Bob and Kathy Leaman, a couple from Lancaster County, PA, wanted a private place to build their dream home. They ended up buying an 88-acre Amish farm dating back to the Civil War.
Both were adamant about keeping the land in farming. And they wanted the land to be productive without polluting the environment. “We wanted someone who really respected the land and alternated crops and who wasn’t all about ruining the land for profit,” Kathy said.
They signed a lease with Bob Shearer, who leases 320 acres of farmland in two counties. He practices no-till and contour farming, both of which reduce erosion and promote healthy soil. And, he reduces nutrient-laden runoff by using winter cover crops and planting vegetative strips along streams — “because it’s the right thing to do,” he said.
Unfortunately, this conservation-oriented pairing is not the norm across the United States. For a variety of reasons, pollution-prevention practices are less common on leased farmland than on owner-operated farms.
To address the shortcoming, two efforts are under way to encourage farm owners and tenant farmers in the Chesapeake Bay region to place more conservation practices on leased farmland, an understudied and critical demographic in “save the Bay” efforts.
The website, LandownerHelp.com, launched in June, is a joint project of the Pennsylvania Soil Heath Coalition, Stroud Water Research Center and other organizations — and focuses on encouraging landowners to embrace and support best management practices on their client farms.
Meanwhile, a coalition of organizations, including the American Farmland Trust, The Nature Conservancy and the Farm Journal’s Trust In Food partnership is working to provide information and resources to both landowners and tenant farmers.
That’s a lot of farmland
This is a big deal, advocates say, because an estimated 42% of the nation’s farmland is leased — a majority of it by owners who do not farm the land themselves and may not know about the importance of soil conservation and nutrient management.
In Bay watershed states, the rates of leased farmland are even higher. In Virginia, fully half of active agricultural land is leased. Forty-six percent is leased in Pennsylvania, 43% in Maryland and 37% in New York.
Those percentages are growing as economic conditions, chiefly falling commodity prices, make it more difficult for farmers to buy land. Leasing is an affordable alternative. Also, as small farm owner-operators retire or take jobs off the farm, or are forced out of business by vanishing profit margins, more farmland becomes available for lease.
Much of that land ends up in the hands of people with no background or family tradition in farming. In many cases, the owners may not be aware of the need for erosion control or nutrient management practices, and they are much less inclined to encourage them, particularly if there are significant costs attached.
Or it may be as simple as a landowner not liking the look of cover crops, preferring “clean” dirt fields free of unkempt-looking vegetation. Speaking at a recent webinar about conservation practices on leased farmland, Pennsylvania farmer and soil health advocate Steve Groff described a landowner who preferred dirt fields because “he just liked plowing.”
On the other side of the lease arrangement, a tenant farmer may be reluctant to invest in best management practices if he doesn’t have long-term leases or know who the next owner of the land will be. Furthermore, asking a landowner to share the costs of regenerative farming runs the risk of souring the relationship, perhaps to the point that the landowner revokes the lease and looks for a less “troublesome” farmer to work the land. And the more informal the lease agreement, the more likely that could happen.
There have been cases, observers say, when a tenant farmer has invested in soil health and slowly built up crop yields, only to have the owner lease the land to someone else for a higher price because of the increased productivity.
Tackling the problem
To date, efforts to promote conservation practices and soil health have been overwhelmingly aimed at the farmers who own their land. But bringing more conservation practices to the vast acreage of leased farmland has the potential to significantly reduce nutrient pollution and soil loss at a time when most Bay states are struggling to meet the agricultural portion of their 2025 Bay cleanup goals.
LandownerHelp.com was launched to help farmland owners forge better relationships with tenant farmers and give them incentives for using soil health and water-quality practices.
“We recognize in the Chesapeake Bay region that, if we are to fully achieve this goal, we need to adopt these [soil health] practices on as many acres as we can. The change has clearly been these rented acres,” said Lisa Blazure, soil health coordinator for Pennsylvania’s Stroud Water Research Center, one of the partner organizations behind the website. She is also active with the Pennsylvania Soil Health Coalition, another partner in the effort, along with the University of Maryland Agriculture Law Education Initiative and the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program.
