Conservation for landlords
By ROD SWOBODA
Over half of Iowa’s land is rented and farmed by someone other than the owner; a trend that keeps growing. Consequently, there is concern over possible impacts this increase in rented land will have on soil conservation. Practices such as grass waterways, terraces, buffer strips and others have always been important to many farmers. Now you can add cover crops to the list. The need for more conservation is getting more attention.
“It’s critical for landlords and tenants to work together closely to develop plans to conserve soil and protect water quality,” says Mike Duffy, retired Iowa State University Extension economist. “The goal is for both sides to be satisfied with the agreement and to get more conservation practices on the land.” He says farmers and landlords can do that by communicating and understanding each other’s positions.
There are several reasons for increased concern about conservation on rented land. In addition to more land being farmed by someone other than the owner, farm owners are aging and are less likely to be actively engaged in farming. The general assumption is if farmers don’t own the land they farm, they are less likely to have an incentive to use conservation practices.
Many landlords want to use conservation practices on their land but are unaware of the options and how to implement various practices. Conservation is also getting more attention with the enactment of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a voluntary program to provide farmers information and options to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loss from fields.
Important to set goals
The nutrient reduction plan comes at the same time as a trend among many landlords to actively push for more conservation practices on fields they own. Also, many tenants who are putting conservation practices on land they own want to use similar practices on fields they rent. “There is a lot more interest in soil conservation and water quality now,” notes Duffy.
It’s important that landlords and tenants develop conservation goals and decide which soil-saving practices will be used. Just as important, he says, is developing a plan to determine who should pay the cost of implementing conservation practices.
Developing a conservation plan on rented land can be difficult because landlords and tenants often have different motivations and timelines. Landlords typically want to protect the long-term value of their land as an asset, while tenants are concerned about maintaining income from crops harvested. Still, conservation plans can be worked out to benefit both parties.
Determine if any cost-share funds are available, he says. For some practices, a portion of the fixed costs can be paid with state or federal conservation cost-share funding, which helps pay for benefits that society gets from conservation practices, such as improved water quality.
After estimating the final costs, the costs must be divided between tenant and landlord. This is often where the most difficulty arises. Should the tenant or the landlord pay for the cost of conservation practices? What if the costs were divided, and the lease is later terminated? What is a reasonable time to prorate the tenant’s costs? How much will the tenant be reimbursed for using the practice? These questions need to be addressed in the lease.
Economic theory suggests whoever bears the cost should receive the benefit. “However, this logic doesn’t necessarily apply to cost division of conservation practices,” says Duffy. “The tenant and the landlord must communicate about their joint goals and the outcome of the practices.
“There’s really no one-size-fits-all. It’s important. It’s important for landlords and tenants to discuss how to divide the costs.”
Information on lease provisions affecting the conservation practices you use can be found on ISU’s Ag Decision Maker website in AgDM File C2-01, “Improving Your Farm Lease Contract.” Sources of additional conservation information for landlords include the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, Drake Ag Law Center and USDA NRCS.
What is your conservation goal?
Loss of topsoil has both short- and long-term effects. Topsoil is the most fertile part of the land holding the most nutrients for growing crops, and it takes up to a 1,000 years to develop 1 inch of new topsoil. Various conservation practices can be used to protect and conserve valuable soil assets.
Soil erosion isn’t the only critical issue when it comes to protecting and conserving land, notes ISU Extension economist Mike Duffy. Water quality protection, wildlife habitat preservation, recreational development and maintenance, and nutrient and pest management are other factors that play a role.
Conservation practices are divided into two main categories for farmland: operational and permanent. Some practices may fall under both categories depending on the circumstance.
• Operational. An operational conservation practice is a short-run practice that can be implemented on a year-by-year basis. The practice can be used one year and not the next. Examples include contour buffer strips, contour farming, cover crops, crop rotation, managed grazing (rotational grazing), nutrient management, integrated pest management, crop residue management, mulch, mulch till, crop residue management and no-till.
• Permanent. A permanent conservation practice is a long-term practice that will remain in place until it’s removed or altered. Examples of permanent conservation practices are diversions, field borders, grade stabilization structures, grassed waterways, riparian buffer strips, streambank and shoreline stabilization, terraces, water and sediment control basins and windbreaks.
More details on these conservation practices are in AgDM File A1-41, “Conservation Practices for Landlords” at ISU’s Ag Decision Maker website.
When evaluating what conservation practice to implement, many factors are considered, says Duffy. Is a single practice or a group of practices the best choice? What are the costs of the conservation practices, and do they fit the farm budget? The most important question is why you want to implement a practice. What is your goal?
This article published in the June, 2014 edition of WALLACES FARMER.
All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2014.
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