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Published October 26, 2010, 08:20 AM

Celebrating local family farms

IOWA CITY, Iowa — This year, the Iowa Department of Agriculture recognized four Johnson County, Iowa, farms as century farms — meaning that the same family has been farming the same ground for more than 100 years.

IOWA CITY, Iowa — This year, the Iowa Department of Agriculture recognized four Johnson County, Iowa, farms as century farms — meaning that the same family has been farming the same ground for more than 100 years.

With the addition of this year’s four families — Alan and Nancy Burr, Kenny and Cindy Hahn, Garth Heitshusen and Dale and Charlene Rhodes — the number of official century farms in Johnson County has reached 239.

The good news is that the actual number of local qualifying farms probably is much larger; the families just haven’t gotten around to filling in the paperwork yet.

Alan Burr, for example, says because his farm first was purchased by his great-grandfather in 1883, he has qualified for the designation for 27 years. Likewise, Kenny Hahn says that his great-great-grandfather bought his farm 146 years ago.

And though the designation applies only to those acres of land that have been production for more than century, most of those family farms have grown much larger in the past three, four or five generations.

“The sheer economics of it means that need you to have an operation on a much bigger scale,” says Jerry Anderson, the local regional director for the Iowa Farm Bureau.

Anderson says that while family farmers in previous generations may have been more generalist in their approach to farming, many of today’s surviving family farms are concentrating their areas of expertise.

“It’s just an indication of the commitment to agriculture that these folks have had,” Anderson says. “They’ve survived the tough times, the grain embargoes, the financial crises . . . that cleaned out a lot of operations in the 1980s. It’s a testimony to these families’ farming ability and business savvy.”

In the family

It’s unclear, however, how long some of these century farms will remain in the same family.

Burr and Hahn say their century farms probably will stay in the family for at least another generation. But both note that with each passing generation, fewer family members seem interested in staying in the family business.

As more members of the next generation move off the farm — and often out of the area — sometimes the only connection to the family’s century farm is the check they receive from the farmers renting out the land.

“I usually call that the beginning of the end,” Anderson says. “If they aren’t involved in agriculture, they don’t understand the emotional tie to the ground . Eventually, they start asking themselves, ‘Why can’t I convert this asset into cash?’ They just forget that their great-grandfather worked his tail end off to get that farm going.

“It upsets me greatly when people look at a farm field as a temporary use of that property until the land can be developed,” Anderson says. “It is a business. We are feeding the world. And once you pave it over, you’re not going to get it back.”

We congratulate the new century farm families, and we offer our thanks and praise to all our local family farmers for the important work they do.

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