By Drew Slattery

Relationship Health is Soil Health

January 1, 2020

Most farmland in America is rented – to drive regenerative goals let’s make sure the landowner-tenant relationship is healthy.

It is estimated that 62% of Midwest farmland – up to 80% in certain counties – is rented by tenant farm operators from non-operating landowners (NOLs). Put another way, more than half of the crop acres across the most intensively cultivated region of our nation are rentals. Absentee owners, themselves removed from modern agriculture, are partnering with tenant operators who often have no guarantee of continued access to the land they farm each season. This dynamic can either be a limiting factor or a catalyst for progress in regards to regenerative, soil health practices.

Relationship Woes

Often, farmers who rent land are hesitant to invest in soil health practices that can take years to pay off given that they have no guarantee they will be able to farm that land into the future. Those tenant-operators who do implement soil health practices can even see their land swept out from under them unexpectedly, as another rental operator offers the landowner higher rent-per-acre just so they can benefit from the soil health practices. In other cases, landowners who are unaware of soil health practices don’t want to see their land looking “messy” with cover crops and no till, so they pressure the farmer to avoid those practices. Compounding all of this is the power dynamics inherent with a rental relationship as well as the fact that most leases are cash-rent and informal handshake agreements.

A Relationship that Grows

However, when a landowner and a tenant-operator that farms their land collaborate closely around soil health and share the risks, it unlocks a much more regenerative and sustainable way of farming. Landowners like Joe Hickman and farmers like Trey Hill are collaborating to immense benefit – for both the land and the business relationship.

Conversation is the Key

Healthy communication is critical for any relationship to thrive. The landowner / farmer relationship is no different.

To foster a healthy, collaborative relationship – Trust In Food and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) partnered to create a series of “Conservation Conversation Guides” designed to empower farmers to talk to their landowners. The guides provide farmers with key questions and thought-starters they can use to start conversations with their landowners around collaborating on conservation and sharing the risk. They also include resources and proof points for the farmers to use to help back up their claims.

Ensuring that both parties in the rental relationship are equipped with the understanding, resources, and motivation they need to engage their counterpart in meaningful ways is an important step in ensuring these relationships remain healthy and collaborative.

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