Published Jan 25, 2024

Saving Land

By Carly Zierke

When land near their homes came up for sale, a group of northeastern Iowa neighbors mobilized to safeguard it for sustainable agriculture.

In 2014, Steve McCargar learned that a 22-acre piece of land near his home outside of Decorah, Iowa, was slated to go to auction. The news alarmed him.

Just one year prior, residents had dodged the prospect of a pig confinement being built in the area – known for its rolling hills and cold, clear trout streams – after a similar piece of land nearby went to auction and was bid on by a pig confinement operator. In that instance, the landowner stopped the auction after realizing who was bidding.

When he heard about the latest piece of land, Steve, a lifelong activist, decided to take action. “I had all these alarm bells going off in my mind,” he says. “We had to do something to protect our neighborhood from what the sale of this property might do to the quality of our lives here, to the quality of the air in our neighborhood and to the quality of the water that we all depend on.”

Steve hoped to stop the land from going to auction altogether, and he realized the best way to prevent future risk was to purchase it outright. What happened next is the story of a unique grassroots effort by concerned residents who came together to protect ecologically sensitive land through creativity and collaboration.

In the process, they created much-needed land access for beginning farmers while setting an example of how other communities could rally to preserve farmland for the next generation.

Organizing Hidden Falls LLC

Steve McCargar and Hannah Breckbill at field day in 2023

Steve McCargar and Hannah Breckbill

Steve’s first act was meeting with the landowner. She agreed to sell the land at $5,500 per acre – if Steve could find the funds, $121,000, within the next three weeks. He then brought his idea for a collective land purchase to the annual meeting of the Northeast Iowa Peace and Justice Center in Decorah, which happened to be taking place around the same time. There, Steve asked people to invest their money in a half-acre or more to preserve the land for sustainable use.

He proposed forming an LLC, a structure that would let investors eventually recoup their contributions. Through the arrangement, one share – which equaled a $2,750 investment in a half-acre of land – would equal one vote in the LLC’s decision-making processes. His call for action was answered. Together, the Peace and Justice Center members, along with neighbors and others in town, pledged $122,500 by the deadline. All told, 16 households joined the partnership, which they later named Hidden Falls LLC. The owner took the land off the market.

Hidden Falls LLC founding members: 

Elsa McCargar
Hannah McCargar
Julie and Rob Fischer
Perry-O and David Sliwa
Pat and the late Paul Johnson
Eric Johnson
Barb and Jim Dale
Lara and Neil Martinsen-Burrell
Pat Brockett
Janet Alexander and Louise Hagen
Chris Kelly
Hannah Breckbill
George and Joann Hagen
Kathryn Preston
Rick and Deb Edwards

“That was kind of a series of serendipitous events and relationships that enabled that to happen in a short period of time,” Steve says.

Perry-O and David Sliwa, who lived just down the road from the land, were among those inspired to help. “We were very excited about the fact there seemed to be a number of people coming together and it was going to happen,” Perry-O says. “All we had to do was say ‘yes.’”

Hidden Falls LLC members received the 2023 Farmland Legacy Award

The members of Hidden Falls LLC accepting the Farmland Owner Legacy Award from PFI in September 2023.

Creating Land Access

At the same time, beginning farmer Hannah Breckbill was running a diversified vegetable and sheep farm, Humble Hands Harvest, on rented land in southern Minnesota. While she had steady markets for her produce in the Twin Cities, Decorah was the center of her social life and she wanted to move her farm there. One day, Hannah chanced to carpool with Elsa McCargar, the daughter of Steve and his wife, Heidi Swets. From Elsa, Hannah learned about the effort led by Elsa’s father.

“I thought, ‘This might be my chance to access land in Decorah,’” says Hannah, who soon bought a share. “That’s all I knew: This might be my chance.”

After acquiring the land, members of Hidden Falls LLC continued meeting to formulate their shared vision. They attached several covenants to the deed for the land to ensure it would be organically managed. They also agreed they wouldn’t seek to profit from the land – their aim was simply to preserve it until the right land steward came along. As the group deliberated, Hannah, now a member of the LLC, expressed her desire to turn the 22 acres into the permanent home of Humble Hands Harvest – and to share the land with others.

Initially, not everyone felt a diversified vegetable farm could be viable. “I was just beginning,” Hannah says. “It took a lot of trust on the part of people. I hadn’t been successful yet.” Ultimately, the group decided to give her a chance. “I think Hannah is unusual in that her vision is broader and her willingness to work on big ideas is bigger than just her own farm,” Perry-O says.

“It’s such a huge privilege to have been given the space to do my learning.”
– Hannah Breckbill

Another priority for the LLC was to ensure members, many of whom were over 70 years old, could recover their investment in a timely manner. As a beginning farmer, however, Hannah lacked the capital to buy all 22 acres at once. Committed to their decision, Hidden Falls members again took a creative approach by letting Hannah acquire shares over time, and from the people who needed their money back the soonest.

In 2017, Hannah was able to purchase the first 8 acres of land. By that time, she had acquired 17 shares through purchases she made, gifts of shares and shares that other members sold to her at a discount.

Hannah moved her farm and that year, Humble Hands Harvest had its first growing season on the land. “It’s such a huge privilege to have been given the space to do my learning,” she says.

Building a Future for Many

From her previous farming experience, Hannah had already decided that she didn’t want to keep farming alone. So she invited Emily Fagan, a second cousin she didn’t know very well at the time but who was also trying to find footing as a farmer, to work with her on the new land. After a successful season, Emily joined Hannah permanently. Part of Hannah’s vision for the land was to create a worker-owned cooperative. To that end, in 2018 she and Emily formalized the farm’s bylaws to reflect the democratic ownership and decision-making structure, keeping the Humble Hands Harvest farm name.

Using their profits from the farm, they continued purchasing shares from Hidden Falls LLC members. Confident they would one day own the whole farm, Hannah and Emily also installed a well and electricity on the farm. In the last couple of years, they added a house and perennial orchards. By December 2022, they had purchased the full 22 acres. The farm now encompasses about 2 acres of organic vegetables; grass-finished sheep; and fruit and nut trees. Hidden Falls LLC, having achieved its aim to preserve the land for a sustainable steward, will soon dissolve.

“We’ve come to this moment here where you come to the farm and you go, ‘Wow, this has all happened in less than a decade,’” says Steve, gesturing toward Humble Hands Harvest’s house, shed, hoop houses, orchards, vegetable garden and pastures.

“This community is a place where we’ve tried out and are continuing to figure out ways to do things differently, and that’s a really important thing for the future of the world.”

In September, PFI awarded the 2023 Farmland Owner Legacy Award to the founding members of Hidden Falls LLC for their efforts to create land access for beginning farmers while protecting ecologically sensitive land. The award was presented on Sunday, Sept. 10, at Humble Hands Harvest, in Decorah, Iowa.