How to Have Conservation Conversations

07:00AM Jan 06, 2020
Who is responsible for addressing soil and water conservation needs on the land you rent?
Who is responsible for addressing soil and water conservation needs on the land you rent?
( Source: 2018 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll; Photo: Darrell Smith )

Farmers want to reduce nutrient runoff, nurture soil and protect water, but there’s a giant rock in the stream of communication between tenants and their non-operator landowners.

“Many farmers and non-operator landowners don’t talk to each other about conservation,” says Linda Prokopy, Purdue University professor.

Purdue partnered with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) to interview non-operator landowners in Iowa, Indiana and Illinois. The study showed why conservation practices often are not adopted on rented land:

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

Marketplace dynamics leave landowners hesitant to start a dialogue. Between the multiyear tight commodity prices and the competitiveness of land bidding, plenty of factors bite at farmers’ wallets.

Lack of information creates questions. Landowners don’t feel empowered to speak to their farmer operators about stewardship yet value their perspectives. “When looking for conservation information, they trust farmers more than conservation organizations, government agencies and land-grant universities,” says Randy Dell, agriculture strategy manager for TNC.

Historical preferences and field beauty are guiding principles. Some landowners bristle at no-till because it leaves fields looking scruffy, Prokopy says. Farmers should explain how such practices can improve
productivity and prevent soil erosion.

Short-term financial needs guide farm practice decisions. Rent checks are some landowners’ primary source of income, Prokopy says. They are hesitant to explore practices perceived as risky. 

Read the 2019 America's Conservation Ag Movement Annual Report in Farm Journal.