With the release of a music video to the song “Common Ground” by the Awful Purdies, the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT) is hoping to raise awareness about the ongoing loss of Iowa farmland to development and the challenges facing new farmers — and showcase SILT’s effort to protect the land and support a new farming generation.
Iowa loses around 25 acres of farmland every day to development, according to the Farmland Information Center. With many farmers over the age of 65 and without family members interested in continuing to farm, that raises the question of what will happen to the land. Often, such land goes to developers or gets swallowed up by another farm as Iowa’s farm operations grow larger and the high cost of land keeps smaller-scale or beginning farmers priced out of the market, SILT president Suzan Erem said.
“The land transfer issue that we’re facing right now is terrifying, to the point that it is overwhelming,” Erem said.
The video seeks to provide one potential alternative: connect older farmers with a new generation of people passionate about agriculture, who don’t have a family farm and can’t afford to buy land on their own. It shows a heritage farm family, with a son who doesn’t wish to farm, and a young woman in the city who dreams of working the land.
“The song captures the possibility of transferring farms outside the family,” Erem said. “It puts a face on what’s going on and what’s happening in Iowa.”
The story told in the video shows the farm family meeting the young woman and passing on their farming tradition. Currently, Erem said most transfers like this happen through dumb luck.
“Hopeful farmers right now have to do a lot of networking, just hoping to find the right landowners,” she said.
Instead SILT, which first launched in 2015, offers a systemic solution. Those hopeful farmers can reach out to SILT and let them know about their interest. And landowners can reach out to SILT and donate some or all of their land — which means those hopeful farmers can start farming without debt from a land purchase — or they can put their land under protection, keeping ownership but ensuring that the land will be used for sustainable food production in the future — which means that the price will be lower for future farmers.
The song “Common Ground” itself grew out of the stories of rural families. In 2014, the Awful Purdies won an Iowa Arts Council award to travel Iowa and listen to people’s stories. “Common Ground” was among the songs published in the resulting album, All Recipes Are Home.
Ron Reynolds, the Cedar Rapids videographer who produced the video, has worked with the Awful Purdies to produce videos before, and said he was excited to collaborate with SILT on the project.
“Once I learned what SILT does and the mission about saving farmland, it spoke to me, like, ‘Yes, this is a group that I would like to do something for,’” he said. “It was a cool project and it was a different vibe than filming the band playing and just cutting back and forth.”
He said he hoped the video might inspire viewers to take action.
“I would hope they would heed the call for action and decide, at the very least, to learn more about SILT and help them out, donate, or volunteer, or just spread the word about them,” Reynolds said.
For Erem, the importance of keeping farmland affordable for future generations looking to farm in a more sustainable, small-scale way, is about more than just the land or the farmers themselves. It impacts anyone hoping to access healthy, local food.
“People are loving local food more than ever right now and the possibility of continuing that is diminishing,” Erem said, citing the loss of farmland to development. “We are focused on saving the farmland to grow the food that people are enjoying in restaurants and at farmers’ markets. We’re intervening and saying, this is a public good.”
“Local food consumers have to wake up and say, ‘Wow, I’m loving this now, but, will my kids have this?’ And the answer is no,” she said.