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. With a mission of land, farm and community stewardship ever at the front, the Land Stewardship Project is working with this particular subset of people who rent land, be it as owner or tenant.
Where I work in southeastern Minnesota’s Root River watershed, LSP has created resources for anyone striving to get their conservation priorities reflected in actual practices on leased land. Most recently, LSP presented on the topic at the “Land Ethic at Work” workshop near Lanesboro, Minn., in April. LSP staff with the Chippewa 10% Project in western Minnesota, the Women Caring for the Land initiative, and Farm Beginnings are also paying attention to the issue of conservation on leased land.
Talk of a formal lease agreement can raise eyebrows and a wary “oh boy” from landowners and tenants, usually because there isn’t a written lease in place so much as a verbal understanding. Sometimes there is a formal statement but no one has signed it, and often it’s hard to tell who’s boss: the landowner or the tenant. A common feature of these landowner/tenant relationships is, “Yes, but…”
“… the guy plows right through my waterways but he takes good care of my driveway in winter.”
“… I don’t pay the best but I do keep an eye on their elderly mother.”
“… he’s been with our family since my husband and I bought this place, but I’d like to help my young neighbor now.”
Fair enough. But if there are goals for the land that include values beyond yield, then a rental agreement is a good place to carve out a “Yes, and…” relationship. Conservation practices and neighborly perks can co-exist; a lease by any name ought to reflect what’s important about the land and who’s to do what about it, snow plowing and all.
Admittedly, fitting conservation language into a rental agreement can be daunting. It requires some knowledge of farm practices, and it helps to offer a degree of sensitivity to the social ramifications of stepping out beyond the usual terms. Especially in light of the statistical increase in the number of women landowners who do not themselves farm their land (called non-operating landowners), LSP has begun compiling a list of farm management practices and sample phrases to go with them. These phrases have not been vetted for legal strength — rather, they reflect a land ethic at work in straightforward statements meant to be understood by all parties. See “Talking Conservation” for examples of some of these statements.
Sample leases, actual conservation practices, ideas for fair work/rent splits, and reasons to write these down in the first place can be found in one place on LSP’s “Conservation in Leases” list. One key resource is, “Frequently Asked Questions on Sustainable and Long Term Leases in Minnesota,” a joint publication of LSP and the Farmers’ Legal Action Group.
As innovative landowners and tenants are discovering, there is no single way to share land in an equitable fashion. Clarifying values, finding the words, and getting them written down require that all parties pay attention to each other. Our experience suggests these additional practices to help a conservation lease stick:
• Let your shared values pave the way.
• Sign a lease that is longer than a year so that changes have time to work.
• Share the costs: cover crop seed, fencing, equipment rental, livestock transportation and other material necessities should be everyone’s risk.
• Set a rental rate that acknowledges the financial and social risks of new practices.
• Look for cost share programs through the government and private organizations: sources include the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the National Wildlife Federation, and the Xerces Society.
• Check in: with the work and with each other.
LSP organizer Caroline van Schaik is based in Lewiston, Minn., and works in the Root River watershed. She can be contacted at 507-523-3366 or firstname.lastname@example.org.