Urban Farming

Land Use - Urban Farming

(Progressive Farmer image by Matthew Putney)

It took Bruce Johnson 10 minutes to cross Northwest 26th Street on the outskirts of Ankeny, Iowa, with his combine last fall.

That's an eternity when soybeans are standing only 50 feet away, and harvest is weeks behind thanks to persistent rain. It takes a good break in traffic to safely make the turtlelike dash across the two-lane road in a machine not known for speed.

Maneuvering a 4WD tractor with duals pulling a grain cart in town isn't easy either. Despite moving as far right as possible on some streets, it can impede traffic flow.

"It takes patience to farm here," says Bruce, 62. "We can only go so fast and be so small. Twenty-five years ago, when Ankeny wasn't so big, people would wait for you and wave nicely. The one-finger salute happens more and more, unfortunately, when drivers have to wait for us.

"In defense of people, they just don't understand our situation because they don't understand agriculture," he adds. "It's not always a purposeful thing."

Traffic isn't the only speed bump when farming in or near a bustling community. Corn and soybean fields one year could be a housing development the next, making a risky profession even riskier.

That's life farming in and around Ankeny -- a suburb of Des Moines -- the fastest-growing city in the Midwest and the 10th fastest in the nation.


Urban sprawl affects farmers across the nation. Georgia, New Jersey, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas are the top five states losing crop ground and ranchland to development, according to the American Farmland Trust (AFT), a nonprofit organization committed to the protection of farmland.

The organization recently released "Farms Under Threat: The State of the States." The multiyear study identifies farm and ranchland acres lost to development and ways to protect it.

From 2001 to 2016, 11 million acres of agricultural land were paved over, converted or fragmented. Roughly 4.4 million acres were classified as "nationally significant," or the best land for food and crop production.

"The threat to farmland is real," says John Piotti, AFT president and CEO. "Our data provides unprecedented insights into the nature of the threat states face. The report is about getting farming right before it's too late."

About 2,000 acres of farm and ranchlands are developed per day, data shows. The organization believes the ability to feed a growing world population, estimated to top 9 billion by 2050, is in jeopardy.

"We need to think about the big picture," says Kris Reynolds, deputy director of AFT's Midwest office, in Sycamore, Illinois. "While we may have a surplus of food right now, it only takes a couple bad years to have a deficit."

That possibility isn't lost on Bruce Johnson and other farmers on the front lines of urban sprawl.

Some landowners choose to fight urbanization and spurn development offers, which Bruce understands. He and his family, along with some neighboring farmers, chose to embrace it. The Johnsons and others sold land to developers for several times the going rate for farmland and used the proceeds to buy more elsewhere, significantly increasing owned acres. It's provided financial security and made operations more sustainable for future generations.

"I do have mixed emotions (about urban sprawl), but for us, it's been positive," Bruce says. "The farm has the ability to go on with the size and scale it needs in the future."


Bruce's grandfather, Milford Johnson, started dairy farming about 2 miles north of Ankeny in 1943 on 200 rented acres. The family eventually purchased the farm.

The town started to expand in the late 1940s after John Deere bought an old federal munitions plant to make corn pickers and other equipment. The population in 1950 was 1,229, according to city records.

Duane Johnson, Bruce's father, started farming next to his dad, Milford, in 1955. Milford's other son, Allen, took over for his dad in 1963. The brothers joined forces three years later to create one entity, Johnson Bros. Farm.

"We couldn't even see town at that time," Bruce recalls. "I don't think grandpa or dad even considered their farms would be houses one day."

By the time Bruce joined the operation in the late 1970s, the family farmed about 1,600 acres of owned and rented ground. Ankeny's population hit about 15,500 in 1980.

"We could see the houses coming," Bruce continues. "We would lose a farm and pick up another further out."

Low unemployment and good job opportunities in Des Moines and its suburbs caused a population explosion. The area is known for insurance and trucking. Tech giants like Facebook and Apple recently moved in.

The latest census pegs Ankeny's population at nearly 65,300. Housing and business developments continue to surge north. The city encompasses nearly 30 square miles today, almost triple that of the 1970s.

Ankeny has totally enveloped the Johnson's home farm. All that's left is a 5-acre building and bin site.

There are no plans to place a moratorium on future land development in Ankeny, City Manager David Jones explains. "Land (for development) is made available because a farmer makes the conscious decision to sell their property," he says.


The average value of Iowa farmland, considered to be some of the best worldwide, is $7,432 per acre, according to the latest Iowa State University annual survey.

When developers offer three to 10 times the going rate for crop ground, farmers say it's hard to say no. Johnson Bros. and other producers in Ankeny took advantage of the opportunity to significantly grow their operations and owned acres.

