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Ken's Commentary: Tough Choices

I met Larry Cleverley at the Downtown Des Moines Farmer’s Market back in 2006 as he was selling a selection of salad greens and vegetables. A colorful, intelligent and articulate man with a certain edge is his demeanor made me realize that he had chosen to be where he was in life. I got to know him and his wife and found that he came from a farm background just northeast of Des Moines, but had gone off to Chicago and been in the business world before coming back to see if he could make a go of it as an organic grower selling directly to restaurants and the public.

Larry is nobody’s fool. He works the crowd as hard as he works the land. He challenges authority at the market and he protects his interests at the farm as well. That is where Brandon Blue met Larry last week. It is a tough situation that faces him. Cleverley Farms sits at the intersection of U.S. 65 and Iowa Highways 330 and 117, pictured above. Down the road Iowa Highway 330 intersects Jasper County Road F17. The two intersections are deadly, with nine fatalities since 2001. The DOT has lowered the speed limit, but they have had three public meetings and are moving ahead with a plan to put in bridges and a maze of roads to keep cars from conflicting with each other, to the tune of about $15 million.

For Cleverley, the worst part is that the Iowa DOT is going to take at least 200 acres of his land to build the new intersection, which will literally destroy the 85-year-old farm. Larry choked up when Brandon asked him what the land means to him.

I-I can’t… I can’t even tell you, you know, what it feels like to walk around on this land every day. I mean it’s… To think, you know, my grandfather farmed it; this is where my dad grew up… You can’t put a price on that.

At this time, public thoughts turn from traffic deaths to the death of a farm. It seems like such a shame to destroy a farmstead and three homes but that is the road that the Iowa DOT is on. Cleverley and many others have argued that a stoplight could resolve the problem and leave the farm intact. Iowa DOT engineers say it doesn’t meet the criteria for installing traffic signals, so the interchange is the only way.

If it were black and white, there wouldn’t be a controversy, but there’s a human element that makes this decision undesirable either way it goes.

Brandon Blue has done a wonderful job of reporting this story by stating the facts and respecting the people involved. I am encouraging him to continue following what happens because we need to feel the pain of situations like this for the sake of our own humanity.

A life lost in a traffic accident is a terrible tragedy. A farm, chopped up by turning lanes and houses condemned, is also tough to see. Cleverly is willing to fight the battle with Mother Nature every year and work each day to develop a reputation for quality products but he didn’t figure in actions of the state that will hand him a check but take his farm.

Oh, to have the wisdom of Solomon on this one.