Johnson County has lots of plans for Two Horse Farm

Johnson County Conservation
Johnson County Conservation
Published: Oct. 1, 2022 at 11:01 AM CDT
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IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Erin Melloy sold 83 acres of her family’s land to Johnson County this year hoping its conservation team can be good stewards of the special plot.

Johnson County purchased Two Horse Farm from Melloy and her husband Brian this year and is already preparing the woodlands, farmstead and prairies for public use. The county’s plans are as diverse as the land itself: conservation efforts, an Airbnb, hiking trails, county staff office space and rehabilitation for wild birds. Another seven acres were gifted to the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska in this agreement.

Erin Melloy said the farm’s name came from her parents, who went to sign the deed in 1978 and were told by the county office workers they had a “two horse property.” They didn’t know that meant a farm of that size takes two horses to manage.

She said when they started taking care of the property, they uncovered two wooden sculptures that were placed on the side of the barn and an oil painting of two horses inside the barn.

She said when they started taking care of the property, they uncovered two wooden sculptures that were placed on the side of the barn and an oil painting of two horses inside the barn.

“The name just stuck,” Melloy told the Iowa City Press-Citizen.

The property consisted of a row crop farm with cattle and sheep before Melloy’s parents bought it. She said her family turned the farmland into prairie and helped maintain the forest while her parents worked on preserving the 1890s historic farm house.

Johnson County Conservation Director Larry Gullett said his department was contacted by Melloy two years ago to see if it was interested in helping to preserve the property. He said the land hits almost every mark of criteria in order to be put into the county’s conservation system.

Gullett said these include:

__ The land being adjacent to existing rivers and streams.

__ It has high-quality savannah, woodlands and prairie plant communities.

__ It includes at least 14 rare or notable species of plants. including four species of orchids.

__ The land is adjacent to other large public conservation areas.

__ The farmstead site is historic with buildings built from the 1890s to the 1910s.

“What more could you ask for in a conservation project?” Gullett said.

Johnson County was required by law to purchase the land for its $1.9 million assessed value, but the Melloy family offset that with a $700,000 donation.

This land is covered by 64 acres of forest, 15.5 acres of reconstructed prairie, and a 3.5-acre farmstead. The site includes 364 species of plants, according to a news release from Johnson County Conservation.

The land is bordered by federal land owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and is sandwiched between Lake MacBride State Park and the Sugar Bottom Recreational Area along Coralville Lake.

A large task for the conservation board is helping clear out invasive species, like oriental bittersweet and honeysuckle.

“We have to manage invasive species to prevent them from taking over the forest,” Gullett said.

Gullett said the county hopes the area will also provide recreational opportunities for visitors. He said it could be a “quiet, passive” recreation area where people can walk, hike and contemplate while passing through prairies and woodlands. He said it could be used for environmental education.

Gullett said having the Iowa Tribe have a presence in Johnson County on this land may also create partnerships toward conservation efforts.

“Indigenous cultures are known for their knowledge and sensitivity, compared to our agriculture. We’re hoping they can help teach us with a partnership or shared experience to help take care of the environment,” Gullett said..

Melloy, who now lives in Chicago, said it was always her family’s goal to keep the property healthy. She views Johnson County Conservation as the right entity to take on the job. She said it became an “almost physically impossible task” to keep the property healthy and manage invasive species.

“Anyone that works land like we do, we care for it so much, and you start to worry what the future of the property is and who the next caretaker is,” Melloy said. “You have to find the right person to keep it that way.”

Since the Melloys already managed the area as a park, there are already hiking trails mowed through the forest, prairie and savannah.

“That’s one of the beauties of this project. It’s an instant park,” Gullett said.

The property is open to the public, but Gullett said the county will take a year or two to make sure it has amenities to accommodate more people visiting, such as a parking lot, signage and bathroom facilities.

Gullett said that half of the house on the property, a two-story farmstead with a gated garden on the outside, will be rented out as a short-term rental, or Airbnb. The house has multiple bedrooms, bathrooms, a sun room, dining room and a large kitchen area.

He said the cabin will likely require a seven-day minimum stay. He said currently Iowa county and state parks offer more than 275 cabins for rent.

“It’s really a really popular trend out in the public, so this will be our first endeavor into this type of management,” he said.

The county will also furnish the home for the rental.

Gullett said the other half of the house will be used for office space for the land manager and a naturalist. He said the conservation board needs more operating space since it has grown recently.

The Raptor Advocacy Rehabilitation and Education Group (or RARE), already operates on Two Horse Farm. RARE is a nonprofit rehabilitation and education organization that was founded in 2015 and works out of Iowa City.

The organization is made up of volunteers and the clinic sees more than 150 birds a year, a number that continues to grow. Johnson County is working on expanding water and electric lines for The RARE Group to operate in more space on Two Horse Farm.

The birds kept in the larger barn are short-term occupants that, when rehabilitated, will be released back into the wild.

The group also keeps other birds in a separate enclosure that are not able to be released and are used as educational resources. One is a barred owl named River who has one eye.

The group’s website says the clinic also helps bald eagles, turkey vultures, osprey, red-tailed hawks, rough-legged hawks, red-shouldered hawks, Cooper’s hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, Peregrine falcons, merlins, American kestrels, snowy owls, great horned owls, barn owls, long-eared owls, Eastern screech owls, and Northern saw-whet owls.