Can Bridging the Gap Between Landowners and Farming Tenants Help Improve Soil Health?

In 2015, Joel Priest and his sister inherited 738 acres of northern Illinois land, making them fifth-generation landowners. Priest’s great-great-great grandfather acquired an initial parcel of land in the 1850s and it has been farmed by two different renting families for three and four generations, respectively, currently in a corn-soy rotation—an agreement forged by handshake in the 1940s.

“I have never farmed in my life,” says Priest, who teaches at a boarding school in upstate New York. Traditionally, he tends to leave the decision-making up to the farmers. But recently, he’s been trying to find ways to encourage his renters to stop tilling their soil and plant cover crops—practices that he’s learned can improve soil health and prevent erosion and runoff.

“My primary interest in doing this is to pass the land on to my sons and be able to say that there are fewer toxins, more earthworms, and more carbon sequestered than there was before,” says Priest. The biggest hurdle, he says, is simply trying to figure out how best to have the conversation.

As a non-operating landowner (NOL), Priest is in a tricky situation. He doesn’t want to force his renters to change their practices, and maintaining their positive, long-standing relationship is a primary concern.

Priest isn’t alone in facing this conundrum. NOLs are an elusive group, who often live hundreds to thousands of miles away from the farms they own. Current estimates suggest that they own 350 million acres—almost 40 percent—of U.S. farmland. The bulk have inherited the land they own and about 20 percent of them rent to a family member. And yet, just how much influence they are able to have over how the land is farmed is a murky question. And it’s a topic of increasing interest among researchers and policy analysts.

Farmers who use conservation practices that improve the health of soil, air, and water are far from a majority in the U.S According to the 2017 Ag Census, no-till practices were used on roughly one-third of the 24.3 million harvested crop acres and cover crops were used on only 900,000, or 3.7 percent, of those acres. One overarching question is whether that adoption is due to a lack of interest among landowners.

For example, could more incentive programs for conservation management that targeted landowners help reduce persistent nitrogen and phosphorous runoff in the Upper Mississippi river basin? A group of scientists, including Linda Prokopy, a natural resources social scientist at Purdue University, explored that question in a recent publication. Priest reached out to Prokopy’s team to discuss how to encourage conservation practices among renting farmers.

“There’s a reticence in farm country to engage landowners in dialogue around conservation and climate resilience.”

Other research teams are also eager for insights into NOLs. A 2020 survey conducted by the American Farmland Trust called into question long-standing assumptions that NOLs care about the financial bottom line more than the health of the land itself. The survey found clearly that NOLS support their renters’ use of conservation practices. And while most respondents said they trust the farmers they work with and want to continue renting to them, 50 percent or more of respondents in eight key farming states indicated that they would be willing to include lease provisions related to specific conservation practices, while nearly as many said that they would be willing to require their operator to “implement soil erosion practices to improve soil health.”

One hurdle to better understanding how rental agreements impact the way land is farmed is the fact that the landowner-renter relationship is often off-limits to researchers. “There’s a reticence in farm country to engage landowners in dialogue around conservation and climate resilience,” says survey co-author Gabrielle Roesch-McNally, who directs the Women of the Land program at American Farmland Trust.

But Roesch-McNally challenges the notion that the relationship between landowners and renters is off limits. “We don’t intend to get in between landowners and renters, but we also don’t need to treat it as a holy relationship that we can’t discuss,” she adds.

Roesch-McNally and Prokopy are among the small group of researchers starting conversations between landowners and renters to make sure each party has a similar understanding about the practices and can hear the other’s concerns. If anything, the insights they’ve gained so far suggest that the factors driving upticks in conservation practices on land owned by non-operators are both cultural and financial.

Bridging the Culture Gap

As researchers start to dig into the landowner-renter relationship, what emerges is an often-sizable cultural gap.

When Priest initially brought up cover crops and no-till with his renting farmers, he says the conversation ended swiftly. One farmer said cover crops had “created havoc” for another farmer he knew and both refer to no-till farming as “farming ugly.” But Priest feels that his lack of knowledge leaves him at a disadvantage when trying to effectively make the case for conservation practices.

This type of communication gap is common, says Peggy Petrzelka, a rural sociologist at Utah State University. “The agricultural knowledge that some have and some don’t have is a huge issue,” says Petrzelka.

And since half a million women own land they don’t farm, gender also complicates the communication gap.

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A renter is often the landowner’s primary source of knowledge about farming practices and other land use options—whether it’s a conservation-related program incentive or a better deal on crop insurance. For example, while Priest says the farm he owns is enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), and receives payments for buffer strips, he had never heard of Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) or the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)—two popular federal programs for commodity grain farmers. Now, he plans to use these programs as a way to start a conversation about, for example, testing cover crops or no-till on 40 acres of their farm property to learn what kind of financial support and equipment they would need to transition the rest of the farm.

