DECORAH, Iowa — The farmland under Hannah Breckbill’s feet could make her lots of money, but she’s not going to let it.
Breckbill is the majority shareholder of Humble Hands Harvest in Decorah, a town in the northeast corner of Iowa. Everything about her and her farm are atypical for the state, which churns out 18% of the U.S.'s soybean and corn crops every year, according to the Iowa Official Register. Breckbill, 34, is a first-generation, queer, organic vegetable farmer on a 22 acre worker-owned farm.
When she retires, she said, she’ll sell her shares at the price she bought them, regardless of how much the price of the land increases. So, the only money she’ll be making over her career is from what food she grows and sells. The point of the farm, Breckbill said, is to serve the community and protect the land.
“The reason we’re running this business is to grow food for people and to steward the land well,” she said. “The whole wealth-building element of agriculture is not part of our purpose.”
“But, it happens anyway,” she said. “Land accrues in value.”
Wide Lens Globally, 10% of rural populations account for 60 percent of agricultural land value, according to the Land Equality Initiative report.
She’ll be giving up plenty of money by refusing to hike up the price of the shares once she sells, since the price of farm real estate in the corn belt is valued at $6,110 per acre, almost twice the national average, according to a 2020 report from the United States Department of Agriculture, which records farmland value rising steadily since 1993.
That’s precisely the problem, Breckbill said. The traditional model of land acquisition in farming means that young farmers need to buy or be given land owned by their families, or have enough capital to compete with big businesses. That’s a heavy barrier of entry for first-generation farmers like her.
“I definitely could not have done it as an individual person,” Breckbill said. But Humble Hands Harvest didn’t face the usual start-up costs of a young farm.
Wide Lens Only 1% of farms operate more than 70 percent of the world’s farmland, according to a 2020 report from the Land Equality Initiative, while the large majority, 80%, of farms around the world are less than 5 acres.
“Not in my backyard”
When the 22 acres at the end of Hidden Falls Road went up for auction, the neighbors made a mad dash to buy the land at asking price — $5,500 an acre.
If an industrial farm moved in, “it would definitely ruin the neighborhood as well as the air and water around here,” said Steve McCargar, who lives five minutes down the gravelly lane in a solar grid-tied home he built using recycled timber from crumbling farmhouses.
Wide Lens Agriculture is the main degrader of inland and coastal waters in high-income and emerging economies, according to a 2017 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report: “Farms discharge large quantities of agrochemicals, organic matter, drug residues, sediments and saline drainage into water bodies.”
McCargar and his partner Heidi Swets moved to Decorah in the ’80s from Ann Arbor, Michigan, in search of a place to live environmentally responsibly, a calling stoked by years of environmental activism and observance of the writing of back-to-the-land gurus Helen and Scott Nearing.
Several of the neighbors on Hidden Falls Road made the same pilgrimage, partly from “serendipity and accident,” partly to join the growing community of alternative thinkers. With a robust food co-op, the Northeast Iowa Peace & Justice Center, Luther College, and self-proclaimed “hippies” like McCargar roaming around, this town of 7,500 in the heart of corn country is a stew of progressivism and traditional ag in the heart of corn country.
McCargar spearheaded the local operation to buy what became Humble Hands Harvest land.
It started with a story that got around about a farm at the other end of the road, said McCargar, gesturing over his shoulder from where he sits in a fold-out chair in his garden. He tells the story like a preface.
“I had just been made aware of an auction that had happened at the end of our road,” he said — not Breckbill’s end, but northwest, where the blacktop meets unpaved lane. A hog confinement operator from Ossian, Iowa, showed up and put in his bid. Out of concern that his land would be sold off to a confinement operation, the farmer stopped the sale, McCargar said.
“We were all extremely grateful for his choice to protect the neighborhood,” he said, “even if it cost him the ability to sell the land that he wanted to sell.”
A year later, the plot that became Humble Hands Harvest went up for auction. To avoid what had happened at the other end of the road, McCargar convinced the neighborhood to scramble and scrimp to buy the land outright. Fifteen families raised the $122,000 in six weeks, created Hidden Falls LLC, and bought the property.
The land belonged to the neighborhood, and deed restrictions would keep the shares from being sold to confinement operations in the future. The next step, McCargar said: “What are we going to do with this now that we’ve bought it?”
Wide Lens 31% of farmland on the contiguous 48 states is rented out by non-operators, according to a 2016 study by the United States Department of Agriculture. Less than 1% of that share is owned through estates, cooperatives, municipalities and non-profit organizations. The rest is rented out by individuals, partnerships, corporations or trusts.
Starting Humble Hands Harvest
Breckbill had landed in Decorah in 2010. She was working at another farm at the time, but had her own aspirations for a cooperative vegetable farm. First step — buying a Hidden Falls LLC share. The land’s topsoil had been eroded from 30 years of “corn on corn,” she said, so the LLC members agreed to plant hay and stop tilling in order to breathe some life into the spent soil and pick up a certified organic label.
Breckbill borrowed some money from an uncle, emptied her savings and crowdfunded to buy up more shares and put in a well and electricity. She now has eight shares; her business partner Emily Fagan has another five and as a cooperative they intend to buy the remaining nine.
“Ideal world is that our farm, as a worker-owned co-op, will make just a seamless transition from one generation to another,” Breckbill said. It works like this: one member retires, another farm worker buys their shares, and so “the same business will stick with this land for a long time,” she said.
A replicable model?
Breckbill thinks the worker-owned cooperative model can be duplicated outside Decorah.
“The only hope of young farmers is figuring out a different way to access land, and having people with wealth, even small amounts of wealth, being able to help that happen,” she said.
As for McCargar, he references Wendell Berry, who came to speak in Decorah in 1994. Berry’s idea, said McCargar, is that if the economy is a forest then the tallest trees that eat up the sunshine are the biggest industries. Once they fall, smaller plants will have space to grow.
“If we imagine what alternative agriculture practitioners and theorists and gardeners and small-scale farmers and organic producers are all trying to do, it’s to create that vibrant understory,” McCargar said.
But it takes money, he said: “It’s not something you can do on a shoestring. You have to be able to leverage capital for this purpose.”
Humble Hands Harvest is crowdfunding to build a permanent house on the farm, but meanwhile Breckbill lives in a yurt by the garden patch, where rows of radishes, turnips and napa cabbages poke their green heads out of the earth.
Breckbill talks animatedly about the generational model of farming and her vision for a greener future while her orange cat, Apricat, snoozes in a chair to her right. Land acquisition is a huge problem, said Breckbill, but it’s not insurmountable.
“People caring about what’s happening on the landscape around them — wherever that happens, I think that can be replicated in some way.”