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A Challenge to Iowa Farm Conservation: Absentee Landowners

PHOTO: With a majority of farmland in Iowa now being farmed by someone who doesn't own the land, efforts are under way to better connect the farmer tenants and landowners on conservation practices that can help with water quality and soil health. Photo credit: Carl Wycoff/Flickr.
PHOTO: With a majority of farmland in Iowa now being farmed by someone who doesn't own the land, efforts are under way to better connect the farmer tenants and landowners on conservation practices that can help with water quality and soil health. Photo credit: Carl Wycoff/Flickr.
April 20, 2015

WATERLOO, Iowa – As Iowa continues to look for ways to improve water quality and reduce erosion with some 30 million acres of farmland in the state, one growing challenge is the number of absentee landowners.

Clark Porter, who manages Porter Family Farms in Waterloo, says more than half of farmland in Iowa is now farmed by someone other than the owner, and owners need to better connect with their tenant farmers on conservation practices.

"Whether it's for healthy soil and conservation of soil and clean water and various other environmental goals,” he states. “So I think that's the challenge or the opportunity – really, it's the same thing – is to develop this partnership between the landowner and the farmer."

Clark points out more than 16 million acres of Iowa farmland is rented out and a significant number of those landowners have either never farmed, live out of state or rarely visit their land.

Clark says while the landowners must be more actively engaged, the tenant farmers also must be vocal in wanting to establish sustainable farming practices such as waterways and cover crops, which when planted can help reduce nitrate loss by as much as 60 percent.

Clark notes that the conversation can be tricky, because of any possible associated costs and must be handled with diplomacy.

"A tenant farmer may not be in the best position to bring it up because they're already financially at risk when they're renting the land,” he points out. “There's a heavy amount of competition to rent and hold land among tenant farmers and a thin margin on which they're operating. And to bring up anything that might be potentially uncomfortable or whatever with a landowner, it could be a delicate situation."

Porter says for tenant farmers and landowners who want to begin the conversation on lease agreements that support sustainable practices, there are helpful resources available from organizations such as the Drake Law School, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Practical Farmers of Iowa.

John Michaelson, Public News Service - IA