“Rent confidently, for the good of the soil, for the good of your land,” reads the banner on the website’s landing page. “Handshakes are good. Deeper understandings are better,” reads a second banner, which introduces a three-point action plan for landowners: learning about soil conservation (soil health 101), learning how to talk to farmers (a conversation guide) and learning how to write a lease (a link to the University of Maryland’s Ag Leasing Guide).
Many farmland leases are arranged with merely a handshake or scribblings on a piece of paper. That’s a significant part of the problem, said Sarah Everhart of the University of Maryland’s agricultural law initiative.
“There can be a lot of generational trust,” Everhart said, “but we’ve seen time and time again that if there’s not a written lease giving the farmer assurance they will be here for at least a few years, there really is going to be a reduced likelihood that rental farmers will do conservation practices.”
Everhart and others note that it may take several years for improvements in soil health to pay for themselves in better yields and lower production costs, so farmers who aren’t confident that they’ll be working the land for years to come aren’t inclined to invest time, effort and money in best management practices. And, too often, farmers and landowners simply don’t talk to each other about such matters.
A different approach is being launched by another coalition, including The Nature Conservancy and American Farmland Trust. The goal of this as-yet-unnamed initiative is to work both sides of the street, educating farmers and landowners alike on the long-term benefits of conservation practices, how to share the rewards and risks, and where to find resources and financial aid.
“At least to The Nature Conservancy, our best avenue to increasing those [soil health] practices is in supporting the farmers to do that. It’s not the best approach just to try to force landowners to do something on their land,” said Amy Jacobs, the conservancy’s agriculture program director for Maryland and the DC area.
In addition to the conservancy, partners include the Farm Journal’s Trust In Food project, which claims to be one of the country’s largest public-private partnerships dedicated to conservation practices in agriculture. The conversation guides available at trustinfood.com are designed to empower farmers to talk to landowners.
American Farmland Trust is another partner, whose two-year survey of non-operator landowners found, among other things, that a weak farm economy and a feeling of overly restrictive government programs are the two largest roadblocks to more conservation on leased farmland.
“There’s been a limited amount of engagement with nonfarming landowners and a real potential to change the conversation with written leases to facilitate that shared risk and reward,” said Gabrielle Roesch-McNally of American Farmland Trust.
The trust conducted a two-year study of agricultural landowners in 13 states, including Pennsylvania and Virginia, to learn how nonfarming landowners feel about their land.
In Virginia, the survey found, 64% of lease agreements were purely verbal — not the long-term written agreements groups say are needed to encourage soil health practices. But most landowners said they were willing to make changes in the lease and were interested in learning more about soil health and conservation.
In Pennsylvania, 79% of the owners of leased farmland had helped their parents farm. Just as in Virginia, 64% of the respondents said they had informal verbal agreements with tenant farmers — though many have rented to the same farmer about 10 years, which is seen as a good sign.
Also part of the effort is the Harry R. Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology, which is preparing an agricultural leasing guide and has recorded workshops and webinars on its website to give farmers and landowners tools to overcome the challenges of adopting conservation practices on leased land.
The University of Maryland’s agriculture law initiative is involved in both projects and offers related workshops throughout Maryland.
“There’s a lot of potential there, but there’s been an information gap,” said Roesch-McNally. “I see it as a need to educate both [landowners and tenants] to see a win-win there.”
- Guidance for landowners can be found at LandownerHelp.com.
- Guidance for tenant farmers can be found at trustinfood.com; or visit the farmland sustainability page on The Nature Conservancy website.
- For lease-writing advice and templates, visit the Farmland Information Center page of the American Farmland Trust. You can also visit the University of Maryland Agricultural Conservation Leasing page or access its Agricultural Conservation Leasing Guide.