Whether you’re just starting out in renting your farmland or you’ve been renting to the same tenant farmer for a long time, it can be a challenge to initiate a conversation about management and leasing. Sometimes the challenge comes from a resistance to change- things seem to be working well, so why shake things up? Sometimes it can be intimidating to feel like you’re telling someone how to do their job, particularly when you don’t have a farming background yourself. For other landowners who live far away from their land, the distance itself can be a barrier to forming an effective partnership.
The truth is, you and your tenant farmer are in a partnership to manage your land. You each have goals for working with each other, and the key to address all of the challenges listed above is effective communication. Here are a few tips for communicating with your farmer:
Identify Common Ground
One way to open a conversation about soil health is to ask if there are characteristics of the farm that could be improved with conservation practices.
Are there erosion issues or gullies, soil compaction, excess nutrient levels in the soil, etc.? You can also ask if any farmers in the area are using cover crops or no-till management. If you’re a tenant farmer, you can ask the landowner about their future plans for the farm.
Find points in the conversation where your goals for the farm overlap, and start to identify how you can develop an agreement that will support that common set of goals.
Take the Long View
Generally speaking, soil health is a long game. Landowners who want to improve the health of their soil recognize that they’re investing in the long-term productivity and value of their land. They might also see the benefits that healthy soils provide off the farm, such as reducing the nutrients that run off into the Chesapeake Bay, sequestering carbon and helping to reverse climate change, or creating food production systems that are more resilient to extreme weather.
Farmers might see a benefit to implementing soil health practices in the first few years, but they’re investing in the long term benefits as well. A conversation between you and your farmer should identify specific strategies for your farm that will improve soil health, as well as how you will address the costs and maintenance to adopt those practices. Things to consider include the impact of the length of the lease, sharing the costs of both establishment and maintenance, an options for alternative forms of leases, such as a crop share or flex cash lease rather than a fixed cash lease.
Tap Your Local Resources
If you’re not sure which soil health practices or leasing options are right for you and your farmer, know that you are not alone. There are many resources and experts that are available to help guide you through these questions. Your local soil conservation district and cooperative extension offices are great places to start!
The partners on this project, including the Stroud Water Research Center and University of Maryland Ag Law Education Initiative, would be happy to connect you to local resources as well.
Keep the Conversation Active
Everyone is busy these days, but a farmer’s schedule is often facing additional pressure due to weather and the logistics of planting and harvest. Taking up this conversation during a time of year when field operations are slower – in the winter, for example- will help to ensure that the topic is given the attention it needs.
Make a point to keep the soil health discussion active throughout the year – just be sure to ask if you’re catching someone at a good time when you call or stop by. It sounds like a small gesture, but it will be very appreciated!
If you’re a local landowner, consider attending a soil health workshop or field day to become more familiar with soil health management and benefits. For those who live farther away, there are lots of online resources to share with your farmer, once you’ve had these initial conversations and laid the foundation for a successful partnership.