A small ag-producing couple believes there has to be an easier way to bring people to their farm

Marlys Barker Nevada
Journal Editor
Ken Blackledge and Deb Holley own an organic produce farm southeast of Nevada. They ran into red tape with the county when they wanted to hold some classes at the farm to teach people about growing produce and cooking with it. Photo by Marlys Barker

In the spring of 2011, Deb Holley and her husband, Ken Blackledge, decided to go into a small farming operation on their land southeast of Nevada.

Blackledge said they grow almost every kind of vegetable you can think of in about every color you can think of, and they also have things like a strawberry patch and orchard with some cherries and berries, lavender plants and beehives for honey and such. It’s a totally organic farm, and the couple basically does everything themselves, selling to restaurants and chefs.

“It’s hot (in the summer) and it’s a lot of hard work,” Holley said. The days often start early and end late, but it’s been rewarding for the couple to know that because they adhere to the strictest food safety regulations and guidelines, they are producing the best locally grown products they can for their customers, and also caring for the environment.

It’s a passion to run a small agriculture operation, and any possible way to grow income is always top-of-mind.

When a chef was talking to Holley and Blackledge about the possibility of offering classes at their farm — classes that would teach people how to make great dishes with all kinds of organic produce — the three got excited about making it happen. For one, they would be educating the public about healthier ways to eat. Second, they would be providing a little additional income to their operation, while also increasing their visibility as growers. Seemed like a win-win proposition.

They started cleaning out a pole barn on the property, where classes would be taught. They purchased tables and chairs, a projector and other instructional needs. They worked with their chef on a lineup of classes — tied to the growing season.

They were excited about the opportunity to teach others about the environment, about food safety and about how food is grown.

“We hoped to really educate people and help them find ways to provide healthier options for their families,” Holley said.

They knew their business, already insured for growing and selling crops, would need extra insurance if people were going to be coming onto their property. They were working on that. They had plenty of room on their farm for parking, and they live in a rural area that has no covenants. They believed they were set.

They wanted a sign to help people know that they had arrived at Blackcat Acres, the name of their farm. The professional they hired to do their sign, which would be placed on the edge of their property, went to the county to get a sign permit. That action at the end of April, Holley said, “put up an antenna” for the county.

At this point, she hands over a thick folder full of the communications she has had with the county and with others about what she describes as the “red tape” you have to go through in Story County to do something like this. “The sign (permit) basically set off alarms that we might have economic activity out here,” Holley said.

On May 1, Holley and the chef had worked to place an ad about their classes on Facebook. They were going to pay $30 to have the ad reach out to people all over central Iowa. Later that day, they got an email from Jerry Moore, Planning and Development director for Story County. It was in reference to his department reviewing their sign permit application, and he wanted them to answer four questions:

1) What is the purpose of your sign?,

2) Are you planning to direct the general public to your property? If so, please identify the purpose.,

3) Are you planning any improvements on your property, such as parking, buildings or structures?, and

4) Are you planning for special events involving the general public?

Blackledge said it didn’t bother him that the county wanted to know what they were doing, but he felt they were getting “grilled” with questions. “Basically, they need to just let us alone when we’re doing little things like this,” he said.

Holley responded to the questions also by email, and then they got another communication explaining that they needed to request an agritourism Conditional Use Permit (CUP) and that approval would be decided by the Story County board of adjustment. The fee to submit for a CUP was $275. A communication from Moore explained that the process would start with a conceptual review and an informal discussion of plans with county staff. From there, Holley and Blackledge could decide to make application for CUP. This would involve public notices being sent to all property owners within a quarter mile of their property, giving them a chance to speak out if they didn’t want it to happen.

At this point, Holley and Blackledge backed away from everything. “We are trying to get our crops in, and I don’t have the time to pursue all of the red tape,” Holley communicated in an email to Moore.

Moore told the Journal that the county’s present agritourism ordinance was approved on Feb. 21, 2017. “The ordinance was created to provide additional clarity concerning expectations and requires demonstration by property owners that agricultural growing and/or livestock production is occurring and is the predominant activity or feature on the property.

“Agritourism,” he explained, “is to be considered a secondary activity, adding to agricultural growing or livestock production.” Prior to the ordinance now in place, the county had a farm, retail or novelty definition in place. That process also involved CUP submittal, staff review, Story County Planning and Zoning Commission recommendation and action by the board of adjustment, just like with the new ordinance.

Moore said he believes it’s important to have ordinances of this nature in place. “Applicants planning agritourism activities need to show how they will accommodate the general public by meeting general site development standards and related items.” Moore does not believe that what’s being asked of anyone by the ordinance is excessive. “The ordinance merely requires applicants to submit information regarding plans for dust control to road and site, sanitary facilities, overflow parking, emergency plan and liability insurance.”

Also, Moore continued, the county’s general site planning standards apply and include basic requirements, such as parking, including ADA compliance parking with signage, providing a secure route from the parking area to the building with the activity. “If no new building or related site improvements are planned, the balance of the general development standards would not apply,” he said.

Mike Neustrom, who owns a lavender farm near Salina, Kan., said things are very easy in his state for doing things on small crop farms. Through a group that both he and Holley and Blackledge belong to, he’s outlined the simplicity of Kansas’ requirements when you register as an agritourism business with the state.

“My county didn’t really have any requirements,” he said. And he explains that the state of Kansas considers the small agribusinesses to be an important part of their tourism. Being part of the state program, he said, was as easy as filling out an online form with a few statistics about his farm and what he was trying to accomplish.

“We’re open to the public (pretty much year-round) and we do tours. We get a lot of tour buses and traffic off I-70. We just had a festival and had a little under 2,000 people here for that.” He said he’s had the business for 17 years, and this was the 11th Lavender Harvest Festival he’s held.

The importance for him, of signing up with the state agritourism program, was the liability. “(Being registered with the program),” he said, “allows me to be exempt from lawsuits of liability. No one can sue me without the state’s permission.” That exemption, he said, has opened up and encouraged agritourism. The state’s program also plugs him into the state’s marketing system. “Kansas tourism people have been really good; I pay a minimal amount for ads (with them).”

The Journal couldn’t find a similar program in Iowa. Iowa Tourism Office Manager Shawna Lode said they do a lot of marketing for Iowa tourism from their office, but she didn’t really know of any entity marketing for agritourism specifically. And, she said, the Iowa Tourism office has no regulatory control. Holley said she’s reached out to other state leaders, and hasn’t been told of any state program that could assist them.

So it does, in Iowa, come down to counties, and Moore said most counties have similar ordinances to what Story County has. As far as he knows, Moore said, Story County hasn’t had any real problems with noncompliance. If the county finds out that people are doing something on their property and haven’t followed the proper guidelines, “We send letters (to them)…providing background information about the county’s agritourism ordinance and how to make an application submittal.”

Holley and Blackledge, through the groups they belong to and other small crop farmers they’ve talked to, think there could be a better way, because what the county requires right now, “it’s just not workable for people,” especially small Ma and Pa operations.

Neustrom knows he’s lucky for what his state provides in this area. He has classes on his farm about lavender production and works in conjunction with libraries and others to do so. “Kansas tourism people have been really good to us… I can’t take my crop to the local elevator … agritourism is an important component of supplementing my income and that’s why we bring people to us.