Education and mentorship to support mutually beneficial leases that promote regenerative agriculture

Progress report for ONC22-099

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2022: $39,500.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2025
Grant Recipient: Izaak Walton League of America's Upper Mississippi River Initiative
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
Dave Zentner
Minnesota Division of the Izaak Walton League - Upper Mississippi River Initiative
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Project Information


In the words of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, “the Minnesota River is unhealthy. Sediment clouds the water, phosphorus causes algae, nitrogen poses risks to humans and fish, and bacteria make the water unsafe for swimming.” Regenerative agriculture is a tool to reduce phosphorus, nitrogen, and sediment loading. The majority of the region is in a corn/soybean rotation, and roughly half of farmers in Minnesota are tenants who face unique obstacles. Many tenant farmers have difficulty negotiating leases which make regenerative practices economically viable. Corollarily, many non-operating landowners have difficulty “speaking the language” of conventional farmers and nudging them toward more regenerative operations. We propose a series of interactive conferences bringing together farmers with landowners and facilitating ongoing peer-to-peer mentorship. As farmers learn best from other farmers, we have partnered with farmer and landowner leaders through every step of the process. Facilitating ongoing peer-to-peer support among conventional corn/soybean farmers is critical to enacting landscape-level change and improving water quality in the region.

Project Objectives:
  • Educate 250 farmers at 5 conferences through the Minnesota River Valley on ways to negotiate with landowners to make adoption of regenerative practices more feasible
  • Educate landowners regarding the benefits of encouraging regenerative practices on their land
  • Expose landowners and farmers to each other’s perspective
  • Recruit landowners and farmers to an ongoing mentorship opportunity where they may have more success at adopting or encouraging regenerative practices
  • Increase number of producers that adopt enduring regenerative agricultural practices
  • Improve economic sustainability of tenant farming and farmland leasing through smarter contracts and regenerative agriculture


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Quintin Peterson 
  • Rhyan Schicker
  • Mark Gutierrez
  • Robin Moore (Educator)
  • Anne Schwegerl (Educator)
  • Martha McFarland (Educator)
  • Stephanie McLain (Educator)
  • TJ Kartes (Educator)
  • Steve Lawler (Educator)
  • Shannon Gegner (Educator)
  • Michaela Nelson (Educator)
  • Lynn Pfarr (Educator)
  • Patti Sell (Educator)
  • Kasey Wiener (Educator)
  • Holly Hatlewick (Educator)
  • Brian Pfarr (Educator)


Involves research:
Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

3 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
6 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

54 Farmers participated
32 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

The first SOIL HEALTH & FARMER-LANDLORD RELATIONSHIPS Workshop was held on January 11, 2023 in the western Minnesota county of Lac qui Parle.   The Minnesota Soil Health Coalition and the Lac qui parle Soil and Water Conservation District partnered with us on this event.   Planning for this workshop included the development of a database of nearly 900 non-operating landowners  with agricultural land in this county.  Both a landowner and tenant farmer were booked as presenters. Marketing included sending event invitation postcards to these landowners, social media events, radio announcements and text blast to farmers in the area.    A Pre-event survey was developed to assess participants knowledge and experience with soil conservation practices and leases.  A Post-event survey was designed to evaluate  how the event impacted participants'  attitudes and interest in implementing soil conservation practices.  A toolkit was also assembled with information on on soil health principles and a sample of a lease structured to encourage regenerative practices.

Disappointingly, winter in Minnesota brought an ice storm on January 11th and treacherous road conditions reduced our already low registrations to a single actual participant.  While the weather is not within our control, we are evaluating our marketing strategies to be more effective.   Communications with the partner organizations was also a negative factor leading to the decision to replace our contracted event coordinator.   We are still on track to complete the remaining four workshops and have reached to Lac Qui Parle County for a possible 'do-over'.

In March 2023 we partnered again with Lac qui parle Soil and Water Conservation District to host an event for women landowners and farmers only.  The agenda included Rhyan Schicker, Lac qui parle SWCD, Robin Moore, Land Stewardship Project and Anne Schwagerl, Minnesota Farmers Union.  Presentations focused on women landowners' and producers' vision for their land.  Presentations were purposely short with great emphasis on table talks followed by report-outs to all attendees.  Plans are underway to hold a second event that emphasizes moving from vision to regenerative agriculture applications.  

