Why landowners should discuss conservation with farmer tenants

Why landowners should discuss conservation with farmer tenants

More than half of Iowa farmland is owned by someone other than the farmer. Across the United States, more than half of farmland is farmed by tenant farmers, so this is not unique to Iowa.

Likewise, many of the common issues landowners and their tenants need to be on the same page about are not unique to Iowa. This includes conservation topics, such as water quality, soil loss and soil health.

In Iowa, more than a third of farmer tenants say they alone make soil and water conservation decisions, while another third said the decisions are theirs with some landlord input. Very few said the decisions were made only by their landlords.

But if farmland is going to be as productive and sustainably produced as possible, then it is important that landowners and the people farming their land be on the same page where conservation is concerned.

Data shows, though, that not everyone is having these conversations. Here’s why that needs to change.

Landlords and tenants don’t discuss conservation often enough

J. Gordon Arbuckle, an Extension sociologist at Iowa State University, tells Successful Farming, neither landlords nor their tenants seem to want to talk about conservation. This can be due to a variety of reasons, but Arbuckle points out that the primary reason could be that more and more non-operator landowners do not have a basic knowledge of farming and its practices. Many are too geographically, socially or culturally removed from farming, he says.

But Arbuckle doesn’t place all responsibility at the feet of the landlords. Tenants may forgo speaking to landlords about conservation strategies they wish to incorporate because they fear the landlord may encourage the method but be unwilling to pay for it.

That’s where a good farm management partner can come into play. A trusted partner can help open up those lines of communication between a tenant and landlord - and make sure proper, updated conservation strategies are being used so that the land is kept healthy and production remains profitable. A good farm manager also can educate the landlord in specific areas, including best environmental practices.

Why absentee landowners should care about conservation

Water quality and soil reduction strategies are a hot topic in many farming circles. Conservation and environmental consciousness are such heavy focuses that Steve Johnson, Iowa State University Extension farm management specialist, tells the Iowa Farm Bureau that landowners have begun to notice.

"We’ve been focusing on farmers, but landlords are a big part of this and they have a big stake in land and water stewardship," Johnson tells IFB. "I think landlords are starting to open up a dialogue on stewardship. And we are moving that direction faster than anybody imagined a few years ago because there is such a strong focus on water quality in soil conservation now in Iowa."

As more and more landowners realize the role they must play in conservation, they should begin to take a more active approach in consulting with tenants on how their land is farmed.

That’s simply because if they want to have valuable farmland to pass on to future generations or receive a good return on their investment, then they need to take part in a conversation with either their tenant or farm manager about environmental best practices for their farmland.

Tenants should speak up on conservation issues

Tenants who want to prioritize or update conservation practices should not be afraid to bring up the issue with their landlords.

However, as with discussing any matter, keeping lines of conservation open is a must. If the landlord needs to be educated about agriculture, then the tenant - or a farm management partner - should do that.

On Pasture explains that tenants should explain farm costs to landlords and keep them updated on any changes. They should also provide progress reports and updates on changes or challenges they have been facing.

It’s also important to respect both the property, and obviously the landlord, as with any good landlord-tenant relationship.

Farmland owners should be open to discussion

For landowners, though, it is important to keep in mind that your farmer tenants may be hesitant to take that first step in starting conservation conversations because they may want to also have discussions about associated costs of those practices.

Clark Porter, a farmer near Waterloo, Iowa, tells Public News Service that the conversations can be tricky.

"A tenant farmer may not be in the best position to bring it up because they're already financially at risk when they're renting the land,” Porter says. “There's a heavy amount of competition to rent and hold land among tenant farmers and a thin margin on which they're operating. And to bring up anything that might be potentially uncomfortable or whatever with a landowner, it could be a delicate situation."

Still, Porter does say tenants need to speak up. This is even more true, he says, when the landowner may not know much about farming or sustainable, environmental practices. The landlord can’t be of too much help if they simply do not know. That’s where it becomes the tenants responsibility to educate.

One of the resources Porter points farmer tenants toward is Practical Farmers of Iowa, especially for resources on building sustainable practices into a farmland lease agreement. This is also a great resource for landowners who may want to educate themselves on sustainable farming issues.

Midwest Land Management can help start conservation discussions

Of the many farm management services Midwest Land Management offers, conservation strategies and best practices are some of the most important. By taking environmental concerns into account, we make sure farmland is profitable and that its production is sustainable.

It is in every farmland owner’s best interest to make sure responsible soil stewardship is practiced on their land. Midwest Land Management can help educate, encourage and implement practices that will protect against erosion, preserve fresh water and build soil health that ensures the land remains productive for years to come.

Learn more about how Midwest Land Management approaches farm management and how experts can go to work to help you accomplish the goals for your farm and your family.