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Treat rented land like your own by starting the conversation

“If you’re not doing anything, they won’t notice, but if you are doing something and doing it really well, people will take notice.”

One of the hardest parts of a landowner/tenant relationships can be taking the time to sit down and learn one another’s expectations. Maybe you’ve been successful on negotiating rent, but how do you start a new conversation about controlling the erosion you’ve found? Trying new conservation practices and nitrogen management can end up being a huge ROI for both tenants and landlords, but it starts with a simple conversation.

“Twelve or 13 years ago I was out with a chisel plow and then that spring with a field cultivator and thought how absolutely sick I was of seeing these little valleys washed out,” said Lance Lillibridge, an eastern Iowa farmer. “I just thought there must be a better way of doing this.”

Lillibridge was part of a panel of speakers last week at the Iowa Power Farming Show in Des Moines, Iowa.

The panel spoke to a room full of farmers and agribusiness professionals and shared success stories of tenants working with their landlords to improve conservation and profitability on rented land. From acquiring another 500 acres of crop ground, moving back home to the family farm, to new government programs from the state’s department of agriculture, these panelists offer insights and solutions through their own experiences.

Making Changes on Your Own Land

Due to his frustrations, Lillibridge started strip-tilling and paying closer attention to nutrient management practices to reduce erosion on his owned land. Now enjoying better health of the soil tilth, a large earthworm population, and increased water infiltration, Lillibridge has minimized waterways on the farm enabling him to farm more acres.

He admitted that going from conventional tillage to strip-till/no-till was obvious in how much labor was saved, but it took more time to dial in the nutrient part. Over time, however, he saw 30% to 40% savings on input costs.

“When you look at the labor, the iron, the horsepower it takes, and you start eliminating those things, you can be so much more efficient, so much better at what you do. You have more time, not only to look at your crops and manage your business, but also to time to spend with your wife and your family.”

Another change Lillibridge made on his farm several years ago was a nitrogen watch. Using urea, ESN, and 32% anhydrous throughout the growing season, Lillibridge was able to track the soil profile and the way nitrogen reacted.

“We’ve got all kinds of data on nitrogen management that is really amazing to see going from one farm to another and seeing that change. I really encourage you to look at different ways of doing different things to make your farm better because staying the same will never work,” Lillibridge told the group of farmers.

Five years ago, Lillibridge was approached by a neighbor who was renting land and wanted to give up his rent to Lillibridge.

“I asked my neighbor, ‘Why me?’ and he replied, ‘Because of the way you’re doing things.’”

In the area of Iowa Lillibridge farms, he said there is private sector enthusiasm as to what farmers are doing. “If you’re not doing anything, they won’t notice, but if you are doing something and doing it really well, people will take notice.”

You Don’t Need to be an Expert

As the Iowa deputy secretary of agriculture and central Iowa farmer alongside her husband, Julie Kenney told the farmers you don’t need an expert to start the conversation with your landlord.

“One thing I hear a lot as I talk to farmers, is they know that there are a lot of conservation resources available, but they don’t always know where to start or who to start with,” said Kenney. “Find out from a neighbor who he or she worked with and what kind of experience they had.”

While serving as deputy secretary, Kenney farms with her husband in central Iowa. For them, being transparent with landlords is key in their success of trying new practices on rented land.

“Overall, it’s just a simple conversation of what’s important to your landowner, what’s important to you as a tenant and being able to both have some give-and-take on what’s finally decided.”

Starting the Conversation

One tool Keaton Krueger, a central Iowa farmer and senior agricultural digital technology manager at Land O’ Lakes, uses on his farm is the Truterra Insights Engine launched by Land O’ Lakes Sustain in 2018. The platform essentially allows farmers to benchmark how sustainable a farm is and measure the farm’s productivity.

“When you take this platform and show the results to your landlords, and show that if I make this change, this score goes up and here’s the potential for how it could impact our long-term profitability,” said Krueger.

Lillibridge sees his farm as his family’s retirement.

“I want to make sure that my retirement is in the best shape as it can possibly be to get me through the rest of my life. I tell my landlord that farm is your retirement and I want to take care of that for you,” he said. “I want to be the one that you can say did a really nice job of taking care of this ground.”

Krueger added that even though there are many different relationships between landowners and tenants, just being transparent and open with neighbors in conversations is key to a successful partnership.

Be Open to New Things

Lillibridge was the first to jump on a question from the audience on what other practices or opportunities panel members will be adding to their farms.

“We’d like to try some new types of seeds, cover crops that would be beneficial for cattle, and new things with sequestering nitrogen and holding that in the soil more,” said Lillibridge. “All these types of things are not only attractive to private entities, but also to the landlord because now we can say they’re part of this, too, and taking care of their retirement.”

When Kenney’s husband was discussing what to do with a continuous wet spot in a field, she presented the idea of putting in a water quality wetland. Although she said they are in the very early stages, her husband is open to the new idea. They are looking to find the right people so they can ask the right questions.

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