Third event was held in Redwood County  on December 5, 2023 titled Women and Agriculture Q & A.  Topics included Ag Land Ownership & Management, Production, Farm Programs and Conservation Best Management Practices.  Featured presenters included representatives from across the Ag spectrum: Shannon Gegner (Natural Resources Conservation Service), Michaela Nelson (Natural Resources Conservation Service), Lynn Pfarr (Farm Service Agency), Patti Sell (Farm Service Agency), Kasey Wiener (Farm Service Agency), Holly Hatlewick (Renville SWCD) and Brian Pfarr (Redwood SWCD).  Federal, State and local resources were available to answer questions and provide information for landowners and operators on conservation programs.  Emphasis on the importance of soil health was reflected in the Rainfall Simulator Demonstration.

On January 17, 2024 our fourth event was held in Mower County.  Presenters TJ Kartes, Saddle Buttle Seed Co, and Steve Lawler, Mower County Soil Technician discussed topics including implementing & Managing Cover Crops, Soil Health Practices, Negotiating Conservation Practices into farm leases, Carbon Markets and  County Resources/Funding for Conservation Practices.

Our fifth event on February 15, 2024 was held in Lyon County and again focused on Women in Agriculture.  A presentation was done by Stephanie McClain.  Stephanie is the Soil Health Specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Minnesota. She trains and educates farmers, landowners, conservation partners, ag professionals, and policy leaders about the benefits of soil health in our cropping systems. Including a soil health demonstration from the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Our sixth event was held in Rice County on March 16, 2024.  This event featured Martha McFarland.  She joined Practical Farmers of Iowa in 2022 as the Senior Farmland Viability Coordinator.  In this role, she supports land seekers and landowners with land access and farm transition.  Martha also runs Hawkeye Buffalo & Cattle Ranch near Fredericksburg, Iowa.  Her experience with her family's farm transition and her love of the Iowa landscape inspired her to help the next generation of farmers and landowners.


Learning Outcomes

1 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key changes:
  • The meeting feedback has generally been very positive, both in our post-event surveys with SWCD staff and at the events. Our challenges have been to attract conventional farmers. Most of the attendees are either interested or engaged in regenerative agriculture. That said, we have been able to increase attendance at recent events including producers and landowners not practicing regenerative ag.

  • One of the most impressive outcomes has been the eagerness of the attendees, in particular women, in the questions and table discussions during these events. Our surveys have indicated interest and our attendance in general has been more robust where we have events focused on women landowners. This has given us value background information in maturing a three-year pilot project in cohorts among the top agriculture counties in Minnesota. That pilot is intended to demonstrate the value of group problem solving, group success sharing as well as enduring change. We are reviewing revisions in our event programming in ways that will create increasing interest in actualizing the pilot. We believe that the applied research during the three-year pilot has great potential to accelerate enduring change.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

While we are too early in implementation to identify accomplishments, our project will lead to future success stories. 

  • Promoting leases that encourage/enable regenerative agriculture encourages economic viability for both farmers and landowners.
  • Regenerative agricultural practices increase farmer economic resilience by improving water storage, infiltration, and soil health. These practices also reduce erosion, protecting the landowner’s assets. By reducing leaching and runoff, regenerative agricultural practices lead to more economically viable communities with more vibrant tourism and a reduced need for costly water treatment facilities.
  • Our program will be socially sustainable through building ongoing community among and between farmers and landowners.
  • By increasing the adoption of regenerative agricultural practices among the largest group of farmers in the region, we will reduce sediment loading and nutrient transport to the Minnesota River. Water storage is a compelling need.  Most of the opportunity is found on private farm land. Transforming food production systems in ways that embrace cover crops are among our greatest opportunity to store water.  This enhances watershed stability and provides drought protection.  Cleaner waters make for better habitat for aquatic life.
  • We estimate that 46,875 acres will be converted to regenerative practices. This will lead to to a reduction of 192,188 tons per year of erosion at a valued at $2,071,875 in nutrient loss. Specifically, we estimate a reduction of 548,438 pounds of nitrogen and 2,475,000 pounds of phosphorus.
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.