Farmland Leases Benefit Environment

Farmland Leases of at Least Two Years Spur Conservation, ISU Study Finds

Matt Wilde
By  Matthew Wilde , Progressive Farmer Crops Editor
An Iowa State University study indicates implementation of conservation practices on rented farmland is more likely with a long-term lease of more than two years. (DTN photo illustration by Nick Scalise)

ANKENY, Iowa (DTN) -- A key obstacle to conservation adoption on leased farmland is the amount, length or lack of rental written agreements, according to an Iowa State University study.

Farmers are more apt to implement conservation practices, such as cover crops, grass buffer strips and other practices, on rented farmland with a long-term lease of more than two years, according to the ISU study "What Drives Landowners' Conservation Decisions?" Find the study at….

About half of farmland in the Midwest -- a little less in other parts of the country -- is rented through short-term leases, according to the study's findings. A short-term lease is defined as one to two years.

"Farmland rental arrangements where tenants may not reap the benefits of conservation investments are a commonly cited barrier to conservation practice adoption in agriculture and may result in lower adoption rates on rented land than on owner-operated fields," the study said.

For example, the study indicates full- and part-time owner-operators have cover crops on a greater portion of their owner-operated farmland than land that's rented out -- 7% vs. 3% and 3% vs. 1%, respectively. The study also indicated fewer grass buffer strips and ponds/sediment basins are likely to be on land that's rented out compared to land that's farmed by the owner.

No-till farming is more prevalent on rented crop ground, according to the study.

Strong, collaborative relationships between farmland owners and tenants is a key ingredient to the widespread implementation of conservation practices such as cover crops, prairie strips, saturated buffers and other measures. Read more about those collaborative relationships in the DTN article "Collaboration Spurs Conservation" here:….

Ann Johanns, an ISU Extension educator specializing in farm management and leasing, said farmland rental agreements also play a vital role.

Johanns recommends landowners and farmer-tenants discuss goals, rental rates and future adjustments, conservation objectives and how practices will be paid for and other concerns. Incorporate agreed-upon items into lease agreements. Since conservation practices are often multiyear projects without an immediate payback, Johanns said three- to five-year leases or longer may encourage more conservation work on rented farmland.

"Let's look at longer-term leases where we're going to implement (conservation practices) that might have a learning curve," Johanns continued. "For us to move the needle when we talk about implementing conservation practices, landowners and renters have to be in the conversation."

Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) officials say handshake farm-rental agreements are common (estimates weren't available) on the East Coast. It impedes the adoption of conservation practices on agricultural lands to reduce nutrient runoff into the Chesapeake Bay.

"When there is no lease, there tends to be less conversation about caring for the land or making plans that involve using USDA NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) cost-share resources" to implement conservation practices," said Bill Chain, CBF's Pennsylvania ag program manager.

The foundation fights for effective, science-based solutions to pollution degrading the bay and rivers and streams that feed it. The conservation group reported earlier this year that states in the bay watershed will come up far short of having all practices and controls in place by 2025, per the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, to restore the health of the bay and its waterways. Read a DTN article on the subject at….

Bolstering landowner and farmer-tenant relationships and public funding to get more conservation practices on the landscape is a critical part of bay restoration. "I think if we could enhance that conversation about conservation implementation, we'll get those activities going," Chain said.

Encouraging farmland owners and renters to sign long-term lease agreements with conservation provisions is a top priority of the foundation. That will help promote soil health and water quality into agronomic systems, said Matt Kowalski, CBF's Virginia watershed restoration scientist.

As farmland lease numbers rise, he said he expects to see more long-term investments in nutrient management, livestock stream exclusion infrastructure and other practices.

"We're not going to see long-term success unless we're looking long term," Kowalski said.

Farmland rental and lease information can be found at… and….

Matthew Wilde can be reached at

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Matt Wilde