During work for our story about women landowners, for the March 2022 edition of No-Till Farmer, we collected tips from landowners about how operators can broach the idea of conservation agriculture.
Landowners approach the issue with an eye toward retaining land value. Operators are frequently connected to yields, and may have a more short-term focus on turning a profit. However, landowners agreed that the reverse can also be true: landowners may hesitate to endorse or support practices that are less widely adapted by other farmers.
Landowners agreed that the relationship with tenants can be fraught, and frequent conversations outside of the discussion about the rent check can help make discussions about practices easier to begin.
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Iowa landowner Jackie Armstrong says generalizations about the operator/landowner divide are overblown.
She’s heard stories of the divide, but never experienced them. Armstrong presents to landowners as part of the Iowa-based Women, Food, and Agriculture Network (WFAN).
“I hear stories about how sometimes tenants are only after their yield and short-term interests and don’t invest long-term in the land,” she says. “I don’t think it’s true. Everyone I know cares deeply about the land.”
Finding a baseline of comparison for the kinds of practices you employ is key, Armstrong says. For one tenant, she spoke for years about conservation practices, up to and including planting prairie on the edges of her fields.
“Then, one day, I mentioned the name of another person in our community” who employed the kind of practices she hoped for, she says. “And his eyes brightened, and he said ‘Oh, my dad knows him.’”
“That was the way to get the conversation started, because he wasn’t listening to Jackie Armstrong, this somewhat tiresome lady who thinks she’s trying to tell a lifetime farmer how to do his job,” she adds. “I was able to just shift the conversation to another person who did conservation practices who he trusted.”
The practice mirrors WFAN’s process of using network-style groups to share experiences, Armstrong says.
Jean Eells is a researcher into issues of gender and landownership in Iowa, but she’s also a landowner. She’s familiar with research at Iowa State showing growers are unwilling to even broach the subject with landowners.
“Of the farmers they had interviewed, to a one, they were not going to bring up cover crops, no-till or conservation practices to their landowner because they were afraid they were going to lose the land,” she says. “They really need to confront their assumptions about what their landowners will or won’t do.”
Reluctance also stems from the fact that if they bring it up, they’ll be required to do it, and unable to implement the practices out of their pocket immediately, Eels says.
More communication outside of the context of the rent check is key, Eells says.
“Start having more conversations with your landowner during the year,” she says. “I know, a lot of them hate to talk to us, hate to bring it up, but have several non-money conversations.”
Examples can include monthly check-ins via text about what work is being done on the property, or a simple photo taken with a cell phone, Eells says.
“Just increase the amount of communication period,” she says. “That has got to help. Because they’re going to hit on something that that landowner is interested in, more interested in than the check.”
This can be particularly valuable for female landowners, who generally place a higher premium on the soft power of legacy — family retention of land, social, cultural and communitarian purposes — than on the hard power legacy of dollars per acre, Eells says.
Eells jokes that she has the best tenant in all Iowa. They text back and forth frequently, and she shares pictures with the siblings with whom she jointly owns the farmland.
When she went to select a new tenant after her former tenant retired, she met with several tenants. In a bid to correct soil issues that had gone unnoticed under the prior tenant, she wanted a farmer who was willing to do cover crops.
“I said ‘We are not talking about money,’” she said. “We are not talking about money at this juncture. That’s for later.”
She narrowed it down to two tenants, but discovered during the audition-like meetings that one of the two candidates was a member of the Practical Farmers of Iowa. Membership was a proxy for curiosity, Eells says. He’d previously employed no-till and covers on other land he’d farmed.
“He just needed — I think — somebody to do this with him,” she says. “Somebody to bounce ideas off of, and somebody who would spend the time looking up opportunities for cost share and figuring out whether it would work for us or not.”
Armstrong also worked with her tenants to establish contracts that help split costs up front.
Eells says there are other tenets landlords can build into agricultural contracts. She’s heard of landlords not charging on plots used for conservation agriculture, for example.
She and her tenant had committed to roller-crimping cover crops for a season, and had identified roller-crimpers to rent. However, when the time came, both disappeared. After frantically trying to find a replacement option, Eells decided to bite the bullet.
“Once I realized that a roller-crimper isn’t hugely expensive, I bought one,” she says. “If I hadn’t been already involved in the conversations with my farmer, I might have just sat there and thought, ‘Well, he’s going to solve it all.’”