Suitors for the Land

Winning the confidence of potential landlords may be as simple as showing them you care.

Jacob Leininger (left) and landowner Martin Hawley (Progressive Farmer image by Des Keller)

The warm sunny weather in this southwest corner of Michigan on a late-June day belies the yearly scramble to plant soybeans. This year was particularly tough, as weeks of ongoing rain wiped out any chance for a planting date in April or even May. Finally, it's all hands on deck.

Jacob Leininger runs a tillage tool, smoothing out bare soil dotted with crusty dirt chunks. His father, Curtis Leininger, and father-in-law, David Brasher, prep the soybean planter. Jacob's wife, Jenny, rides herd over their three young children, Emersyn, Bo and Mack, who help in the field by picking up cantaloupe-sized rocks, heaving them into the bed of an ATV.

A short distance away, standing on the porch of the circa-1880s farmhouse where he grew up, 80-year-old Martin Hawley talks about meeting Jacob Leininger, who has rented 80 acres from Hawley for several years now. As is often the case, their business relationship started simply enough as office chitchat.

"A coworker of Jenny's at her off-farm job mentioned I might be looking for a new tenant for the farm," says Hawley, a chemical engineer who has served on the faculty at Michigan State University for 55 years. "Shortly after that, Jacob called me, and we got together to talk. It was clear he was committed to farming. I liked that he was young and had a great family. After a half-hour, I thought, 'This guy is worth taking a chance on.' I think it has worked out fine."

The deal may seem simple and straightforward with a bit of good timing involved, but there were several factors that helped make this tenant/landlord agreement happen. First, Jacob moved quickly when he heard the 80 acres next door was available for rent. Otherwise, an opportunity would likely have been lost. Hawley says if he hadn't heard from Jacob, he likely would have rented to a much larger operation nearby that works 5,000 to 6,000 acres. Jacob farms just 350 acres and has an off-farm job as lead contractor for Ryan Custom Contracting, a construction company. Second, Jacob took the trouble to ask to rent Hawley's land. Sounds simple, but people don't always let it be known they want to expand their farm operations.

NETWORK AND BE FLEXIBLE

Dave Bryden, director of sales, marketing and strategic partnerships for a national farm-management company, Family Farms Group, says, "Not everyone can or should grow, but if you want to, a big part of it is simply letting people know you want to grow. Some farmers are perfectly content to farm what they have now. If you are a landowner, how do you know if I'm one that's perfectly content?"

Bryden notes letting a lender, attorney or tax professional know you have an aspiration to grow the size of the farm is key. They often hear of opportunities before anyone else and may be able to facilitate a meeting. Jacob was flexible and willing to farm on 50/50 shares with Hawley, a man who likes to maintain involvement in his home property. So, while Jacob pays cash rent to his other landlords, as part of his year-to-year verbal agreement with Hawley, he provides labor and machinery. They split fertilizer, seed and fuel costs.

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There are intangibles that work into the equation, as well. Jacob understands that being a family farmer makes a difference in a lot of peoples' eyes.

"Each one of our landlords is different, and each one is special," he says. "But, I think they all like the full family version of us -- that the kids and Jenny are with me helping. I think that makes a difference."

It doesn't hurt that Jacob is the fifth generation to farm in the area and Jenny the seventh generation.

Even when things seem to be working well for all concerned, it's important, Bryden says, to keep in mind landowners' needs and desires change. Farmers need to understand that and be able to adapt if at all possible.

"You might have a landowner who has worked on a crop-share lease arrangement forever," he says. "That doesn't necessarily mean going into next year that will be the arrangement he or she wants. Always ask. Don't assume what they've done in the past is what they want or need in the future."


COMMUNICATION IS NO CLICHÉ

Ronnie Mohr has farmed near Greenfield, Indiana, for 55 years. He works with his brother and two sons on 4,300 acres. He says it's important to watch what you say to a landowner, because he or she may take that comment to whomever is farming their land at the moment.

"I made that mistake once by expressing an interest in a farm to a landowner if they ever made a change," Mohr says. "The other farmer got really upset."

Mohr works with 23 landowners and adds he works hard to keep all 23 informed. "I know it is an overused phrase, but communication is key. We try to let people know about our whole operation and that we care about the community. That provides a connection to people."

One of Mohr's landlords is Paul Marsh, a professional farm manager who helped build Prudential's real estate broker service more than 25 years ago. He went on to become chief underwriter and portfolio manager for their $4.25-billion ag mortgage business. He retired in 2017. Mohr and Marsh farm 50/50 shares on the Marsh family land, as they have for years.

"It is not my personal objective to squeeze every last dollar out of a tenant every year," Marsh says. "A landowner needs to be conscientious about how the land is treated, and the Mohrs know our farm. Maintaining fertilization, organic matter and cover crops are important to me."

Another plus, Marsh says, is when a farmer is able to tell their story using things like social media. "Some of these operations have created websites and Facebook pages, and tell how they care for the land," he says. "If they are doing their farming practices successfully, and someone needs an operator, those guys go to the head of the list."

PULLING TOGETHER

As the day winds down, the Leiningers are putting on a full-court press, planting soybeans into the evening for what they already know may be a subpar year harvestwise.

Sweat running down his forehead as they pour bean seed into the planter, Jacob says in a tough year, having a good partner in your landlord means a lot.

"The good thing about Martin is he wants to put back into the land and take these risks, and grow together," Jacob says. "We've tiled and cleaned fencerows and worked together to build the land."

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