Organic Broadcaster

SILT offers permanent solution to affordable land access in Iowa

By Denise O’Brien

Kayla grew up on an organic farm and always assumed farming was her future, but the land was the first casualty in her parents’ contentious divorce. At 27, she now works for county extension, helping local food farmers instead of being one.

Jamal is a junior in an Omaha high school. He signed up for a summer program to teach kids like him how to grow food. When the group visited a farm with plans for community gardens, he approached the person in charge and said, “Ma’am, I can manage your farm for you.” But he had no experience farming and little chance of getting any.

Shanti has had to move her farm three times in four years because of well-meaning landowners whose plans changed. With nine years of experience in organic farming, Shanti knows how to farm. She just needs long-term, reliable access to land near a major metro area.

Lyle Luzum, right, leads a tour of the 170-acre farm he and his family are donating to SILT to permanently protect it for future sustainable farming. Photo by Steffen Mirsky

Lyle Luzum, right, leads a tour of the 170-acre farm he and his family are donating to SILT to permanently protect it for future sustainable farming.
Photo by Steffen Mirsky

These farmers are why I and two dozen other Iowa leaders came together in late 2014 to form the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT), a new model that reduces land costs for sustainable food farmers for generations to come.

When I was running for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, I had a lot of time in the car. I can’t tell you the number of times I talked with people about permanent, affordable land access for our kind of farming. After a lifetime of fighting for family farmers, I believe SILT is taking that fight the next mile.

The name “SILT” makes farmers smile. When silt stays where it belongs, we know it’ll grow anything we ask of it. But environmentalists frown; the only time they see it is as a result of poor farming practices. But this SILT permanently protects land not only from encroaching development, but also for (truly) sustainable production of food for human consumption – fruits, vegetables, pastured meat, nuts, hops, wine, etc.

In Iowa, sprawl and commodity prices keep land on the edges of cities out of reach. But not all Iowa landowners count on land speculation for retirement or inheritance. Dozens of landowners with thousands of acres have already come forward to discuss donating their land outright or permanently reducing its value to guarantee healthy food for Iowa.

SILT already acquired two farms in its first year, including 53 acres just 10 minutes from downtown Omaha (on the Iowa side) for half of its market value. We agreed to take on debt for this threatened land because it’s what we created SILT for. If we can pay it off in two years, we’ll offer a long-term lease to a farmer and encourage the farmer to involve the local community, since young people like Jamal mentioned above would love to learn, and our land donor, Joe Driscoll, has a dream of that land becoming a young people’s farm. (At 72, Joe took on the task of raising the $200,000 we owe!) If we don’t raise the funds, we’ll sell the farm with a SILT easement on it, and some lucky farmer will get prime farmland for an affordable price that we will monitor for good. Either way we’ve secured that land for sustainable food production for generations to come.

The tillable ground is already out of conventional corn and bean and is transitioning to organic hay with a next-generation farm family nearby who needed it for their rotational grazing operation. They hope to graze goats in the oak savanna and overgrown woods as well. We’ve agreed to a three-year lease so they could make the investment we all wanted to see in the soils.

SILT also acquired 40 acres in southern Iowa donated with something called a reserved life estate. Mary Ellen Miller gave SILT her deed, but she still has the right to live on her land and use it for as long as she chooses. We have another 22 acres we just acquired in Northeast Iowa this year under the same terms. We work with those land donors to find a sustainable farmer. Housing and finding a good match are both issues we all are addressing together.

“We farmland owners have had only two choices in the past: either we sell or rent the land to the highest bidder when we’re done working it, or we leave it to our kids who, if they’re not farmers, have only the same two choices,” said landowner and sheep farmer Lyle Luzum. “We had no way to assure that it would be treated well. SILT gives us a third option—handing it on to the next generation of farmers who want to grow food for our community and protect a multi-generation conservation legacy.”

