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Aligning Landowner and Tenant Goals

January 30, 2024 - Mollie Aronowitz, AFM

I have worked with a variety of non-profit organizations, education institutions, and federal partners over the past 10 years in the farmland conservation space. Our vocabulary has changed over time, but the intent has remained constant: we work to leave the land better than how we found it.

Another constant has been landowner-tenant partnerships as a key process change for practice adoption. It is easy to think first of in-field and edge-of-field practices as the big-ticket items, but just as critical is building a strong foundation of transparency and communication between landowner and tenant. If the parties are not starting from a solid ground of shared goals, then future work may be built on shaky ground.

Land Manager Mollie Aronowitz visiting farmer tenant Jacob Bolson on a central Iowa farm.They are standing in a soybean field with a terminated cover crop mulching the rows. A bioreactor is being installed in the background to improve water quality in the watershed.

What does a foundation of transparency and communication look like?

We must understand how the farm performs and the role of each party in sharing pertinent information. It is easy to focus on yield and fertilizer maps provided by the tenant, but there are many data sets and narratives we can collect for a fuller picture.

1. Inventorying past land use can help us better understand limitations and reclamation.

  • Were buildings, underground storage containers, and dump sites present on the property? This may explain field compaction, outlier production areas, or dips in topography.

  • Has field size or field shape changed over time? Sometimes we see erosion over larger fields where it was not a problem in the past when fields were smaller, and water was slowed by multiple fencerows.

  • Have waterways, terraces, or other structures been removed or reduced in size? Water will show us how it wants to move, and we can use in-field practices to reduce erosion.

We can review historical imagery, interview past landowners/tenants, and review county NRCS office files for this type of information.

2. Understanding the current management and production plans help us understand opportunity.

  • What is the current crop rotation and how does this farm fit in the tenant’s full operation?

  • When is fertilizer applied and is precision technology used?

  • What is the pest management plan and is there an integrated approach to address weeds, disease, and insects?

  • What and how often are field passes completed on the farm?

  • Are any acres determined to be highly erodible or wetlands?

This is where we dig into yield maps and input applications as well as soil tests. Another opportunity might be to compare the farm to public county and/or state data on soil types and average yields.

3. Identify desired landowner and tenant long-term use of the property.

  • Is land ownership a long-term or a shorter-term horizon?

  • How important are curb appeal projects and ongoing maintenance?

  • How is the farm used outside of agriculture? Are there trees and/or other permanent plantings on the farm?

  • What is each party’s understanding of and interest in conservation and regenerative practices? Is there a desire to learn more and experiment?

Methodically collecting a fuller picture can help remove emotion from the planning process. We can begin to identify where parties align and where they do not align – then make craft action steps from there.

Peoples Company Land Managers often find themselves in scenarios like this. A large bank of experience with landowner-tenant relationships helps us assist parties in navigating the ups and downs of the planning process quickly and efficiently.

Creating a consistent and efficient format of annual production information is valuable in ongoing documentation building. We ensure that accountability in our proprietary Peoples Company lease and follow through with check-ins with each tenant. Production data is shared with clients in the annual Business Plan and Summer Report. These reports are designed to provide landowners with critical information in a 20-minute review.

Collected information builds out a data set where we identify the most and least productive acres of every farm. It is often the case that the lower-producing acres (marginal acres) are also our environmentally sensitive acres due to drainage, erosion, or other issues.

We can also assist in identifying alternative uses for acres for wildlife habitat and recreational use. Our experience with Leading Harvest Farmland Management Standard has helped us better identify and communicate the role individual farms play in the larger working landscape and community.

Our management approach is to facilitate relationships and provide the boots on the ground presence when needed for lasting change on the landscape. 2023 Farmer of the Year, Jackson Drost, tells the story well here.

Landowners interested in learning more about Peoples Company’s approach are encouraged to contact Peoples Company Land Management at landmanagement@peoplescompany.com or visit www.PeoplesCompany.com.

Published in: Land Management