Priest is eager for information that can help him make the case for these practices—as well as the realistic trade-offs in time and effort they would require of the farmers. Better yet, he says, he’d like to form a network of other NOLs with whom to share ideas.

But Roesch-McNally says only 30 percent of NOLs survey respondents wanted targeted resources to help them make decisions on conservation practices. “How do we reach out and develop materials that reach them, or does it reach them through farmers?” she asks.

Making the transition to conservation practices is really more about capturing the long-term benefits and saving money by reducing inputs such as synthetic fertilizer.

At issue is that commodity farmers are relatively homogenous—they tend to be white men in their 60s who were brought up on the land. At the same time, landowners are diverse—in their proximity to the land they own, as well as in their values, beliefs, background, and economics. And so many of these are truly absentee, Prokopy says, meaning they bought the farmland as investment, live in another state, are disengaged, and may only think about it when filing taxes. Prokopy struggles to figure out interventions that will reach such a diverse audience.

“A testimonial from a widow in Iowa isn’t going to resonate with a Millennial investment banker in San Francisco,” she says.

As it is, voluntary policies that encourage transition to conservation management have, so far, had lackluster results. Both owners and renters need an adequate incentive to make a big change. For example, federal cover crop cost-share payments are roughly, on average, $50 per acre, but additional state level programs can boost that payment amount.

“Is that money driving adoption? The answer is no,” says Naveen Adusumilli, an extension economist at Louisiana State University. “It can’t because it does not take into account the additional time and money to adopt [the practices], as well as the risk,” he says. That price also assumes the farmer won’t run into any issues when implementing the practice—which is rarely the case. As Prokopy says, “Money is necessary, but not sufficient to get someone to adopt a practice.”

Priest echoes that statement. “We really see the [financial] incentives as a deal closer, not a deal opener,” he says. Making the transition to conservation practices is really more about capturing the long-term benefits and saving money by reducing inputs such as synthetic fertilizer, he says.

Making a Long-Term Investment

In some cases, it may be the farmers who have to convince their landlords to support their investment in soil health practices. Kris Swartz, a grain farmer and soil and water conservation district supervisor in Perrysburg, Ohio, farms rented land from multiple landlords, and he says he often has to explain the benefits of practices like filter strips—which help keep nutrients out of waterways—to them. And the transient nature of land rental can be a challenge.

In an interview for AFT in June 2020, Swartz discussed the importance of secure, long-term renter-landowner agreements when it comes to boosting adoption of soil health practices.

“I have long-term relationships with all of them; we have a mutual trust. I treat every acre like it’s my own and they know that.”

“Conservation practices don’t have an immediate payoff; sometimes they have a five- or 10- year window until they’re really going to be beneficial,” said Swartz. “If ground is changing every few years, it’s hard for a farmer to make an investment. And it’s hard for a landowner, too, if they’re changing people all the time. So, I think any kind of incentive or practice that could encourage more long-term relationships between farmers and landlords would benefit conservation.”

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“What’s really helped me is that I have long-term relationships with all of them; we have a mutual trust. I treat every acre like it’s my own and they know that,” he added.

Of course, not all farmers have access to the technical training required to adopt conservation practices, and that lack of technical capacity is a big challenge, says Adusumilli. Focusing on a few big landowners—for example, Bill Gates, who now owns 242,000 acres and is the largest landowner in the U.S.—can arguably have a much greater impact.

“Engaging the landowner definitely has its perks,” says Adusumilli, but there are more small landowners who also have a role to play and require more help to make the transition. And it would arguably be better to find a way to ensure that the land would be farmed using conservation practices in perpetuity. “We do all these meetings and all these farmer visits, and the ratio of conservation practices to total cropland is less than 1 percent. How likely are these practices to stay in conservation?” he asks.

For this reason, researchers agree that formalizing long-term lease agreements—and writing conservation practices in to the agreement—holds promise. Adusumilli published a 2019 study demonstrated that short-term lease contracts do not contribute to investments in soil conservation.

Priest is motivated by a desire to help fight the climate crisis—as long as it doesn’t ruin the long-standing family connection to his renting farmers. He doesn’t plan to formalize the agreement anytime soon to avoid making them feel like the relationship is too transactional. “I just hope that the trust and mutual respect will also extend to the negotiations we ultimately want to have with them,” he adds.

“People want to keep the peace,” adds Petrzelka about the women landowners she interviewed.

And that’s where Roesch-McNally sees opportunities. “Can we move past the handshake and encourage more formal agreements around risk-sharing between both parties?” she asks. “I think that’s worth exploring.”

Virginia Gewin

Virginia Gewin is a freelance science journalist and 2016 Alicia Patterson fellow based in Portland, Oregon.

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