Landowners Have Untapped Power in Protecting Soil and Water

IAWA Sunset
  • More than 50% of farmland in Iowa is rented
  • Landowners can require conservation practices in leases
  • Retired farmers and non-farming heirs can have a big impact on soil and water

Tim Smith spent his career growing corn and soybeans on the family farm near Eagle Grove. Through the decades, he was passionate about taking care of the soil, and he also liked to demonstrate that row crops and conservation practices can flourish in the same field.

Then in 2020, he retired.

Though his daily duties on the farm came to an end, his conservation practices did not. Smith decided to do what few non-operator landlords in Iowa consider: require the tenants to continue the conservation practices.

“I told my tenants, ‘I’ve done all the hard work. All you have to do is keep doing it,’” he said from his current home in Minnesota.

While still farming, Smith seeded 400 acres of cover crops, planted prairie strips and practiced no-till farming in the fields. And, due to the terms of their lease, his tenants continue to do the same.

Smith’s lease agreement highlights a key opportunity for non-operator landlords. It is a template that could significantly broaden the conservation practices essential to Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which aims to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus losses into the water.

More than half of Iowa farm ground is rented, and the figure is close to 70% in the fertile north-central and northwest parts of the state, according to the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

As more farmers retire or people inherit land they do not intend to farm themselves, lease agreements present an option to require conservation practices.

Neil Hamilton

A new lease on conservatism

The most recent Survey of Iowa Leasing Practices found that people over 65 years of age own 60% of the land. Nearly half of all rented land is owned by people over 75, indicating more ownership changes in the coming years.

“I was struck by how many people really don’t think about the power they have as the actual owners of the property,” said Neil Hamilton, the founder of the Agricultural Law Center at Drake University.

The professor emeritus recalls getting letters over the years from people who inherited land and were curious if they could have any say over the way it is farmed.

His response: Of course. You own the land!

“The landowners play a much more significant role in these decisions than perhaps we have recognized, and there are a number of people who need to get off the sidelines on conservation,” he said.

Many lease characteristics in Iowa reflect a different era. For example, almost half of all leases in the state are verbal contracts, according to a survey conducted by American Farmland Trust. Most leases are also year-to-year tenancies.

For a landowner to require conservation practices, the lease has to be in writing for the terms to be enforceable, according to Hamilton. The statute of frauds law requires any agreement dealing with land to be in writing, except for a lease of one year or less.

Lee T headshot Center for Rural Affairs small

Insuring your investment

Lee Tesdell, a fifth-generation landowner in northern Polk County, is a conservation proponent who would like to see non-operator landlords take an active role on their farms. His own farm is 80 acres, but he sees the immediate potential of landlords using their clout on millions of acres across the state.

“This is a multi-million-dollar piece of farmland that you own,” he said. “If you owned a business in Ankeny, Des Moines, or Ames, wouldn’t you want to have some input day-to-day how that place is run?”

As Smith reflects his own practices near Eagle Grove, he thinks the water quality solution is going to happen in the fields. And he wants other landlords to help expedite that effort.

“I would encourage farmers as they retire or landowners as they acquire land to make that decision,” he said. “It’s your land. You can have a say about the practices and have it farmed the way you want it farmed.”

To mark 10 years of Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, we are telling stories about Iowa farmers, the practices they employ and the programs that support them in the effort to protect the soil and improve water quality.