MARSHALLTOWN — When a condo development was put in just to the west of his land, Marshalltown farmer Ethan Crow ran into an issue with new residents next door.
Some of the land Crow’s grandfather farmed is now gone — topped with a McDonalds, a Menards, Applebee’s and Walmart.
“When the condos were first built, we had a little issue with some natural runoff,” Crow said. “We didn’t do any dirt work on our side of the fence, but they are naturally lower than us. When people moved in, they found they were getting water in their basements, and they were blaming us.
“Nothing had been done different on our side, but they needed someone to blame.”
After some drama, he said things got straightened out. But it highlights an issue farmers near expanding towns have to deal with: urban sprawl.
While some of the issues Crow dealt with were able to be fixed by having informal meetings from across the fence, there are still other factors he said he now needs to keep in mind due to his new neighbors.
“It gets to be a struggle,” Crow said. “There’s people walking around like they own the place while you are out there spraying. Things like that have been a problem. They use it (the farm) like it’s their own sometimes if they don’t see anybody out there, and that gets a little frustrating.”
Throughout the years, Crow has seen land his family used to rent for farming undergo development.
Just across the street from Crow is a newly built assisted living facility.
When it was in development, “we went to all the city council meetings that had that on the agenda to just be informed,” he said.
“It was interesting because a lot of the city neighbors that we have were opposed to the assisted living, but we were almost in favor of it because it wasn’t going to be a bunch of houses. It was just one larger building,” he said. “Anything that’s in our neighborhood, we try to stay up to date.”
Going to these meetings and staying informed is one of the most important things farmers can do, said LaVon Griffieon, co-founder of 1000 Friends of Iowa. The group is a nonprofit organization based in Des Moines and focused on promoting “responsible land use and sustainability in community, state and federal development decisions.”
Griffieon lives in Ankeny, where she said the city has gone from being three miles away to lining three sides of their farmland.
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“Our population hasn’t increased as much as our use of land,” Griffieon said. “When you think about Des Moines having the same footprint as San Francisco, there’s a heck of a lot more people in San Francisco than in Des Moines. We could be doing a better job.”
Des Moines covers an area of 82.6 square miles, with a population of 217,521 as of 2017. San Francisco covers 46.87 square miles with a population of 884,363.
Griffieon said the key for expansion is making sure it is done in a smart way.
“Urban growth is not a bad thing, but urban sprawl is different,” Griffieon said. “It’s like unplanned growth at a single level, instead of maybe a three-level (building). If we have to pack people into these towns, maybe we can do that with multi-family dwellings or something like that where we are using our land a little more wisely.”
She said Iowa’s metropolitan areas are growing as fewer young people take up farming. Older farmers are left with nobody to take over the ground, and so some opt to sell the land.
“We don’t have very many young farmers anymore,” Griffieon said. “With the trade war going on, it’s going to thin them out again. It’s tough to get started farming and owning land near a city. That’s a retirement (plan) — they can sell the land to a developer and pocket the cash and live a good life.”
Crow said he personally hasn’t felt any pressure from outside sources to sell, and indicated he wasn’t inclined to if he can help it.
“That’s what everyone says, ‘Maybe you are sitting on a gold mine,’ and maybe we are, but we just want to farm,” Crow said. “We are not really interested in selling any land for lots or anything right now.”
For as long as Crow intends to remain farming at his place in Marshalltown, he said he will try to remember the benefits whenever he gets frustrated about extra traffic or dealing with moving equipment.
There’s a paved road in front of his house now, which helps with logistics, and the local Theissen’s Farm and Auto store is just down the road, which saves him what used to be a longer trip into town.
All the while, his goal is to just be a good neighbor.
“Anytime we take a tractor on the road, if it’s got muddy tires, we try to get the mud off before we go on the paved road,” Crow said. “It’s getting harder to navigate, but we are trying our best to be the best neighbors we can, and hopefully that’s reciprocated if there’s ever an issue in the future.”