The Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to grounding local food systems in community-based farms by ensuring that beginning farmers have affordable access to land.
SILT was founded in 2015 to tackle issues troubling leaders in Iowa's sustainable agriculture community: the disappearance of family farms, the loss of farmland to development, volatile land prices, and environmental degradation. To solve these crises—for good—SILT works to permanently protect farmland across Iowa through two protection pathways. In some cases, landowners retain ownership of their farms and permit SILT to oversee the land's use. This protection agreement, also known as an agriculture conservation easement, removes development pressure from the land, ensures sustainable management (via third-party certification), and safeguards farming viability for future generations. When the owners are ready to sell, future farmers can purchase the land for up to 40% below the market rate. In other situations, landowners donate their land to SILT; SILT then offers long-term, reduced-rate, inheritable leases on the land it owns, allowing farmers to stay on the land as long as they like while guaranteeing that sustainable practices are in place. Farmers on SILT-owned land gain equity over time by purchasing any donated buildings—also priced at a discount—with no down payment and no interest. To date, SILT has protected 12 farms on 1,085 acres, producing a diverse array of table food, from mushrooms to fresh vegetables to nuts and herbs.
In 2020, SILT was chosen as one of eight ventures to participate in Chipotle's Aluminaries Project 2.0, an accelerator program that offers mentorship and funding to growth-stage organizations that empower the next generation of farmers. During this seven-month program, SILT conceptualized an ambitious campaign, Circle Our Cities, that would "surround 10 Iowa cities with 10 permanent table food farms in 10 years,"as noted on its website. This campaign envisions a future where the immense benefits of including agri-communities in urban planning and development are fully realized. (See the SILT publication Miles Matter: Food Farms and Their Markets to further explore these concepts.) In March 2021, the first stage of the campaign was launched in Fairfield, Iowa. SILT is currently building a network of landowners, food and community advocates, and government staff with the hope of preserving three farms in Fairfield within the year.
SILT is at the forefront of building locally centered, sustainable, and resilient food systems. Through conservation easements and the leasing of donated land, SILT provides opportunities for future generations of farmers to break into sustainable agriculture. For SILT, land is a shared resource, not a commodity.
Visit Sustainable Iowa Land Trust to learn more about upcoming projects and initiatives. Suzan Erem, executive director of SILT, was interviewed last month as part of NAFSN's Supply Chain Innovators webinar series; watch the recording here.