A local conflict over sustainable farming and zoning goes viral

Grant Schultz founder of Versaland at the farm. Monday, September 4, 2017. –photo by Zak Neumann

UPDATE: The Johnson County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to reject Schultz’s application for a zoning change.

Johnson County zoning ordinances aren’t typically the stuff of a heated social media controversy, but Grant Schultz has created one with a video claiming those ordinances are killing Versaland, the farm he operates just northeast of Iowa City. But the couple who own the land Schultz is farming support the current zoning, and are concerned that any change will allow Schultz to turn the farmland into a resort. The matter will be decided at the Thursday night meeting of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors.

“Right now this place is 143 acres of unkempt wilderness, because I’m one guy and I just can’t do it all on my own,” Schultz said, while showing Little Village around a section of the farm he named Versaland. “Usually I’ve had pastured chicken, turkeys, hogs and cattle here. But now that I can’t have labor here —
outside of a very tight window — I can’t do it on my own.”

It isn’t that Schultz can’t have workers on the farm. He can. According to Schultz, the real problem is that Johnson County zoning laws won’t allow him to provide housing for the workers he needs to keep the farm viable.

Johnson County zoning laws allow a farm to have a “seasonal labor camp” between June 1 and Sept. 15 to house farm workers, if the farm operator has obtained the proper permits and meets fire and safety regulations.

“That’s no good for me,” Schultz explained. “That may work for industrial-type farming, but I need boots on the ground out here all year round.”

Since the property is zoned for only agricultural use, without subdividing it or receiving any special exemptions, Schultz would be restricted to building just one house for himself, and one more for either family members or a hired worker.

“I’m single, I don’t have parents or grandparents here, or seven kids to help on the farm, which has been the traditional model,” Schultz said. “It’s kind of discriminatory against single people, non-hetero people, or people who don’t have big families or people who didn’t inherit land.”

Currently Versaland doesn’t even have one house, just a surplus FEMA trailer Schultz purchased and lives in.

“It’s not fair to have to require someone to drive 45 minutes out from Iowa City to work here, and to have to pay rent at the prices there are in a college town,” Schultz said. Especially since he intends Versaland to be both a working farm and an educational center, where most of the workers would be interns or other people interested in learning about permaculture, a sustainable form of agriculture that attempts to recreate the natural eco-systems of a property.

“Three years ago on a day-to-day basis, there were five or six people living here at a time,” Schultz said. Workers camped out, and for a while one shared the FEMA trailer with Schultz. “But the county deemed that illegal.”

Schultz concedes the zoning laws were in place long before he arrived in Johnson County, although he strongly believes counties should not be able to impose such restrictions on properties zoned Agricultural. “Sort of a libertarian thing, I guess,’ he said.

Schultz, however, also sees a way to use the county’s zoning laws to help Versaland. He wants to rezone 62.5 acres of the farm from Agricultural to Agricultural/Residential.

“It’s the only option I have that will allow me to build the housing I need for workers,” Schultz said.

But Schultz has bigger plans for the acres he wants to rezone than just cabins for a dozen or so people working or studying permaculture on the farm. He said that in order to afford building those cabins, with all the necessary infrastructure, he needs to build additional cabins to be used by paying guests.

Schultz wants to build a total of 36 cabins and create three ponds on the site. The cabins will be around the ponds, which will be stocked with fish and have fishing piers.

The staff of the Johnson County Department of Planning, Development and Sustainability has identified several problems with Schultz’s plan. But the biggest problem is Schultz doesn’t actually own the farm — he leases it with an option to purchase — and the actual owners of the property don’t want it rezoned.

Schultz is not letting the owners’ objections — or the objections of most of Versaland’s neighbors, or the fact that the plan was rejected by a unanimous vote of the Johnson County Zoning and Planning Commission on Aug. 14 — stand in his way. He has submitted his rezoning plan to the Johnson County Board of Supervisors for approval. The board will consider the plan at its Sept. 14 meeting.

Schultz contends the fishing ponds and extra cabins are necessary to increase the appraisal value of the farmland, which he believes will allow him to get a loan to exercise his purchase option. Since he intends to purchase the property, Schultz doesn’t believe the current owners objections should be allowed to impede the rezoning.

