Treat tenant-owner relationships with respect and honesty
Ask young farmers what their biggest challenge is and you’ll almost always hear: access to land. It’s true; no one is making more land, and without land, it’s hard to participate in production agriculture.
In the quest to find land, young farmers should consider who holds the titles and purse strings. One in every 10 acres in Iowa is owned by a single female older than 75. Overall, single women own about 15% of the land in Iowa. While some owners are also operators, the majority of them rent out their land.
"I talk to my renter a couple of times each year; otherwise, he just takes care of everything."
—Ethel Flegler, 91, St. Johns, Mich.
Mike Duffy, ag economist and land specialist with Iowa State University, says while he only researches Iowa land trends, he would expect these same trends in other core production states.
With the last few years of record-high farm income, he says it’s not surprising to see the age of farmland owners increasing. "Higher-quality land tends to be held onto longer and rented more," he says.
Duffy believes the current situation holds great opportunities for young farmers. The Iowa Farmland Ownership Survey asks landowners what characteristics they look for in a good tenant.
"No. 1 is a good steward of the land and No. 2 is someone they know personally," Duffy says. "That ranks above being a family member." Additionally, about 20% of respondents say it’s important to help young farmers get started.
Helen Gunderson’s priorities align with the survey results. Gunderson, 68, lives in Ames, Iowa, and grew up on a farm near Rolfe, Iowa. For the past five years, she’s been renting a third of her Pocahontas County land to a 30-year-old farmer, Betsy Dahl, who is transitioning the land to organic production with a longer rotation of row crops.
Sustainable Practice. This arrangement came about after Gunderson ended a long-term renter compare them, she wants to treat them comparably. When the renter didn’t agree to pay rent at a level the other two tenants had already signed a lease for, she decided it was a good opportunity to replace the tenant and begin more sustainable practices.
"Ending that relationship was one of the scariest times of my life," she says. "He and I have not spoken since." Fortunately, this opened the door to a more positive experience. "To know my land is farmed organically and by a young woman is invaluable," she says.
As for her other tenants, Gunderson says she trusts them and tries to stay up on farming practices to ensure her land is treated properly. "I don’t want my tenants to be the most aggressive boys on the block," she says. "I don’t need to know their seed population or their tillage practices. All I want to know is if they are being conscientious. I would be willing to take a lower rent if my tenants told me they were doing something
sustainable on my land."
Business Partners. In 1965, Chris Henning, 66, graduated high school and left Greene County, Iowa, for the big cities of Milwaukee and Des Moines for 25 years before returning to her roots and buying farmland. She has been crop sharing her land with the same tenant for the past 10 years.
- November 2013