This week I'm turning the Extension Line over to J. Gordon Arbuckle Jr., Iowa State University Extension Sociologist, to present information concerning the impact of rented farmland on Iowa.
More than half of Iowa's farmland is owned by people who do not farm it, and the further they live from the land, the less involved they are in its management, according to data from the 2009 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll. This has implications regarding who makes decisions about Iowa land, farm operators' ability to earn a living through farming and whether the land is well cared for or exploited.
Farmland owners ultimately are responsible for decisions about who farms their land and how it's farmed. Their decisions regarding who has access to that land and how it is farmed can influence the social, economic and environmental outcomes of family farming.
"Access to land, whether through ownership or leasing arrangements, is critical to success in farming," Arbuckle said. "This is an important way that agriculture differs from other sectors. For example, manufacturers can get the raw materials they need for production from around the world, and they can often substitute materials for one another in times of relative scarcity. But in agriculture, there's only so much farmland available in a given area. If farmers don't have access to sufficient land within a certain distance of their homes, they can't farm. Having secure access to enough acreage to make a living, or at least contribute to household income, is key to success in farming."
Arbuckle's research shows that on the whole, Iowa's farmers feel that their relationships with their landlords are secure. Farmers have been leasing from the same landlords for 18 years on average, and 78 percent believe that their landlords are committed to their continuation as tenants. Tenants communicate with their landlords about farming about eight times a year.
Relationships appear to deteriorate with distance, however. The ISU Extension survey found that nearly half of Iowa non-operator landowners live outside of the county where their land is located, and 21 percent live out of state. Landlord communication about farming and conservation, commitment to relationships with tenants and perceived land stewardship ethics all decline the further away a landlord lives. Most Iowa farm landlords are former farmers or spouses of former farmers, and they tend to live in the county where there farmland is located. Heirs of farm estates, on the other hand, tend to live out of state. As more former farmers pass their farms on to heirs, the average distance between landlords and their land is likely to increase, and any related impacts will likely intensify too.
Land ownership also can play a role in determining the environmental impact of farming. Research has consistently shown that implementation of conservation practices -- especially those that require major changes to the land and have longer-term benefit horizons such as terraces and riparian buffers -- is positively related to ownership.
"Because such a high proportion of Iowa farmland is rented, we need to think about strategies to reach out to non-operator landowners and help them to ensure that their land has adequate conservation measures in place," Arbuckle said.