Conservation Leases

Using Leases to Reflect Your Farm Stewardship Values

With a single phrase, we can put conservation to work on rented land. And that would have a major impact from a landscape point of view: more than half the crops in Minnesota and Iowa alone are produced on rented acres, and every one of them could be saving soil, water, habitat and money with some mutually agreed statements set down between landowner and tenant. Be it cropland or pasture, woodland or river front, everyone who owns or works land can have a hand in making it better.

ImageGiven our mission of land, farm and community stewardship in light of a better understanding of land tenancy, Land Stewardship Project is working with the particular subset of people who rent land, whether as owner or tenant. Several themes present themselves; we try to address them on this page.

Principle among them is the gap between a land ethic, and a land ethic at work on rented farmland. Some of this is explained by shifts in land ownership combined with social expectations of long-standing, usually verbal, agreements. There is no changing who owns land, but getting those handshake deals down on paper creates an opportunity to include conservation.

The resources below take on the details of a written lease that reflect at least some of the stewardship values of both landowner and tenant. If you haven't gotten to that point of shared values, we've assembled a "Stewardship Values Checklist" to get you started. And for you who own land but do not use the language of farming, we have matched certain farm aspects (for example, tillage or chemicals) with practices that address them in a conservation-minded manner. These phrases are suitable for inserting in your lease.

As always, the most effective agreement is the one worked out equitably between owner and tenant. "Effective" in this case carries the features of a land ethic at work as well as the more typical needs related to production, finances and timing. A good lease really can be what's good for the land — with just a phrase or two.

Talking Conservation

For examples of farmland conservation practices and the words to describe them, check out this LSP fact sheet. It also contains a "Stewardship Values Checklist" for finishing the following statement: "What is important about my land to me…."

Other 'Conservation in Leases' Resources

The following organizations provide good information on leases in general as well as the particulars of leases with an emphasis on conservation/sustainable practices including managed grazing. The materials include sample leases, worksheets, and discussions that can change the way your land looks and behaves:

  • Frequently Asked Questions on Sustainable and Long Term Leases in Minnesota: This covers general leases with a strong emphasis on conservation-oriented terms, answering such questions as whether a landlord can require conservation practices and can a tenant enroll in conservation programs. This is a joint publication of the Land Stewardship Project and Farmers' Legal Action Group.
  • Landowner’s Guide to Sustainable Farm Leasing: A useful online and printable resource by Drake University Agricultural Law Center’s Sustainable Agriculture Land Tenure (SALT) Initiative. Select laws related to Minnesota land tenancy included.
  • Pasture Rental Arrangements for Your Farm: A publication for livestock owners and landowners with pasture to design "workable…and desirable leasing arrangements" based equitably on each others' needs. Such considerations as the cash and material contributions of each side, why to write it down, and how to set a good rate of payment can be found in linked chapters and worksheets.
  • Contract Grazing Factsheets: Included in this series of four by the Midwest Perennial Forage Working Group is one on "Pasture Rental and Lease Agreements." Also on this page is a link to sample leases specific to farmers and landowners with land and livestock to share. The MPFWG is part of the Green Lands Blue Waters Initiative; LSP is an active participant.
  • The Rent You Receive Is More Than Just Money: Scroll to the bottom of the Fillmore County Soil and Water Conservation District home page for a sampling of conservation practices and a sample lease.
  • Tips for Farm Leases and Contracts: Creating Smart, Effective Documents: A succinct two-pager highlighting the considerations, useful tips and key questions you should ask yourself before signing a contract, plus the elements of a good lease.
  • Ag Lease 101: Designed to guide "both landowners and land operators toward informed and equitable decisions" by a team of economists and attorneys from Midwestern states collaborating on the North Central Farm Management Extension Committee. This resource addresses cropped and pastured acres, as well as buildings in cash and crop share situations.
  • Cropland Rental Rates for Minnesota Counties and Iowa Farmland Rental Rates 1994-2015 (USDA): These are sources for crop (and pasture in Iowa) rental rates based on limited surveys and on a county-wide basis at best. Also useful is word-of-mouth, neighbors, and your own balance of financial needs and land ethic in practice.