging sector of small-scale agricultural entrepreneurs at a disadvantage. While owners of lands zoned for Class C-AG agribusiness enjoy some similar provisions to those with Class A status, the former are allowed a much narrower spectrum of permissive and conditional uses.

Such is the conundrum that Eric Menzel and Jay Schworn, co-owners of Salt Fork Kitchen, encountered when they opened their farm-to-table restaurant in Solon (Full disclosure: I worked here briefly as a server). Originally, Menzel and Schworn entertained the idea of establishing Salt Fork Kitchen on the premises of its sister operation Salt Fork Farms (which is owned by Menzel and registered as a separate business). A string of bureaucratic entanglements led the two partners to open Salt Fork Kitchen at its current location in downtown Solon, instead of on their farm.

In an e-mail interview, Menzel asserts that “basically, the expense, red tape and extra work required by Johnson County [planning and zoning] regulations to build processing/production facilities, add value to raw products for sale, host events for the public (all of which are considered a normal growth evolution of small local food farming ventures) are prohibitive.”

Menzel says the construction exemptions for larger agricultural operations (e.g., a hog confinement facility) allow some farmers to build these sorts of additions without county interference. They save money by not having to pay licensed contractors, or pay county offices for building and use permits, he adds.

“In many cases, the pursuit of [some farm] operating strategies is disallowed completely,” he wrote, commenting on the situation of smaller farms.

In the end, Menzel and Schworn opted for a path of least resistance against a process that the two partners found not only inconvenient, but also too costly when rent, taxes and permits are factored into the equation. As such, local food producers—like Salt Fork Farms—that exist on less than 40 acres have a more difficult time applying for conditional permits to grow their agribusiness ventures than larger scale Class A operations. Even if owners of lands less than 40 acres were able to procure a conditional use permit to create a farm-to-table establishment such as the one originally conceived for Salt Fork Kitchen, it is likely they would do so at considerable expense of time, effort and money.

Derek Roller, one of the proprietors of Echollective Farm, once found himself in a similar position. Echollective is a small-scale organic food production venture located on 14 acres of land near Mechanicsville in Cedar County. If Echollective were located in Johnson County, it would likely be classified as a Class C-AG agribusiness. In a phone interview, Roller attests that the uneven regulation of small- and large-scale farming ventures in Johnson County was part of the reason Echollective was founded in Cedar County. The cost of land, along with more amenable terms for zoning permits made situating his local food venture outside Johnson County a better proposition for him.

“Most producers are elsewhere due to taxes, land cost and zoning rules,” Roller said, noting the difficulties producers currently face in Johnson County and neighboring Linn County.

The difficulties small local growers face is not lost on Mike Carberry, currently chair of the Johnson County Democrats and a candidate for a seat on the Johnson County Board of Supervisors. Carberry says he recognizes the need for parity and clarity in creating an environment conducive to the growth of local small-scale food production.

In addition to facilitating an ongoing conversation about the needs of local growers, Carberry contends that “the [Board] needs to look at ways to cut red tape to make local farming easier rather than harder.” He adds that local officials “should be more proactive in promoting local farming” by appointing a full-time person to the Local Food Policy Council (a body overseen by the Johnson County Board of Supervisors) and offering wider exemptions to facilitate the growth of smaller agribusinesses.

To its credit, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors has solicited input from the community to address this issue. Last February, the Board organized a free community forum entitled “Growing the Local Food Movement in Johnson County.” At this event, citizens had the opportunity to participate in open discussions with members of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors and its Food Policy Council about farm conservation, edible landscapes and a discussion on local food impacts and policies to support farmers in Johnson County.

But what traction may have been made during these sessions and what impact they will have on current policies and practices affecting the local food movement in our community are still unclear. Carberry believes that the Board of Supervisors “is not doing as much as it can to deal with the hurdles” current planning and zoning regulations put on local growers. Roller thinks that having a waiver and start-up incubator for local producers would be a good place to start. His rationale is simple: Local government representatives should be providing incentives—not disincentives—to help a growing part of Iowa’s agricultural economy flourish in Johnson County.

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