Hard work of ‘farm hugger’ helps reserve land

Allison Luety

While she never considered herself a tree hugger, Suzan Erem thinks of herself as a “farm hugger.”

Erem, president and founder of the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust, or SILT, moved to the east coast after earning a degree in English and journalism from the University of Iowa. Four years ago, she returned to the 80 acres of land she bought in Iowa in 1997.

On that land, Erem and her husband built a five-star energy efficient house, however she wanted to do more.

“I was standing there looking at this 80 acres that had been completely raped by industrial farming for 60, 70 years,” Erem said. “We looked out on this 80 acres and thought now what do we do?”

Erem and her husband saw a problem with the way their land was treated and set out to learn more about soil and sustainable farming practices.

“The government programs, government guidance and government employees that told me about these things that got me more involved in that ground than I ever would have been otherwise.”

By becoming involved in Practical Farmers of Iowa and Worldwide Opportunity in Organic Farms, Erems’ social network expanded.

“We kept hearing the same story from the hardest working, brightest people you could ever imagine,” Erem said. “We’re never going to be able to farm because we can’t afford the land.”

The idea for SILT developed when Erem tried to preserve land outside of the 80 acres and allow a beginning farmer to utilize the land. She wanted to ensure that the land would only be used for growing healthy food.

In order to legally preserve the land she purchased, Erem called preservation groups to donate an easement, which means donating away the right to ever develop the land, as long as the group could guarantee food production on that land in the future.

Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, the Burr Oak Land Trust, American Farm Land Trust and Sierra Club turned Erem away.

“We have this huge land transition going on. We have all of these farmers who can’t gain access to land and I can’t even protect a farm,” Erem said. “It seemed like such a sin that this was happening.”

It took Erem about two years to create SILT, however, she has received nothing but positive feedback.

“All we’re doing is reserving land to grow food,” Erem said. “So far we haven’t had any opposition to that.”

The model for SILT is easy: a land trust. Any land SILT owns is land a farmer can lease as long as they are qualified. The farmer owns everything on the land, but not the land itself, and then sells the house and farm equipment to the next farmer ready to take over the land.

If a farmer would rather maintain ownership of their land, he or she can set up an easement, which restricts that land for future use to certain guidelines, such as growing healthy food. SILT enforces the contract.

Sustainability is near and dear to the many students who attended the talk Feb. 25.

Hannah Dankbar is a first year graduate student in the Graduate Program in Sustainable Agriculture who attended Erems’ talk.

“Wednesday afternoons we come here and a team is put together every semester to organize speakers who come in to talk about a variety of different projects,” Dankbar said. “Last week, we had a speaker from Monsanto come in and we also had a speaker about pesticides.”

Adam Wright, graduate student in creative writing, helps organize the Wednesday afternoon talks regarding sustainable agriculture. He, along with two other students, work to invite speakers from all areas of sustainability from a turkey farmer to a Monsanto representative.

Wright grew up on a 40-acre apple orchard in North Carolina. His family sold the farm and what once was an orchard is now suburbs.

“I am very concerned about the industrial ag system,” Wright said. “I think there’s a lot of problems with it environmentally, socially, economically and I don’t think it’s sustainable.”

Erem, Wright, and Dankbar all agree that sustainability is a hot topic in agriculture, especially with the growing concern about global warming.

“Students at an ag school have a responsibility to the public to go out and make the world better in agriculture,” Erem said. “Whatever they’re [taught] about agriculture their job is to make the world better. And I hope that’s what they do.”