Close the Conservation Gap

03:59PM Dec 18, 2018
You might need to jump-start the discussion with non-operator landowners
( Darrell Smith )

States such as Illinois, Indiana and Iowa are seeking to cut back on farm nitrogen and phosphorus flowing into waterways. But a snag poses challenges: There’s a giant rock in the stream of communication between tenants and their non-operator landowners, according to new research.

“Many non-operator landowners and farmers don’t talk to each other about conservation,” explains Linda Prokopy, professor of natural resources and social science, Purdue University. She spoke at the 2018 Sustainable Agriculture Summit in Denver. “We need to create a well-functioning relationship,” she says.

The university partnered with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) to interview non-operator landowners in the three “I states” and found five reasons conservation practices often are not adopted on rented land:

1. Cash rent lease terms are not favorable. “Annual renewal and insecurity is a huge hindrance,” Prokopy says. “It is heightened by tenants thinking conservation practices are a capital improvement.” Farmers can coach landowners to negotiate leases earlier to allow for practice adoption.

2. Marketplace dynamics leave landowners hesitant to start a dialogue. Between the multiyear tight commodity price environment and the competitiveness of land bidding, there are plenty of factors that nip and often bite at farmers’ wallets.

3. Lack of information on conservation practices leaves questions. Many landowners grew up on a farm but often don’t have the depth of agronomic knowledge or understanding of where to find financial or technical support. They don’t feel empowered to speak to their farmer operators.

4. Historical preferences and field beauty are guiding principles. Some landowners bristle at no-till because it leaves fields looking scruffy in the winter, Prokopy points out.

5. Short-term financial needs often guide farm practice decisions. Some landowners live off rent checks as their primary source of income, Prokopy says. They are hesitant to explore practices perceived as risky.

Suggestions from the Purdue-TNC study include both parties exploring flexible lease terms, multiyear leases or even lowering cash rents so farmers can invest in conservation practices. Fostering stable relationships you’ve cultivated for generations will be key, adds Randy Dell, agriculture strategy manager for TNC. Additional research led by American Farmland Trust in partnership with Utah State University revealed that in the “I states,” approximately 80% of land has been in the same family for 30-plus years.

“When looking for conservation information, they trust farmers more than conservation organizations, government agencies and land-grant universities,” Dell notes. Especially motivating to landowners are practices that could feasibly improve productivity and prevent soil erosion, according to the study.

Trust in Food™ is a division of Farm Journal that helps farmers, ranchers and growers increase profitability and resiliency with conservation agriculture. It also engages consumers with storytelling about farming and food.