Landowners in Washington are more OK with the farmers renting their property making conservation efforts than previously thought, the American Farmland Trust says.
The organization, which is devoted to protecting agricultural lands, farmers and sound environmental practices recently released the results of its survey of Washington landowners.
The organization surveyed 306 non-operating landowners in the state.
“If (farmers) are thinking about conservation, especially around soil health, improving water quality or wildlife habitat, they may have presumed that their landowner is not supportive,” said Gabrielle Roesch-McNally, director of the organization’s Women for the Land program. “Our results suggest they should work and talk with their landlord about flexibility they have in supporting them to adopt conservation practices. We think they’ll be pleasantly surprised.”
According to the survey results, 75% of landowners generally rent or lease land to family, friends or a neighbor, and 92% say they trust their farmer to make good conservation decisions.
Concerns that conservation practices would devalue the farmland or receive disapproval from neighbors were actually the least likely barriers to conservation on landowners’ rented land, according to the survey.
Roesch-McNally called the idea that non-operating landowners don’t care about conservation and wouldn’t support their renters a “myth.”
“At least from the landowner perspective, they’re not as concerned about that,” she said.
The biggest limiting factors were a weak farm economy and the renter’s ability to afford conservation efforts, the survey found. Roughly 27% and 22% of respondents listed these factors, Roesch-McNally said.
Non-operating landowners own roughly 39% of land in the West, higher in some states, she said. Non-operating landowners own roughly 80% of rented land, according to the organization.
“We have a decent understanding of landowners who farm their land and farmers who farm their own land and rented land,” Roesch-McNally said.
USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service provides consistent data over time, she said.
“But we recognize that there’s a lot we don’t actually understand about these non-operating landowners.”
Respondents were asked to consider a series of attributes that are somewhat or very important to them when evaluating a current or potential renter.
Trustworthiness is the top quality landowners are looking for when renting their land, cited as “somewhat” or “very” important 99% of the time. The other top five operator characteristics were “They care about my land,” cited by 98%; “They are financially responsible,” cited by 97%; “ability to maintain soil productivity” and “reputation as a good farmer,” both cited by 96% ;and “ability to avoid soil erosion,” by 92%.
But Roesch-McNally pointed to a relative lack of awareness about or access to information to help with conservation efforts.
“I think there’s kind of a gap between the technical assistance we provide to farmers, but we don’t always reach out to landowners,” she said.
Roughly 17% to 33% of survey respondents are interested in access to education materials.
“They’re supportive, but they may not be as interested in formal support,” Roesch-McNally said. “To me, I take that as suggesting that our ag adviser communities shouldn’t forget the landowner audience and do some targeted outreach, so they’re aware of some of the programs that could benefit their land and their farmers.”
Most landowners speak with their farmer a couple times a year, she said.
“Often people have long-standing relationships and annually-renewed leases, folks have been working with the same renter for a while, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re communicating with each other all the time, especially about things around conservation,” she said.
Women non-operating landowners are more likely to experience a breakdown in communication with their renting farmer, she said.
Many women have been disproportionately left out of mainstream agricultural conversations and may feel less empowered or supported, and don’t feel as confident in discussions with their renter, she said.
The Land for Women program works to help them gain the expertise and gain confidence to discuss conservation and other topics with their renting farmers, Roesch-McNally said.
American Farmland Trust plans to implement the program in the Northwest in 2020.
The organization surveyed 11 states across the country – Washington, California, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas.
Full survey results are slated to be released this winter, including analyses of gender and agricultural experience. The information will inform American Farmland Trust’s outreach and programming to help boost conversations between landowners and renting farmers, Roesch-McNally said.
“There’s an opportunity to improve the way people are talking to each other about their goals for their land,” she said.