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Supervisors and farmers at odds, again

Johnson County’s proposed ordinances may impact animal agriculture
Former Johnson County Supervisor Mike Carberry (at right) offered his support to the supervisors in their latest attempt at restricting, or at least limiting, the development of new Animal Feeding Operations (AFOs) in Johnson County during a Wednesday, Aug. 14, work session. Carberry is an avid opponent of AFOs and a current board member for the Iowa Farmers Union. (photo by Chris Umscheid)

IOWA CITY– Six farmers and supporters of agriculture addressed the Johnson County Board of Supervisors during the public comments portion of a work session Wednesday, Aug. 14, in the county’s administrative building in Iowa City.
At issue was the potential redefining of agriculture to exclude large animal feeding operations (AFOs), requiring farmers to apply for the agricultural exemption for zoning purposes. Both AFOs and the Agricultural Exemption policy have been topics of contentious debate in recent years in Johnson County. Activists and some supervisors have sought to restrict the development of AFOs (including a call for a moratorium) while vegetable farmers and young farmers attempting to get started have fought to revise the Agricultural Exemption to include small farms.

The county’s current Agricultural Exemption exempts farms from zoning and building codes when no less than 40 contiguous acres are used for agricultural purposes.
During development of the county’s first Comprehensive Land Use Plan, small farm operators, such as “Farmer Kate,” Edwards of Wild Wood Farms (a Community Supported Agriculture vegetable farm near Solon), lobbied the supervisors to revise the policy to include all farms in the county. Supporters of changing the policy noted, “A farm is a farm,” regardless of its size and argued a person raising crops on less than 10 acres for sale was engaged in agriculture and thus eligible for the exemption.
AFOs were thrust in the spotlight as animal rights and environmental activists saw the Comprehensive Plan as an opportunity to regulate the operations above and beyond the state’s Department of Natural Resources.
The State Code of Iowa spells out very clearly, in several sections, what counties can and cannot do in regards to regulation of AFOs, said Jerry Anderson, the Regional Manager for the Iowa Farm Bureau in 2017. “All we’re asking is they follow the state code, and they don’t overstep their bounds.”
The 200-plus page plan was approved in May 2018 after a roughly two-year process involving the Johnson County Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission, the County Planning, Development, and Sustainability (PDS) staff, and over 20 meetings ranging from “listening posts” to work sessions and public hearings. P&Z ultimately approved a draft plan in April 2018 with 24 recommended changes.
Among the changes were revising the Agricultural Exemption, changing “Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO)” to AFO and striking a paragraph stating Johnson County should “discourage CAFOs.” The Agricultural Exemption remained in place, the language on AFOs was changed, and the facilities remained regulated by the state’s guidelines.
During finalization of the Comprehensive Plan it was noted a Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) would be needed to codify the specifics of the plan.
As the supervisors and PDS staff work on the UDO, sparks are again flying as AFOs and the Agricultural Exemption have returned to the spotlight.

Limiting AFOs and considering small farms
The supervisors discussed revisions to the Agricultural Exemption policy during a May 17 work session. Included was agreement to develop a two-tiered Agricultural Exemption application process for parcels greater than 40 acres and smaller than 40 acres. There also was discussion of including language in the UDO restricting AFOs from qualifying for the Agricultural Exemption with the majority of supervisors indicating a desire for language stating “Agriculture does not include animal feeding operations with an animal unit density of greater than 25 animal units per acre of livestock rearing area.”
Assistant County Attorney Ryan Maas informed the supervisors they would need to show findings that substantiate why the higher-density operations do not qualify, and noted current case law, and the Agricultural Exemption in the Iowa Code would make defending the policy difficult with court challenges likely, and success in court very limited.
Supervisors Janelle Rettig and Chair Lisa Green-Douglas were for such language while Supervisor Rod Sullivan indicated he was “OK with adding the language.” Supervisor Royceann Porter opted to not state an opinion and Supervisor Pat Heiden stated she “agrees AFOs are a problem that needs to be addressed.”
However, she added her belief AFOs and Agricultural Exemption are two separate issues and should be treated as such.
The supervisors continued the discussion during a June 28 work session where the language excluding 25 animal units per acre from being defined as agriculture was inserted into a draft of the UDO.
Under this proposed change, a farmer wishing to have a feeding operation in excess of 25 animal units per acre would need to apply for an exemption for agricultural uses on a form provided by the zoning administrator prior to any construction. Before the zoning administrator acts on the application, it would be referred to the board of supervisors, which would hold a public hearing and forward its findings to the zoning administrator within 45 days of the application’s submission. Final approval, or denial, would be up to the zoning administrator.
The topic was visited again during a Wednesday, July 17, work session. PDS Director Josh Busard sent a memo to the board on Monday, July 15, with concerns about the language.
While the 25-animal per-acre limit would directly ensure AFOs would not be exempt, Busard noted state law would not be on the county’s side, and he suggested simply requiring the fact-finding hearing before the board as a way to discourage such developments.
While not outlawing AFOs, Busard said the hearing would be “a sensible way for the comprehensive plan to ensure that our new ag exemption policies are not going to enable a rapid proliferation of animal feeding operations.”
By consensus of the board, Busard said he would strike the language and go with the requirement for a public hearing on any proposed Animal Feeding Operation. After the hearing, the PDS staff would forward the results to the board for review, however final approval or denial would rest with PDS. “We would boil down the application to a staff report for the board to consider,” he said.

