Discussions with four focus groups and interviews with 25 landowners and tenants confirmed the prevailing belief that land rental in Iowa adds a major obstacle to the adoption of sustainable practices. Because of the extremely competitive market for rented land, tenants said they are reluctant even to suggest alternative practices. Other factors included lack of information on profitability of sustainable agriculture, uncertainty due to one-year leasing arrangements, and lack of sufficient technical support for sustainable agriculture from Extension. Following the research stage the project developed two publications to help address these obstacles.
In 2002, 51 percent of farmland in Iowa was rented, while nationally that figure was approximately 38 percent (USDA, 2002). Given the prominence of rented and leased land in Iowa and the Midwest, it is important to understand the effect the rental relationship may have on the adoption of sustainable practices.
There is widespread anecdotal evidence that rented land poses special challenges for the adoption of sustainable agriculture in Iowa (and elsewhere in the Midwest). Sustainable techniques of production, including conservation practices and organic methods, require long-term investments in management and sometimes equipment (Gliessman, 1998). The instability of tenure inherent in rental arrangements, communication issues, and conflicting goals for the land, may lead to difficulties in adoption even when one or both parties in the landlord-farmer relationship wishes to implement sustainable techniques (Netting, 1993). However, little research had directly addressed the question of how land rental might affect the adoption of sustainable farming practices. For a more comprehensive review of the existing literature see Carolan et. al., 2004.
This research project examined the social dynamics between landlords, tenants, and agricultural agency professionals in order to better understand how those dynamics affect the adoption of sustainable agricultural methods on rented land. The project then worked with farmers and Extension staff to develop some tools to help landowners and tenants negotiate rental agreements that accommodate sustainable agriculture.
Carolan, Michael S., Diane Mayerfeld, Michael M. Bell, and Rick Exner. 2004. “Rented Land: Barriers to Sustainable Agriculture.” Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 59: 70A-75A.
Gliessman, S. 1998. Agroecology: Ecological processes in sustainable agriculture. Ann Arbor Press, Chelsea, Michigan.
Netting, R. 1993. Smallholders, Householders: Farm Families and the Ecology of Intensive, Sustainable Agriculture. Stanford University Press, Stanford, California.
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). 2002. Census of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, United States Department of Agriculture. Washington, D.C.
Objective 1. To help key agricultural professionals work with farmers and landowners on the adoption of sustainable agricultural practices on rented land.
Objective 2. To collect information on the barriers to the adoption of sustainable agriculture on rented land.
Objective 3. To design training materials and techniques for agricultural professionals on the adoption of sustainable agriculture on rented land.
Objective 4. To train agricultural professionals in Iowa to work with landowners and producers to assist them in the adoption of sustainable agricultural techniques on rented land.
Objective 5. To share project results and training materials with professional development coordinators and others across the North Central region.
We began our research by informally interviewing key people across Iowa. These conversations helped us develop questions, provide an analytical focus, and provide empirical background for the focus groups that followed. Between July and September of 2000, 29 agricultural professionals were interviewed.
The next stage of the research consisted of four focus groups—one involving tenants, one with landlords, and two involving agriculture professionals (Iowa State University Extension personnel, Natural Resources Conservation Service agents, and Department of Natural Resource agents). Seven to ten individuals participated in each of the one and a half to two hour focus groups.
In the final stage of information gathering, personal interviews were conducted within a single Iowa county. Twenty-eight people were interviewed for this stage of the project—thirteen tenants, twelve landlords (six tenant-landlord pairs), and three Iowa State University Extension agents. Each interview lasted approximately one and a half hours.
Following the research stage of the project we worked with PFI farmers and Extension staff to develop publications that might help renters and/or landowners move towards implementation of sustainable practices on rented land.
The research phase of this project found that land rental is indeed a barrier to the adoption of sustainable agriculture practices in many cases. A number of points emerged from the focus groups and the interviews of individual renters, landowners, and Extension staff, including the following:
In a tight rental market many tenants are reluctant even to discuss sustainable agriculture with landowners for fear of alienating them.
The uncertainty inherent in one-year leases deters tenants from engaging in any practice that puts long-term returns over short-term results, as many sustainable practices do.
Tenants and landowners both felt the technical knowledge to implement sustainable agriculture was lacking – both on their part and on the part of Extension.
Two tenants commented that it is easier to manage all the land they farm in a consistent manner, so how they farm their rented land also affects the decisions they make on their own land.
One encouraging finding was that all of those interviewed expressed general support for sustainable agriculture, even if they did not apply it to their own land.
