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Incorporating conservation practices on rented ground

Anna Cates and Brian DeVore for Progressive Forage Published on 30 April 2020

Almost all farmers farm some rented ground. This may be a long-term relationship with a relative, a new opportunity or a one-year handshake deal. Implementing conservation practices on that ground requires an agreement between renter and owner, and starting that conversation can be the hardest part.

Mark Erickson of west-central Minnesota wanted to make a big shift in his operation: from row-cropping with a beef operation on the side, to full-fledged managed rotational grazing on pasture. He started by inviting all four of his landowners to lunch. On a summer morning in 2009, they all climbed onto a hay rack for a ride up to a hilltop that afforded a nice view of the corn and soybean fields the farmer was managing on the rented land.

Erickson pointed out where the grazing paddocks could go, as well as the water lines and walking paths for the cattle. He asked the landowners to imagine what their land would look like covered in grass 365 days a year, a stark contrast to devoting those acres to annual row crops for just a few months each growing season.

“I was trying to help them visualize what was going to happen to their land,” said Erickson. “It felt like a powerful tool, because when you’re sitting out there on that hill, then people can visualize it and it makes so much more sense. Being on the farm brought up questions you would never be able to get just by trying to tell them about it over the telephone or writing a letter.” Plus, they were able to share a meal of beef that had been raised on the farm.

The landowners were open to the vision, but they still had logistical questions. In order to convert the land to pasture and grazing paddocks, Erickson needed cost-share funds from the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which is administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Under an EQIP contract, the grass planting had to stay in place at least five years and the new perimeter fencing would need to remain untouched for 20 years.

Who was responsible for managing the contracts? What if they decided to rent to another farmer, who then wanted to plow it up, tear out the fences and raise row crops? Erickson had invited two staffers from the NRCS to show maps of the proposed grazing setup and to explain that the Ericksons were responsible for managing the infrastructure.

Importantly, the water lines were 20 inches deep, so they would be below the plow line if row crops returned. Also, the interior fencing would consist of one strand of portable line, so it could be easily removed.

“So it’s not something that would be impossible to reverse,” says Erickson.

The sales pitch worked.

“That was really helpful,” recalls Delano Meyer, one of the landowners. “Mark has been really helpful in explaining things in ways that people could understand. He’s good at laying out his vision.”

Even for a less dramatic change in land use, laying out a vision is just as important. For example, row-crop farmers may want to reduce tillage to cut costs, or owners may want to see more residue or winter cover crops to reduce soil erosion. It may take several conversations, over more than one season, to come to an understanding that makes both parties happy.

Since conservation practices promote long-term benefits and require multiple seasons to implement, it may also be a good time to consider a long-term, written lease rather than an informal one-year agreement.

Sometimes, however, it doesn’t work out. Jeannie Hill, who owns 32 acres in southeastern Minnesota, refused to continue renting after the farmer wouldn’t adopt no-till. Hill and her late husband had farmed using no-till methods, and she knew it could help stop the erosion she saw on her land.

“I told him, ‘I could see erosion, again. It washed down and under the fence,’” recalls Hill. “And I said, ‘You didn’t do no-till.’” No-till had been specified in the lease, so Hill terminated the agreement with this farmer.

Hill looked around for someone who shared her vision. She went to landowner educational events hosted by the Land Stewardship Project, asked a local NRCS technician for advice on farming practices that fit her goals and wrote a lease that reflected those goals. In the end, Hill invited a couple she saw speak at a Land Stewardship Project event to farm the land. They started with a one-year lease to try out the new relationship. After a year of intense, record-breaking rainstorms, Hill is happy to report that erosion is no longer a problem on that field.

Lease language should support your specific conservation goals, so there’s no hard and fast rules. A fact sheet by the Land Stewardship Project  contains model legal language outlining specific tillage, rotation, residue, fertility and erosion practices, as does Ag Lease101.

Some examples specify exactly what crops will be planted each year of a multiyear rotation. Practices could be tied to cost-sharing with the landowner, or reduced rent if significant investment is required from the operator. Payments back to the renter could be tied to soil test improvements. Applying for local or federal cost-sharing for conservation practices like cover crops can help alleviate the financial burden on both the operator and landowner.

This may be a difficult conversation. Go in with questions, not demands. Learn as much as you can. Maybe the goal for the first meeting is as simple as learning what your renter or landowner’s perspective is on cover crops or vertical tillage. The long-term goal may be a change in farming practice, but you need to start by establishing a common understanding and a good relationship. As Hill said about her new renters, “I knew what I was saying, and they knew what they were saying, and we recognized that we were on the same page.”

For more information, see the resources in this Conservation Leases Toolkit  developed by Minnesota’s Land Stewardship Project, or reach out to LSP’s Robin Moore at (320) 269-2105. Iowa State University Extension also has sample lease language to consider that can be found online (Whole farm - leasing). end mark

Brian DeVore is with the Land Stewardship Project. Email Brian DeVore.

Anna Cates is a state soil health specialist at the University of Minnesota Extension. Email Anna Cates.

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