A little something about me: I grew up in Vermont. My childhood was full of idyllic farm-adjacent experiences: I took class trips to apple orchards and maple sugarhouses; my friends joined the workforce by way of the strawberry fields at the organic farm just down the road from our middle school. I loved visiting hillside dairies run by friends and neighbors, smelling the sweet stink of the barns and running my hands over the cows’ velvety noses.
The farmers I grew up around often had multi-generational ties to their land, and were actively involved in daily operations — transplanting tomatoes in the late spring, or pruning apple trees through the darkest winter days. My lived understanding of the “family farm” was as close to its storybook version as you can get — an ideal baked into the American imagination of agriculture since Thomas Jefferson praised “small landholders” as the “most precious part of the state” in a 1785 letter to James Madison.
After college, I moved back to my hometown, my interest in food systems newly piqued by conversations with the vegan activists I had lived with at school and an enthusiastically underlined copy of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I became friends with farmers my age, mostly “flatlanders,” folks from out of town who were drawn to southeastern Vermont for its progressive politics and locally centered, entrepreneurial culture — the product of old-school Yankee self-sufficiency combined with back-to-the-land ideals of my boomer parents’ cohort. As my friends’ businesses matured, they struggled to secure their own land due to stiff competition from other locals and second-home shoppers from Boston and New York who loved that classic Vermont farmhouse look. The lucky ones had family money they could use as a down payment, or had the good fortune to win a bid on a farm preserved through one of Vermont’s land trusts, or both. Others missed out, and either continued scraping by on leased land and side hustles or found a new way to make a living.
Then I spent a few years in Oregon, and got a closer look at some of the industrial agriculture practices that I had only read about before my move. I worked weekends at a farmers market, and got to know more idealistic young farmers, who aspired to much the same livelihood of my pals back home — a modest, honest living growing vegetables and pasture-raised animals. They faced many of the same barriers to success — chief among them, access to land.
It seemed, to me, a failure of government that it was so hard for the “good kind” of farmers – family farmers, as I thought of them – to find security and make a living growing our country’s food, while bad “industrial” or “corporate” farms seemed to thrive. I became more and more fascinated – obsessed, really – with figuring out how to get to the bottom of this problem: how to get closer to a world where people who want to feed their communities and treat the earth like a resource that deserves careful tending can attain the exact right square of soil to serve as both the basis for their livelihood and also as their home, their forever place. Farmland and a particular flavor of family-scale “sustainable” farming became almost talismanic to me, the key to unlocking a fantastical, just agrarian society. Then I learned a little more about Iowa.