Farmers looking to update their résumés may soon be able to take credit for their conservation skills.
The trend toward more absentee, nonoperator landowners is carving a larger role for tenants. Iowa State University research indicates that 55% of absentee landowners rely solely on their farm operator to make conservation decisions.
A new initiative by Iowa Conservation Connect, a partnership of conservation agencies, has created a new certification program known as Certified Conservation Farmer. To date, 21 farmers have completed the program.
“Certification provides a way for farmland owners interested in protecting their investment to identify farmers who have matching goals and who want to lease more land,” says Tom Buman, Agren, Inc.
Candidates in a four-county Iowa pilot project were chosen based on an application and interview. Each participant completed 40 hours of classroom conservation education, as well as additional time outside of class. They also developed a conservation plan for a rental farm.
The pilot was funded by an NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant secured by Conservation Districts of Iowa. “The group includes both young farmers who see the certification as an opportunity to grow their skills and land base as well as older farmers interested in mentoring the younger audience,” Buman says.
David Ausberger, Jefferson, Iowa, is one of the new Certified Conservation Farmers. He began farming with his parents, Bob and Joyce, in 1992.
“In the past several years, we've started working with cover crops and compost to improve soil quality,” he says. “We've discovered that many conservation practices not only are good for the soil and the environment but also are good business practices. That's a win-win situation for landowners, us, and the environment.”
To maintain certification, Ausberger and other members of the pilot class will need to follow up with a few hours of annual continuing education.
“We had a few outdoor sessions; one was with an Iowa State biologist,” Ausberger says. “We learned about topography maps, how water flows through the districts, and how farming practices affect it. For us feet-on-the-ground farmers, it was advanced information that we probably wouldn't have picked up anywhere else.”
According to USDA ERS statistics, owner-operators enroll about 1.7 times more land (nationwide) than absentee landowners in the CRP and WRP.
Two findings from a 2010 Iowa State University study by J. Gordon Arbuckle also shed light on the increasing involvement of farm tenants in conservation decisions.
1. Nearly one operator out of every six does see the need for more conservation on the land he/she rents.
2. About one operator out of every eight feels soil and water conservation practices are inadequate on their landlord's land.