SILT founders Paul Durrenberger and Suzan Erem signed over the deed to their 63 acres just north of Iowa City at a reception attended by county supervisors and staff, SILT advisers and friends at the Iowa City Public Library Oct. 4. They will continue to manage the property under a reserve life estate agreement, but the land itself belongs to SILT.
“We’ve applied so much of what we learned through this experience to SILT,” Erem said of the farm purchase. “One lesson is that it’s as important for a person to be a good neighbor as it is to be a good farmer.”
The venture began as an opportunity for a young farmer to purchase it over 5 years at the price the couple Suzan and Paul paid for it, but when the retired couple went into debt for 143 acres instead of the planned 40 at auction, they and the farmer agreed to protect it for good. Through nearly 2 years of research, they learned that a land trust focused on sustainable food farms would solve multiple problems and fill an unmet need Iowa. Along with 25 founders, they launched SILT in early 2015.
The farm eventually became a source of conflict among the original farmer, the community, the USDA and local elected officials. At the end of the 5-year agreement, the farmer was unable to fulfill his obligation. The couple then sold 80 acres to pay off the debt and donated the rest. The buyer of the 80 plans to place a SILT easement on that land within the year, eventually protecting all 143 acres.
“We’re looking forward to writing a happier chapter,” Erem said. “We mean for this to be a gift to the community and to the future, for everyone to enjoy.”
Under SILT policy, the land itself may be leased for as long as the farmer and heirs choose to farm it. Farmers gain equity in their house, barns and business.
This farm has been in the Henning/DeLong family since 1914 when the Henning sisters’ maternal grandparents, Charley and Kate DeLong, married and moved onto the farm. Charley DeLong grew up across the section on a farm owned by his parents, making the Henning/DeLong tenure in Section 15 of Elm Grove township more than 120 years. Through the use of agricultural conservation easements on this property, the family partnership is able to sell it to the next generation for less than the market value of unencumbered land.
The land currently produces certified organic corn, soybeans, small grains, and alfalfa in a roughly 3-year rotation. The prospective buyer, a nephew of the Henning sisters, has stated his intention to continue producing certified organic food-grade grains and certified organic animal feed with the current tenants, who have been operating the farm since 2004. Future uses could include AWA certified livestock, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. The parcel is large enough to support multiple farmers growing a diversity of crops.