AMES, Iowa — A portion of urban Granger will now be forever preserved as a sustainable, working farm for future generations thanks to a land donation from Angela and John Tedesco to Practical Farmers of Iowa.
In December, Angela and John donated 13 acres of their 20-acre certified organic farm to the non-profit organization – the first realized land gift in Practical Farmers’ history – to ensure its agricultural legacy, rich soils and reservoir of wildlife don’t succumb to a developer’s plow, a fate that has befallen many Iowa farms.
“We were looking for the best way to keep the farm a farm,” says Angela, who operated Turtle Farm, one of Iowa’s first Community Supported Agriculture businesses, for 17 years until her retirement in 2012. “Because it’s right on Highway 17 in Granger, I knew if we sold the land to another farmer, eventually it could get sold for development prices. It’s important to us that it remain a farm for someone to continue using in a sustainable manner.”
Angela and John, who reside in Johnston, purchased the farmland in 1998, three years after Angela started farming on rented ground elsewhere – and one year after they joined Practical Farmers of Iowa. John says this long history with the organization was a major factor in their decision to donate their land to PFI instead of another group.
“We have experience and trust with Practical Farmers that we haven’t developed with other groups,” he says. “We knew PFI would be interested in preserving the land for sustainable farming.”
Sally Worley, Practical Farmers’ executive director, says the Tedesco land gift not only represents a milestone for the organization, it comes at a critical time as Iowa and the nation confront the massive transfer of farmland that has already begun and will have enormous ramifications for farmland access, rural communities, the environment and the future of food production.
“Supporting the next generation of farmers and addressing the issue of farmland access are big priorities for members of Practical Farmers,” Sally says. “As the process of farmland transfer accelerates in Iowa, our board of directors feels that acquiring the Tedescos’ farmland and ensuring it is kept as a working farm are of utmost importance, and fit within our mission, vision and values. So many farms are being purchased by the highest bidder or swallowed up by very large farms – which is why Angela and John’s land donation is monumental for Practical Farmers of Iowa and community-focused farming.”
Regenerating soil and habitat
When Angela and John first purchased the land, it was bare ground that had been part of a conventionally managed row crop farm. Angela immediately started the process of transitioning the land to organic production. In addition to the vegetables she raised for her CSA, she planted perennial crops and added a buffer of peach trees, hazelnuts, elderberries, dogwood and evergreens.
She also installed a hoop house, drilled a deep well for water access, built a barn, added electricity and installed a driveway – all features that Angela says will help make the land “a turnkey operation” for another farmer.
Over the 17 years Angela ran Turtle Farm, she grew her CSA from 30 to 180 members; raised more than 30 types of vegetables and hundreds of varieties; added U-pick strawberry and organic transplant enterprises; and expanded her season with a fall CSA share. Her land improvements and management practices also turned the farm into an oasis for wildlife, and helped to restore its soil health – a fact she recalls noticing visually.
“The fact that the land had been farmed conventionally showed up the very first year I was there,” Angela says. “I had one employee and we did lots of hand work. That entire summer, I could count on one hand the number of earthworms we found. Years later, I could find that many earthworms in one shovelful.”
Preserving farmland in a developing urban area
At the same time Angela was growing her farm, the town of Granger was growing too. Angela watched as farms that had once surrounded her land were sold to developers and converted into housing developments – sometimes recklessly, she says, recalling the time developers dug up the farm that adjoined hers.
“There was no respect for the layers of soil that plants put down over so many years,” says Angela, who grew up in red-dirt Oklahoma. “The developers carved up the land so it would be easy to build houses, and then they went back and spread a few inches of topsoil. Anyone who knows anything about soil knows that really damaged it for future use – and the people who bought those houses had a terrible time with drainage in their backyards.”
For John, who grew up in Council Bluffs and worked as a child clinical psychologist, Granger’s hunger for land on which to grow is a microcosm of the change he has seen in Iowa. “You tend not to notice it in the moment, but putting it in perspective, you can easily see all the land that’s been gobbled up and how fast it occurred.”
More personally, Angela and John witnessed the impact of development on the other 7 acres of their farm, which they ended up selling to a developer to provide retirement income, and so they could afford to donate the rest of their land.
“The first thing the developer did was rip out all the trees and dig up the dirt, which was very painful to see,” Angela says. “But we chose to sell it because we were able to get enough money to donate the rest.”
Both John and Angela hope that donating their land to Practical Farmers of Iowa will serve as a model for others to see there is an alternative path for farmland beyond ceding it to development.
“I hope communities will see there are ways to preserve farm ground, that it doesn’t have to all turn into development,” Angela says. “There can be urban farms. Our farm was and still is a good educational tool. In its now urban environment, it stands as a beacon for preserving land for farming over development.”
Terms of the donation
Under the terms of the donation, the land must remain a sustainably farmed property. Subdivision, development, mining and concentrated animal feeding operations are prohibited – and if Practical Farmers ever chooses to sell the land, it must place a conservation easement on the property first.
The agreement also grants the current tenant – Ben Saunders, a PFI member who worked with Angela for many years and now operates his organic transplant and CSA business, Wabi Sabi Farm, on the land – another year on his lease. PFI can then decide to renew his lease again.
Other land donations to Practical Farmers of Iowa are in the pipeline, but are bequests and have not yet transpired. To learn more about donating land to Practical Farmers of Iowa, contact Sally Worley at email@example.com or (515) 232-5661.
Practical Farmers of Iowa strengthens farms and communities through farmer-led investigation and information-sharing. Our values include: welcoming everyone; creativity, collaboration and community; viable farms now and for future generations; and stewardship and ecology. Founded in 1985, farmers in our network raise corn, soybeans, livestock, hay, fruits and vegetables, and more. To learn more, visit http://practicalfarmers.org.