Johnson Bros. Farm consists of about 3,000 acres today, raising commercial and seed corn and commercial and seed soybeans. But, instead of mostly rented acres like in the early 2000s, 40% are owned. That provides stability and lowers overall production costs, Bruce says.

"It's been financially rewarding," he adds.

Johnson Bros. sold the home farm and three other parcels for development. They used the federal 1031 tax-free exchange to defer paying capital gains taxes on that property and used the proceeds to buy more farmland, which is a legal like-kind exchange.

For every acre Johnson Bros. sold, the entity was usually able to acquire three to four acres more. Most of the land is within 40 miles of Ankeny. With Allen mostly retired and Bruce looking forward to retirement in a few years, the torch will soon be passed to Bruce's daughter, Candi Engler, 38, to run the farm. She joined the operation full-time in January after leaving John Deere, where she worked as an engineer.

Past decisions to sell and buy land make the transition easier, Bruce contends. "We're in the business of farming, and land is everything," he says.

Candi continues, "In my lifetime, we may wish we didn't develop some of the farmland. But, at the same time, you have to keep the farm viable."

Dave Harmon, a 71-year-old retired farmer in Ankeny, and his family didn't think twice about selling crop ground to developers. He started farming with his father, Nevin, after high school in 1968. By the 1980s, Dave was farming about 3,000 acres on his own in and near Ankeny. About two-thirds was rented.

In 2000, a housing developer asked Nevin to sell 40 acres. "He asked me what I thought," Harmon recalls. "I said, 'Dad, you have two grandsons that want to farm, and we have a chance to sell and turn 1 acre into 10 up north.'â??"

Nevin sold the 40 acres and used the proceeds to purchase 400 acres near Vincent, Iowa, utilizing a 1031 exchange. That sparked a slew of deals.

Dave and his father, who passed away in 2015, sold about 600 acres in Ankeny to developers. The proceeds were used to purchase about 4,000 acres near Vincent.

"Developers can knock on my door anytime," Dave says of his remaining acres in town. "It's treated us really well. My dad and I wanted to help my boys (Sean and Michael) farm, and this was the best way to get them into acreages to support their families."

Dave rents all the land he owns at a "fair rate" to his sons. They also own ground and rent other property. The Harmons farm more than 6,000 acres near Vincent and Ankeny. The vast majority are family-owned.

Not having to worry about losing rented land or paying high cash rents at current grain prices is a big advantage for his sons, Dave says. "Farming is tough enough the way it is."


David Whitaker, an auctioneer and real estate broker working in Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska, says urban sprawl is becoming more prevalent in metro areas with at least 60,000 people. Developers are often paying $25,000 to $30,000 per acre for future residential property, he says. Commercial development often brings more.

AFT's report indicates low-density housing or large-lot subdivisions gobbling up or surrounding nearby farm fields is a growing threat to agriculture. Nearly 7 million acres were consumed from 2001 to 2016, data shows.

Piotti says that's particularly troublesome because it makes it more difficult to farm in and near urban areas, and development breeds development.

"We found once agriculture land is dotted with houses, it is 23 times more likely to be fully urbanized," he adds.

Producers adjust how and when they farm near bustling urban areas. Impatient drivers are a safety issue. City dwellers have unjustly blamed both the Johnsons and Harmons for killing trees, grass and flowers while spraying fields next to their homes.

"We try to be good neighbors," Bruce says. "We don't dry grain in town anymore, and we don't spray anything that is volatile or can drift. One lady, whose backyard backed up to our field, turned me into the DNR (Department of Natural Resources) saying her flowers and hedge were dying," he continues. "We had not sprayed the field yet, and it turned out her husband used a dicamba product to kill dandelions that was to blame."

The Johnsons and Harmons, who still farm thousands of acres in and near Ankeny, move equipment to miss rush hour if possible. They even go miles out of the way to avoid busy streets when possible. Still, problems occur.

"Michael was stopped on a road with the (high-clearance) sprayer waiting to turn into a field, and two motorcycles went underneath him," Dave says. "He was so shook up; I went out to the field to take him home."

Moving grain operations, extra travel and time away from family are the biggest consequences of urban sprawl, these farmers say. Johnson Bros. built a new shop and grain setup about 12 miles from Ankeny. The Harmons' new shop and bin site is 84 miles to the north.

It takes the Harmons more than three hours to drive equipment to and from both land bases. "Sean has a couple girls that really miss their dad during harvest," Dave adds.

Curbed streets and low-hanging wires and stop lights cause trouble, too. Implements often rub or jump curbs so vehicles can pass, which ruin tire sidewalls.

"Streets aren't farm-friendly anymore, but it's part of growth," Bruce laments.


> American Farmland Trust: www.farmland.org

> 1031 Land Exchanges: www.1031.org

> Follow Matthew Wilde on Twitter @progressivwilde.


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