Jerry Anderson was the first to speak at the Aug. 14 meeting during public comments.
“For many years, Johnson County has placed obstacles in front of agricultural producers whose operations do not contain more than 40 acres. While court decisions have stated that agriculture cannot be defined by size, this obstacle has remained. It is refreshing to know that those producers now have the ability to obtain ag exemption status. For that, we thank you. There remains a concern regarding the obstacle that is in place for another form of agriculture, that being livestock production,” Anderson said. “If raising lamb, pork, turkey, chicken, or in this case, beef, is not ‘agriculture’ in Johnson County, what is it, and why do they have to apply for a permit and be subject to a public hearing to be recognized as engaged in the business we all would agree on is agriculture?”
Anderson quoted Iowa Code Section 335.2, which states farms are exempt from county zoning, and pointed out court decisions have upheld livestock production as a form of agriculture. “There is no need to fight this again,” Anderson said. “Livestock production has been, is, and will be agriculture. There is no need to place obstacles in front of, and circumvent Iowa Code involving livestock production. I ask you one more time to remove the requirement for ag exemption status.”
Mike Lehman, a Johnson County Supervisor from 1999 to 2006 spoke next, acknowledging the job of a supervisor isn’t an easy one. “I like to think I represented the rural and urban areas to the best of my abilities. I would like to remind you that you’re the only local elected officials rural residents have. Yet they’re expected to patronize local city businesses, but are denied to vote for city councils. They elected you to represent their interests. I know you pride yourself on supporting minority issues, and I think agriculture certainly falls under that category today. Farmers are a minority in the county, and it’s my guess they are a minority in the rural resident classification.”
Lehman said farmers “are not your stereotyped bib overall-wearing farmers of yesteryear.” Structures to house and protect livestock from the elements are another example of smarter, more educated farming practices, he added. Lehman gave an example of his neighbor, who raises livestock in an AFO. “This is part of their livelihood. They raise livestock like their bib overall ancestors did, but in a more and more humane and efficient manner. We are not your grandfather’s farmers. I ask that you elected officials represent our wants and needs.”
Ray and Nancy Slach, a third-generation husband and wife farming team from West Branch expressed their concerns as well. “Changing the definition of agriculture, where livestock is not considered agriculture in this county is totally wrong,” Ray Slach said.
Ray made the comparison between different sizes of farms to the different sizes of grocery stores. “Some are big, some are small, but they’re all still grocery stores. It doesn’t matter who owns them, or what size they are. Johnson County cannot just change the definition of agriculture, and Johnson County cannot legally regulate agriculture. It is regulated by the State of Iowa Code.”
Mike Carberry, a supervisor from 2015 until he lost a primary election in 2018, was the sole voice of support for the supervisors. Carberry is on the board of the Iowa Farmers Union, and an opponent of AFOs.
“I know this is a really difficult issue, it’s something you struggled with before I got on the board, the board struggled with it when I got on… the definition of a farm,” he said.
“Johnson County has a proud heritage of farming, and will continue to do so,” Carberry said. “But it is a growing county, and there are conflicts sometimes between urban and rural.” He cited a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which states 37 percent of greenhouse gases are related to agriculture. The report also listed, he said, “Indications on how we could farm a little better, take care of the land a little better, and I applaud you for taking a look at that.” Some suggestions included rotational grazing and putting animals back on pastureland, he said. “I have read what you have, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it, but I thank you and the staff for taking a stab at trying to help the matters, and to keep everything in mind. Please continue to work on this, I don’t think you have a finished product yet, but I applaud what you’re doing.”
Dan Steines, owner and operator of Big Country Seeds in Tiffin, was last to speak.
“I have personally witnessed the increased efficiencies that those in agriculture production have adopted over time,” he said. “I have seen firsthand the benefits and results of these improvements in crop and livestock production.”
Those improvements, he noted, are not inexpensive. “They come at a cost and those in agriculture take them very seriously when implementing them.”
Regulations are also a concern for farmers, Steines said. “They take responsibility for their obligations, but are concerned that even stricter ordinances will make their current farm systems inoperable.”
The Johnson County Planning and Zoning Commission will discuss the final draft of the Johnson County Unified Development Ordinance at its next meeting and potentially make a recommendation regarding adoption to the Johnson County Board of Supervisors. The public is welcome to attend the hearing, which takes place at 5:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 9, in the second-floor boardroom of the Johnson County Administration Building, located at 913 S. Dubuque St. in Iowa City.
The supervisors have work sessions scheduled for Friday, Aug. 30, at 9 a.m., Wednesday, Sept. 4, at 9 a.m., and Wednesday, Sept. 11, at 9 a.m. Informal and formal meetings are scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 29, at 9 a.m., Thursday, Sept. 5, at 9 a.m., and Thursday, Sept. 12, at 5:30 p.m.
All meetings are held on the second floor of the Johnson County Administration Building located at 913 S. Dubuque St. in Iowa City. Meetings are also live-streamed over the Internet at www.johnson-county.com. Click on Departments, scroll down to Board of Supervisors, and click on the microphone icon.