For a more complete discussion of the research results, see Carolan et al., 2004 or you can request a copy of the unpublished research report from Diane Mayerfeld (email@example.com).
During the extension phase of the project we worked with Practical Farmers of Iowa to locate examples of rental arrangements that accommodate sustainable agriculture. We found that landowners and tenants had come up with a variety of different strategies to incorporate sustainable practices on rented land. These strategies are summarized in Iowa State University (ISU) Extension Bulletin PM-1947, “Considering Sustainable Agriculture on Your Rented Land,” http://www.extension.iastate.edu/Publications/PM1947.pdf.
Follow-up discussions with farmers revealed a need for better information on the costs of organic production in order to negotiate fair crop share leases for organic land. We worked with farmers and Extension specialists to develop sample budgets for organic and conventional crop rotations in Iowa. These budgets are included in Iowa State University Extension Bulletin PM-1982 “Adapting Crop Share Agreements for Sustainable and Organic Agriculture,” http://www.extension.iastate.edu/Publications/PM1982.pdf.
Carolan, Michael S., Diane Mayerfeld, Michael M. Bell, and Rick Exner. 2004. “Rented Land: Barriers to Sustainable Agriculture.” Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 59: 70A-75A
We believe this research has far-reaching significance for the adoption of sustainable agriculture, given that approximately half of the agricultural land in Iowa and nearly 40% of agricultural land nationwide is rented. To date, most sustainable agriculture outreach has targeted farm operators, with the tacit assumption that they either own all their farmland or that land rental does not constrain their management options. This research project indicates that in many cases this assumption is not valid.
Our research suggests that sustainable agriculture outreach has to target landowners as well as farm operators. Moreover, Extension staff and other agriculture professionals need to work with landowners and renters to help them adapt their lease arrangements to better accommodate sustainable practices. The overwhelming majority of agricultural rental arrangements in Iowa are either one-year cash rent leases or one-year 50-50 crop share leases. Neither of these rental arrangements is supportive of an extended crop rotation or of many other sustainable practices.
Changing the many structures that inhibit the adoption of sustainable practices on rented land will require much work over a long period of time. However, this project has taken some steps in that direction in Iowa and beyond.
As part of this project, Practical Farmers of Iowa held a panel discussion on how to accommodate sustainable agriculture on rented land at one of their field days. One of the landowners involved in that field day indicated she plans to use information from that discussion in future negotiations with her tenant. Another landowner who attended the field day has re-negotiated the crop share lease with an organic tenant to more fairly reflect the additional contributions made by the operator in sustainable systems.
In the past, Farm Management Field Specialists in Iowa limited their outreach to landowners to a discussion of prevailing land rental rates. As a result of this project they are beginning to address the possibility of allowing sustainable practices on rented land as well. For example, much of the information from the publication on adapting rental arrangements for sustainable and organic farms has been included in one module of Iowa State University’s Farm Leasing Agreements online home study course (see www.extension.iastate.edu/AMES/ ). About 15 people have signed up for the course so far. Summer is a more popular time than winter for this course, so enrollment is expected to increase.
Finally, a summary of the findings from this project was published in the July 2004 issue of the Journal of Land and Water Conservation. Since this journal has nationwide readership, we hope the article will encourage educators, renters, and landowners across the country to begin tackling the barriers to sustainable agriculture on rented land.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Michael S. Carolan, Diane Mayerfeld, Michael M. Bell, and Rick Exner. 2004. “Rented Land: Barriers to Sustainable Agriculture.” Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 59: 70A-75A
Diane Mayerfeld, Rick Exner, and Margaret Smith. 2003. “Considering Sustainable Agriculture on Your Rented Land.” Iowa State University (ISU) Extension Bulletin PM-1947, http://www.extension.iastate.edu/Publications/PM1947.pdf.
Diane Mayerfeld, William Edwards, Rick Exner, and Margaret Smith. 2004. “Adapting Crop Share Agreements for Sustainable and Organic Agriculture,” Iowa State University Extension Bulletin PM-1982, http://www.extension.iastate.edu/Publications/PM1982.pdf.
Copies of “Considering Sustainable Agriculture on Your Rented Land” and “Adapting Crop Share Agreements for Sustainable and Organic Agriculture” were sent to all the county Extension offices in Iowa, to all the Farm Management Field Specialists, and to all NRCS district offices in the state. Copies were also provided to state SARE coordinators in November 2004. 300 copies of “Adapting Crop Share Agreements for Sustainable and Organic Agriculture” were distributed at the Kansas Organic conference in January 2005. In all, nearly 2,000 copies of each publication have been distributed to date. We do not know how many times the publications have been accessed on-line.