Plenty of farmers want to reduce erosion and runoff on the land they work, but that’s not so simple when someone else owns the land.
Some 43% of farmland is leased in Maryland, where the Chesapeake Bay cleanup has made conservation a pressing issue.
“It’s really important that conservation practices be considered and implemented on these lands because they do play such a significant role,” said Nancy Nunn, assistant director of the Harry R. Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology at the University of Maryland.
Getting conservation practices on rented land comes down to the provisions in the lease, Nunn said Nov. 3 during the Chesapeake Watershed Forum presented by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.
The lease can set a standard for the farming that will be done, addressing specific practices such as reduced tillage, no-till and riparian buffers. A conservation plan can even be attached to the lease, said Sarah Everhart, senior legal specialist at the University of Maryland Agriculture Law Education Initiative.
The farmer will want to make sure the landowner is on the same page about the meaning of those farming terms and practices. Even NRCS, the shorthand for USDA’s conservation agency, may be unfamiliar to nonfarming landowners, Nunn said.
When the question of conservation practices comes up, the landowner should start by defining their goals for the property. The owner may want to maximize profit, keep the land in good shape for future generations, or make changes to benefit the environment, Nunn said.
Based on first-hand knowledge of the property, the farmer can contribute ideas for environmental improvements.
The lease should spell out what the landowner and farmer will contribute to the project and what each will get out of it, Nunn said. This includes whether one party or both will pay for the implementation, and who will receive any government payments for the work. If the farmer is expected to maintain a project such as a riparian buffer, that should be noted as well.
“If it matters, it should probably be in the lease,” Nunn said.
When negotiating over a parcel owned by multiple people — as when parents leave the farm to their children — the farmer should establish which of the owners is the spokesperson, Nunn said. Otherwise, miscommunication and disappointment could ensure.
Some government cost-share programs require that both parties share risk, so a crop-share lease may be useful instead of a fixed cash lease.
At the same time, the landowner should know that USDA payments can increase their tax obligations, Everhart said. It’s better to learn that ahead of time than get a surprise tax bill.
To compensate the farmer for maintenance costs, Everhart said, the landowner could provide a discount on the rent (not necessarily the popular choice with landlords), a share in the government payments, or a nonmonetary incentive such as an extended lease term.
One barrier to conservation work is the length of the lease. Farmers on one-year deals are often hesitant to invest in land they may or may not have come spring.
Everhart is working to change landowners’ thinking.
“If you move from a year-to-year to a four- or five-year lease, that farmer’s going to farm that land differently. They’re going to farm that land more like they do with their home farm,” she said. “And sometimes that really hadn’t occurred to landowners.”
A lease can provide the farmer with a measure of assurance even if the landowner plans to sell the farm at some point. The farmer could get a right of first offer or first refusal, Everhart said. An option to renew the lease after so many years is another alternative to a long term.
Though the parties may be afraid of upsetting an arrangement that is working well, they should revise the lease as warranted as the years go by.
“It only is going to be helpful for both parties if it’s actually reflective of what’s going on on the farm,” Everhart said.
The University of Maryland has resources for conservation work on leased farmland at go.umd.edu/conservationleasing.