Mary Ellen Miller was the first person to ever say she would donate her land to the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust. That was in December 2014, before SILT even existed. Then she told scores of Iowa media at SILT’s official launch in late January and on IPR that week. Then she was honored for her generous gesture at SILT’s first birthday in Perry, when the board voted that day on a resolution to accept her donation.

MEM signing deed

Mary Ellen Miller signs the deed to her 40 acres over to SILT in early December.

Finally, on Dec. 3, 2015, Mary Ellen signed over her deed to SILT at a festive gathering at her attorney’s office in Centerville Iowa.

“This woman is a true leader,” said SILT President Suzan Erem, who attended the event. “Her donation will inspire landowners across Iowa to approach SILT about how they can help bring young people back to a cleaner, healthier Iowa to grow food.”

Mary Ellen Miller is a lifelong Republican Party activist, executive director of 50/50 in 2020 and a Branstad appointee to the Iowa State Board of Education. She is also a member of the Iowa Nutgrowers Association and in her youth ran a cow/calf operation.

Attorney Ed Cox of Orsborn, Milani, Mitchell & Goedken, L.L.P is a SILT adviser best known for his work with sustainable agricultural leases. He and his firm invited the mayor of Centerville as well as the mayor of nearby Moravia to attend, and two representatives from the Wayne County Conservation Foundation came as well. Mary Ellen has named that group as the one to own the land if anything should happen to SILT. The senior partner in Ed’s firm attended with his wife, filling the firm’s conference room.

The ceremony included stories from Mary Ellen about her brother, who left her the land, his dreams and the odd coincidences that brought SILT and Mary Ellen together. Then she signed on the line, only one signature necessary, and said, “That’s it?”


Pond and pasture on Mary Ellen’s land. She is open to getting a young farmer started on rotational grazing of small livestock some time in the near future.

Mary Ellen had already ordered an appraisal so she could identify the value of her donation to the IRS. Suzan and Mary Ellen had also talked many times about the future uses of the land and they were careful to put the important issues in writing. Suzan drew up a resolution for the SILT board to vote on before moving forward.

Then, with one last signature, Mary Ellen secured that 40 acres near Corydon to grow healthy food in perpetuity. She will be able to use the land as she chooses, within the parameters of SILT’s broad mission, until she no longer has the need or desire. SILT will help her find a beginning farmer when and if she wants one, but she will receive the income and pay the taxes until she’s ready to hand over the land’s management to the land trust.

Once that time comes, SILT will offer long-term inheritable leases to an eligible sustainable food farmer who will never have to pay 30 years of mortgage interest just to farm. That farmer will be able to purchase and build equity in the buildings on the farm and make improvements as needed, then sell those buildings when he or she gets out of farming to the next farmer on that land.

The Centerville Iowegian ran a story of Mary Ellen’s gift as well as the Wayne County Times-Republican.

After a brief reception, Mary Ellen and Suzan headed out for one last celebration with board member Sheila Knoploh-Odole and adviser Cornelia Flora who joined them in Des Moines for dinner.