The Kane County Agricultural Committee recently invited me to share information about our land access work as well as my family’s own journey to owning farmland. Some Kane County board members joined virtually and around a dozen committee members attended in person.
One of my intentions was to paint a realistic picture of the struggles farmers face when accessing farmland across northeast Illinois.
I used a recent farmer poll to set the stage. The Northern Illinois Young Farmers Coalition held their inaugural gathering just days before on November 7. The 25-30 beginning farmers who attended were asked to rank 13 of the most common barriers they are facing as young farmers. By a wide margin, “access to land” stood atop the poll results.
One of the hurdles I shared was that smaller-scale agricultural properties (2-10 acres) in an affordable price range are increasingly rare for beginning farmers. Some good discussion resulted. To my surprise, one committee member even called into question a decades-old ordinance - the so-called “40-acre rule.”
As Matt Tansley of Kane County's Planning Department explained to us, the rule is derived from the Kane County Zoning Ordinance and states that a residence constructed on land Zoned F District-Farming should be at least 40 acres in size. Many counties adopted this ordinance in the 1970's and 80's as a measure to prevent urban sprawl and preserve their farmland. While committee members recognized the rule has long served this purpose, they wondered if modifying it now might help to create more tracts of smaller farmland available at affordable prices.
I also brought up the need for beginning farmers to get creative with affordable housing solutions on farmland. Zoning can often prohibit non-traditional housing options like tiny houses and recreational vehicles. This point got the committee's attention. After some discretion, they thought it would be worth revisiting how zoning changes might make affordable farmer housing options more feasible in the future.
It was encouraging to be with these elected leaders who care deeply about the agricultural heritage and future of their community. Seeing these discussions take place gives us hope that county governments will consider policy and rule changes that will foster more good land access opportunities.