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Study: Landowners urged to negotiate conservation

By Staff | Mar 18, 2011

DES MOINES – A researcher for Drake University’s Agriculture Law Center, who studied Iowa farmland ownership patterns and other farm demographics over the past year, is trying to develop ways for farmland owners and renters to talk about conservation issues as part of their lease agreements.

Ed Cox found several key trends in farmland ownership and other farm statistics that will have a profound impact on the future of Iowa’s agriculture. Cox analyzed data that was compiled by Iowa State University and other research centers. Among the major developments are:

  • Fifty-five percent of Iowa’s farmland is owned by people over the age of 65 and 28 percent of the land is owned by individuals over 75.
  • Eighty percent of Iowa’s leases are year-to-year agreements.
  • Cash rent leases, which place more risk on farmers and involve less landowner input, are replacing crop share arrangements. Cash rent and crop share leases were evenly split in 1982, but now cash rent leases account for 77 percent of rented farmland in Iowa.

Cox said all of these trends point to higher turnover of the land and more pressure on farmers to produce high-yielding crops each year, which can sacrifice the sustainability of the land over the long term.

“One of the main things (of a one-year lease) is it doesn’t necessarily give the operators the chance to adopt practices such as crop rotation or cover crops, which might initially have a decrease in yield, but over the long term be more productive for the farmer,” Cox said. “Without the long-term lease, the tenant is not able to take the risk.”

While a high percentage of leases are for only one year, most farm tenants have a long-term relationship with the landowner — 15 years on average. “There is that long-term relationship there with a great deal of farmers, but they still have yearly terminations, so the confidence of secure tenure might not be there,” Cox said.

Cox said the average age of farm owners means that farmland will continue changing hands more often than in the past. “This is a continuing trend,” Cox said. “Farmland is going to be changing owners and the demographics of those owners are going to be very diverse,” he said. More farms are owned by two or more parties and the fastest-growing sector of farm ownership is through land trusts.

In response to the changing farm ownership demographics, Drake’s ALC and the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at ISU developed a website to include soil conservation practices within a farm lease found at SustainableFarmLease.org.

The site addresses issues ranging from using lease contracts to increase tenure security and soil conservation to assisting new farmers and integrating livestock into crop operations.

The website also includes the 56-page “Landowner’s Guide,” which can be printed and distributed to those with limited or no Internet access.

In addition, the website contains links to additional information based on landowner priorities, along with explanations of important lease provisions and landlord-tenant laws through multimedia content such as videos and podcasts.

“Iowa’s soil and farmland are vital resources and the changing ownership patterns for Iowa farmland present an important opportunity to inform the public about farm leases, soil conservation and other critical legal issues,” said Neil Hamilton, who directs Drake’s ALC and served for 21 years on the Leopold Center Advisory Board.

Leopold Center Interim Director Lois Wright Morton praised the project and the collaboration with Drake.

“(It) offers Iowa’s landowners and tenants convenient, carefully researched, easily accessible resources showing the variety of options and opportunities available for them to implement more sustainable practices,” she said.

The Leopold Center provided funding for the project with Drake, said Laura Miller, a spokeswoman for the Leopold Center.

Contact Dave DeValois at dwdevalois@yahoo.com.

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