Schultz has until Dec. 31 to exercise his purchase option. The date was agreed to as part of a mediated settlement between Schultz and the couple who own the property, Suzan Erem and Paul Durrenberger.

The mediation occurred after Erem and Durrenberger sent Schultz an eviction notice in August 2016, on the grounds that he had violated various terms of his lease and failed to make scheduled lease payments. In response, Schultz sued Erem and Durrenberger, alleging they were in violation of the terms of the purchase agreement. Both complaints were resolved in mediation.

Erem explained to Little Village that she and her husband were introduced to Schultz by Practical Farmers of Iowa, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving family farms and promoting sustainable agriculture.

“We moved back to Iowa in 2010, after my husband retired from the Penn State University,” Erem said. “We’ve both been active in the sustainable family farm movement, and what we saw were land prices going up. At same time, there were a lot of young farmers interested in sustainable agriculture but they didn’t have access to land.”

“We thought we could help a young farmer get started. We only had one chunk of change to use — from our savings and a small windfall from selling our house in Pennsylvania — and we wanted to have as big an impact as possible.”

Erem and Durrenberger turned to sustainable farming organizations in Iowa to find an aspiring young farmer they could assist. They met Schultz at a Practical Farmers of Iowa conference.

“This has been my plan since I was 14, and it’s taken me 20 years to get here,” Schultz said about running a sustainable, organic farm and educating others about sustainable and traditional farming practices.

Schultz studied agricultural at Iowa State University. “But I rebelled at a pretty core level against the industrial approach they were teaching,” he said, and studied new approaches to organic agriculture on his own.

Schultz seemed a perfect fit to Erem and Durrenberger at first. Together they wrote certain basic principles into the purchase agreement for the property Schultz selected and Erem and Durrenberger bought at an auction. No genetically modified organisms would be grown. No petroleum-based fertilizer, pesticides or herbicides would be used. The land would be kept in continuous agricultural production. After five years, Schultz would be able to purchase the land for the price Erem and Durrenberger paid for it, according to contract between the parties.

“We were thrilled with his ideas,” Erem said. But Schultz was never able to follow through on those ideas, and has alienated most of his neighbors with the way he’s run the farm, according to Erem. “We’ve spent a lot of time apologizing to his neighbors.”

Erem said she and her husband didn’t know about the rezoning plan until a Johnson County official phoned her to ask her opinion of it. “We didn’t even see a copy until it was presented at the zoning commission meeting.”

“It’s not agriculture. Thirty-six cabins on an eight acre lake with fishing piers? That’s a resort,” Erem said.

Schultz rejects the suggestion that the additions would create a resort at Versaland.

“I see this as a forage CSA,” he said. In a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) arrangement, consumers buy food directly from a farm. “Instead of people picking up a box at the farmer’s market weekly, they can come here. They can walk around, see nature at work and pick and harvest whatever they want. Then cook it onsite. They can stay a couple of days and then head on down the road.”

Schultz has mounted a social media campaign, including a widely viewed video, to encourage people to contact the board of supervisors and express support for his rezoning plan. Erem said the campaign has also resulted in a lot angry emails addressed to her and members of the board of supervisors.

“[There have been] threatening emails from as far away as Serbia,” she said.

Erem said the difficulties she and her husband experienced with Schultz have also had a positive result. In 2015, Erem and Durrenberger were part of a group concerned about the future of agriculture in Iowa that founded the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT). SILT supports family farms that practice sustainable agriculture, and helps interested farmers acquire farmland. Erem is the nonprofit’s president.

“Everything we do at SILT has been informed by the experience with Grant,” Erem said. “Right now we’re considering candidates for a property near Decorah that was donated to SILT. We have a committee of seven reviewing the applications. And we now have a three year probationary period on our properties, before we offer a 20-year lease.”

Schultz knows it’s unlikely that the board of supervisors will approve his plan, but said he has to try. “If I can’t see the design for this farm through, I’m fundamentally bankrupt,” he said.

Editor’s note: The original version of this story incorrectly described the resolution process Schultz and Erem and Durrenberger went through to settle their legal disputes as arbitration. It was mediation. The story has been updated to clarify the nature of the legal dispute and the resolution process.

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