Farmers care for the land because it cares for them, and stewardship is even more ingrained in multigenerational farms. When making decisions on our farm, I always default to what I remember about my dad. He used no-till back in the ’80s and ’90s. He ensured there were areas for quail to thrive on the edges of the fields where he and I could chase them in the fall. Agriculture today doesn’t look the same, and many growers are farming acres without certainty they will be farming them next year, much less the next generation. As land ownership has changed, around 41% of U.S. farmland is farmed by someone other than the owner. In some regions, the figure can grow up to 80%.
Conservation practices are typically more numerous and easier to execute on our own farms. Why is that? The one decision-maker doesn’t have to convince others that the ideas are sound. With leased land, there is a level of communication and personal relationships to maintain in the farm decision process. Human nature is to avoid conflict, and many growers are afraid to take management decisions requiring a financial investment to landowners. They’re afraid the landowner will balk at the cost and rent the land to someone else. On the flip side, many landowners look to their growers for insight on what needs to happen on their farm. That need for advice can get ignored in all the conflict avoidance.
The solution is to form a partnership based on mutual goals. During the process of leasing land, look for not just the farm itself but for someone who aligns with your priorities and management style. If you as a grower typically manage a certain way, convey that to the landowner and be sure they are comfortable with your style. Conversely, if landowners want a grower to no-till and carefully watch soil loss on their farms, try to choose someone who already does these practices on their other acres. If you are expecting someone to do things differently on your farm from the rest of his operation, it may not be a good fit.
Having a written lease is essential. You can only be sure you are protected financially if you have something in writing that explicitly conveys who is responsible for what. We wouldn’t join together in a corporate partnership with nothing in writing, so why would we do so for a farm lease agreement? It’s a great opportunity to force an in-person meeting at least once a year to discuss farm management decisions. During these conversations, come prepared with soil tests, yield maps, etc., to discuss fertility inputs or the need for edge-of-field practices. Show the landowner how you have invested in the farm and how you can help maintain and improve production over the next few seasons. As a landowner, ask questions about production and what areas are difficult for your grower to access or turn a profit.
Be sure you form a working partnership. Data suggests that the longer the partnership, the better the stewardship activities on that farm. Productive discussions from growers and landowners ensure you are making the farm more profitable for both parties. Some areas may need significant fertility builds to achieve top yields needed to turn a profit in the current ag economy. Work with landowners and explain that some of those nutrients are banked in the soil, which belongs to them. To solidify your credibility, involve a third party such as MFA to write a nutrient management plan or analyze previous soil test results.
The same goes for field edges or other unproductive areas where those nutrient inputs aren’t likely to pay off. Involve someone who can guide the landowner through the process to obtain financial assistance to convert acreage to wildlife habitat or grazing land. Be sure to offer to help with the implementation of new permanent seedings as some landowners may not have the necessary equipment. This is truly a win-win as the landowner gets income from those acres, and the lessee no longer pays rent on acres that don’t turn a profit.
Don’t hesitate to contact me to discuss how MFA can help build partnerships with landowners and promote stewardship of working land in our trade territory.
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