Consider what’s important for your farm before signing lease

SPOKANE — When it comes to leasing farmland, experienced farmers say it’s important that the ground meet as many of their needs as possible.

Several farmers spoke during a panel about helping farmers and landowners connect at the Tilth Alliance conference Nov. 10 in Spokane.

Some of the top items they consider are access to water, housing availability/proximity, soil, cropping history and market access.

“Water access is a tough one,” said Julie Kintzi, Enumclaw, Wash. farmer. “Land may not have water rights any more, may not have a well, it may just be city water, (but) the question still needs to be asked.”

“Soil is working on a long game, and we’re only here for a short time,” said College Place, Wash., farmer Chandler Briggs. “My approach has been, don’t mess with soil that isn’t good.”

“Find out what your non-negotiables are first,” said Amy Moreno-Sills, Puyallup, Wash., farmer and PCC Farmland Trust farm to farmer coordinator. She needed water rights and a Pierce County location.

Moreno-Sills is in the process of improving soil fertility on the leased ground.

“We couldn’t get a radish to bulb at all — it’s like the easiest thing, ever — so we went into quite a bit of personal debt that first year because once you get all the crops in the ground and realize nothing’s going to grow, you’re already in it,” she said. “In the off-season, we’ve been applying as much compost and dairy manure that our pocketbooks will allow us to buy.”

Moreno-Sills uses a custom-blend organic fertilizer, which she calls “vegetable crack,” because it’s the only thing that lets her crops grow, she said.

Things are slowly improving after two to three years, Moreno-Sills said. She expects at least seven years before the land is recovered to the point the custom fertilizer isn’t necessary.

Briggs works on leased ground. His leases are up every two years.

“I have been a farmer seeking land, and I still am a farmer seeking land to own,” he said.

Briggs said he keeps his equipment as mobile as possible, the better to move on to a new location.

Jim Baird of Ephrata, Wash., renews a three-year lease each year. If the landowner or farmer decides to end the lease, they still have two more years before the agreement ends, he said.

Good communication between landowner and farmer is critical, the panelists say. They recommend determining early which payments, improvements or repairs belong to the landowner and to the farmer.

“You’ve got to move into the uncomfortable now, so it’s not way more uncomfortable later,” Briggs said.

Kintzi recommends a formal agreement for both the farmers and landowner’s protection.

Kintzi is also the coordinator for FarmLink, which is in the process of launching an improved, simplified website in the next month to connect farmers seeking land with landowners.

Kintzi estimates the search ratio is eight farmers for one piece of land.

“There are just a lot more farmers looking for land,” she said. “It takes more effort, hand holding and education to bring farmland owners onto this site to get them to post an ad.”