Lyle is working through the process of donating his 170-acre farm to SILT. He and the group are facing complicated first-time-ever questions. For example, how can he donate the farm while still being able to sell the house so he has proceeds for a retirement home, but do it in a way that keeps the farm and home together for the future? Or what guarantee does anyone have that a farmer will want that farm five years from now when Lyle and his family are ready to move?

My family has been planning for our farm transfer as well, and we’re discussing a SILT easement for our farm. We trust our daughters and son to honor Larry and my life’s work, but we don’t know what their kids or their grandchildren will do with the land. A SILT easement will make sure that if and when they ever sell, they’ll sell to a sustainable food farmer who can reap the reward of our years of work building our soils.

For farmers trying to buy land, interest payments nearly double the cost of any land over the life of a 30-year mortgage. SILT easements reduce mortgage debt because only sustainable food farmers are eligible to use the land, removing developers and conventional corn and bean farmers from the buyer pool and keeping values low. (Landowners who place these permanent restrictions on land can be eligible for extensive tax benefits. Farmers can receive a 100 percent federal tax deduction of Adjusted Gross Income for up to 16 years, as a way to help offset the loss in the land’s value.)

On land donated to SILT, the group takes mortgage interest and land speculation out of the equation entirely. Farmers can farm with the confidence of long-term leases they can pass on to their children. They can purchase or build a home, barn and business. This reduces the burden on beginning and disadvantaged farmers and keeps the land affordable one farmer after the next.

“As a beginning farmer, if I have the assurance of a long-term lease at a reasonable cost, I don’t have to own the land,” said Kayla Koether, the young woman who lost her family’s organic farm to her parents’ divorce. “Then it will be easier for me to retire and pass on my business without worrying about my life’s work going to waste.”

Changing the land equation for sustainable food farmers means facing multiple challenges:

  1. Bankers and financiers are not ready for this. When the land can’t be put up for collateral, or where fruit and vegetables are the business model, it’s hard to tap traditional sources of capital.

  2. Developers are skittish. SILT leaders are encouraging agri-communities in which SILT owns the farm while homebuyers enjoy that backyard view. After a lot of national press for this model, SILT is finally seeing some interest.

  3. Iowa = corn and bean. Most of Iowa’s farmers grow commodity crops and Iowa’s economy rewards them for that. But we know diversity builds resilience in the environment and on our farms, and a diverse ag economy can do that for Iowa’s economy. Iowa recently made the Top 10 organic farm states. There’s room for us to grow here too.

  4. SILT faces legal, social and financial obstacles. Experienced Iowa attorneys have vetted SILT’s model, yet some politically-motivated “experts” tell landowners it’s not legal. Some people say farmers won’t work on land they’ll never own, but our experience contradicts that. Finally, as a young nonprofit, it’s expensive to get the word out about a complicated solution worthy of solving the complicated problems we face.

  5. Time is running out. SILT is racing the clock to make land affordable to aspiring sustainable food farmers before local food fades away or gets co-opted and young people go elsewhere to follow their dreams. Meanwhile, more than half of Iowa land is owned by people over 65. We must act soon to be a player in the oncoming avalanche of land transfer.

SILT has a waiting list of beginning farmers looking for affordable land and leases. We imagine a day when people from all walks of life can grow and sell food. They don’t have to be from a farming family. They don’t have to know the right people. They can just check a website for affordable Iowa farms protected by SILT and fill out an application being developed right now by farmers just like them.

We know farmers on SILT-protected ground will improve the stream of fresh healthy food into the food shed, improve water and soil quality for multiple Midwest states and bring young people back to our dying small towns. As an organic farmer, I also like the idea that SILT can serve as a clearinghouse of information among its farmers to reduce the chance of them oversaturating markets and can be a place they can build cooperatives or other coordinated marketing projects.

In a state that’s been losing its young people, watching its collective weight go up and struggling with water quality, SILT can be a welcomed solution. See details and contact us at

Denise O’Brien is a certified organic farmer in Atlantic, Iowa. She founded the Women Food and Agriculture Network, and currently serves on the boards of the Pesticide Action Network and the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust.

From the November | December 2016 Issue

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