Improving soil health and the landlord-tenant relationship

It seems to be common knowledge now that soil health is a key part of the climate change solution. But, even if ever farmer who owns their farmland adopts all the best cover cropping and no till farming methods out there, that only takes care of 60% of the farmland in the United States. The other 40% is owned by non-operating landowners (NOLs). For many reasons, adopting conservation practices on the NOL-owned land is much trickier. But if we really are going to solve this climate change crisis, we can’t forget about that part.

In a recent Civil Eats article, Can Bridging the Gap Between Landowners and Farming Tenants Help Improve Soil Health?, this issue is explored in depth. The article does a deep dive into why it is so challenging to encourage healthy soil practices on land owned by absentee landowners. The reasons are many, as they usually are, but it appears that the biggest reason is that the landlord-tenant relationship is a tricky one. This relationship can be fraught. Communication is often either non-existent or infrequent. The landlord and the tenant are very different people, from very different backgrounds often. Many times, the landowner will be interested in conservation techniques and wish the tenant was implementing them, but the landowner doesn’t know enough about farming to make a good case for it to the tenant farmer. Other times, it is the farming tenant who is desperate to do conservation practices but the landowner expects a certain return on investment and won’t allow it, thinking it will diminish returns.

If only there was some way to bridge this gap and improve the relationship between NOL and farm tenant…
Wait, there is! The Women, Food and Agriculture Network out of Ames, Iowa, has developed an award-winning curriculum called Women Caring for the Land. This 100+pg. manual contains educational material for non-operating female landowners to learn about farmland conservation practices. The idea is that by educating women landowners about these techniques, they will gain confidence and understanding needed to be able to talk openly with their farming tenants about these techniques. This is helpful for being able to make the case to the tenant farmer that healthy soil practices should be adopted, and also for getting to a “Yes, you can go ahead and do these things on my land! Please do!” where the tenant is interested but the landowner is unsure, or might not see the value in it.  Since half a million NOL are women, this program really makes sense.

As the Civil Eats article points out, another major issue at play here is the length of the lease. Conservation practices just do not seem to happen in short-term lease situations. But if the NOL can understand how important soil health is and how crucial a long-term lease is to building healthy soil, then they will be more likely to be on board for a long-term lease.

It really does come back to the fact that to improve the health of your soil, you first have to start with improving the health of the leasing relationship. To improve the health of the leasing relationship, you need education and communication. Luckily, there’s Women, Food and Agriculture Network, there’s Farm Commons and our Land Matters resources, and many more resources to support you in getting what you need!