Landowners and farm operators work together for soil health
Buy and plant cover crop seed. Install edge-of-field structures like bioreactors or saturated buffers. Switch to minimal tillage to improve soil aggregate stability. Implementing new soil health practices like these can get complicated when it involves the needs of both the landowner and farm operator. Yet both can benefit.
“Not every farmer has the luxury of a long-term lease with a landowner, so there is a lot more economic uncertainty if he looks year by year at the business to maintain a livelihood,” says Morgan Troendle, farm manager with Hertz Farm Management.
According to the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, it can take three or more years for cover crops to pay off without incentive programs and in average annual weather conditions.
A landowner will benefit from soil health practices over time and so will the generation following him. Troendle says landowners and operators who work as a team have a much better chance of seeing positive changes to the land in the short-term.
“If the landowner can take on some of the risk with the operator – for example, to help pay for changes in practices or to write a lease where both parties benefit – then the dynamic between the two changes,” he says. “It often helps the farmer implement new practices more effectively.”
Troendle has helped landowner clients fulfill the vision for their land in a variety of scenarios: taking leadership of the farm on behalf of the owner, creating plans for owners with a passion for the farm but a lack of operating knowledge, and stepping in to improve practices for profitability.
“In our landowner survey, conservation is always one of the three top priorities,” says Troendle. Favorable economic outcomes and maintaining a legacy or preserving the land for future generations occupy the other two priorities.
With direction from a landowner, farm managers
can work with renters to build a cropping system that works for everyone.
“In some cases, a landowner may ask for a practice the farmer isn’t comfortable with because he may not have experience with it. In that case, we can share examples of how it’s been successful elsewhere and create a strategy that works for all parties to try it out,” says Troendle.
A successful partnership
Tyler Carlson, who farms for Jerry Nelson in Clayton County, Iowa, has seen the benefit from a collaborative relationship. Nelson and Clint Kaller, a Hertz farm manager, regularly communicate on their shared goals and best management practices.
“We do a crop share, which shows me Jerry is invested and truly cares,” Carlson says. “I’m motivated to put the time and energy into soil health practices because of it. It saves us both money in the long term.”
Nelson’s farm has been in his family since the early 1860s. After his great-grandfather fought and died in the Civil War, his great-grandmother bought the first 40 acres to farm and raise their three children.
“I’m not a farmer and I’m not unique in that situation,” Nelson says. “However, I’ve been around the farm all of my life and remember how practices long ago didn’t help erosion and water runoff from the fields.”
Nelson is passionate about preserving the environment and maintaining the longevity of the farm.
“When I first met with Hertz in 2016, I had two very high-level goals,” he says. “The first was to be aware of and included in the operation of the farm. But I also made it clear that equally important to me was that I was in it for the long term. I have strong environmental conservation values, and Tyler and Clint have come through for me.”
Soil health on the farm
In 2016, Kaller helped the farm witch from corn-on-corn to a corn-soybean rotation and hired Carlson as the operator. They have also been working together to build organic matter by introducing cover crops on more than 100 acres. It is a long-term investment, and they’ve planted covers slowly in order to fit the current cropping system and still ensure a good yield.
They have already seen the benefits. Kaller says the cover crop residue helps maintain optimal soil temperature throughout the year, and Carlson could get away with one herbicide pass across the fields because the cereal rye helped weed suppression.
“The previous tenant on the farm was also doing full tillage,” Kaller says. “When we hired Carlson, we started with no-till to keep that precious topsoil in place.”
Carlson uses nitrogen stabilizers to keep nutrients in the fields and do variable-rate seeding and variable-rate applications of fertilizer. Permanent vegetation is in place around waterways to help prevent nutrients from washing into the surface water.
Advice for you
Carlson recommends keeping in touch with your landowner. If you can frame a concern, like a weed issue, with a solution, like planting a small section of cover crops, and advocate to work together, you may be surprised at the willingness to experiment.
Kaller says a long-term approach is the best way to move forward. Use data to prove how the soil has changed over time and what financial benefits you’ve seen.
The problems you encounter in the soil are caused by years of intensive farming practices founded upon short-term results. To build back the soil’s health, start with long-term care, commitment, and partnership with the people who are invested in your success.