Conservation Success Requires Working Farm Partnerships

Environmental Stewardship Benefits Landlords and Tenants

conservation success requires working farm partnershipsIllinois has one of the highest proportions of rented farmland in the country. Illinois also is one of the top states with excessive levels of nutrient runoff headed to the Gulf of Mexico.

That presents an opportunity for Illinois farmers – an opportunity to work with their non-operating landowners to improve conservation practices on rented acres and enhance the state’s overall environmental stewardship through more effective landlord-tenant partnerships.

According to USDA’s Tenure, Ownership and Transition of U.S. Ag Land survey from 2014, 47 percent of Midwest farmland is rented. In certain counties, more than 80 percent of farmland is rented. In Illinois, half of all farmland is owned by a non-operating landowner. To achieve watershed and landscape conservation objectives, such as those in the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy (NLRS) in Illinois, requires improved conservation outcomes on rented farmland.

“Healthy soils are crucial for maintaining clean water supplies and creating resilience to extreme weather events, “says Megan Baskerville, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) ag program director in Illinois. “When farmers work with landowners on conservation agriculture, they’re investing in the long-term viability of that land, but also helping to ensure clean water beyond the farm.”

The Illinois Soybean Association (ISA) encourages the state’s farmers to take necessary steps to work with their landlords and participate in this process. “There is a disconnect between farmers and landowners who are generations removed from the farm, and ISA can serve as a liaison for sharing tips to enhance that stewardship partnership,” says David Wessel, ISA Production and Outreach Committee chairman and soybean farmer from Chandlerville, Illinois. “Sustainable production adds value to the land, increases profitability potential and helps the environment.”

Landowners: A Willing Audience

Illinois farmers should not hesitate to talk with non-operating landowners about conservation. Surveys find landlords want to hear from their tenants about conservation issues.

Results from an American Farmland Trust study show these landowners broadly value conservation and soil health, with 96 percent agreeing or strongly agreeing that they consider soil quality when making land management decisions. Ability to avoid erosion, prevent contaminating waterways and maintain soil productivity were among preferred attributes that landowners value in a farm operator, more than amount of rent a farmer will pay and whether they like the farmer.  

Other findings include:

  • Landowners do not perceive significant barriers to additional conservation practices.
  • They do not perceive social barriers, such as upsetting family members, neighbors or the farmer, by discussing conservation. However, about half of respondents say enough soil and water conservation practices have already been implemented on their rented property.
  • Bottom line, results suggest when given an “Easy Button” by their farmers to sustain or implement soil health benefiting practices, many are willing to make such changes.

Start Talking Conservation with Landowners

For farmers who need a place to start the conversation, below are some of the talking points TNC recommends in sharing potential benefits of conservation with non-operating landowners:

  • Enrich the land. Landowners and tenants win and nature thrives with conservation.
  • Protect the investment. Soil health practices like reduced tillage and cover crop use can reduce erosion and soil loss, ensuring land remains productive and does not lose value.
  • Obtain incentives. Improve access to public and private cost-share and other incentives when landowners partner with tenants on new conservation activities.
  • Build a legacy. Land can remain productive and protected for future generations when landowners empower tenants through co-investment in conservation activities.
  • Improve resilience. Farmers are better equipped to handle extreme weather and market disruptions when tenants and landowners jointly commit to conservation practices.

Discuss Established Stewardship Practices

While non-operating landowners may be familiar with some conservation tactics, they may need to be more informed about others. Here are some starting points to spark that discussion:

  • The Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy is an active state strategy for improving water quality by reducing the nutrient load from point and non-point sources that flow to the Gulf of Mexico from Illinois. Farmers can help reduce nitrogen and phosphorus levels in rivers and streams through voluntary in-field and edge-of-field practices.  
  • In-field practices are soil health and nutrient management practices. Reduced tillage decreases soil disturbance and improves the soil’s ability to retain nutrients and sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Planting cover crops maximizes the time living roots are building soil nutrients and keeping the soil surface protected. Diverse crop rotations build nutrients, limit erosion and foster soil carbon sequestration, while fertilizer application timing can help reduce nutrient loss into water.
  • Edge-of-field practices mitigate nutrient loss right before water leaves the field, either on the surface with stream buffers and field borders, or by treating sub-surface tile water with bioreactors, constructed wetlands and saturated buffers.

Ask for a Multi-Year Agreement

Many farmers operate on annual rental leases, but multi-year agreements have benefits as well.

“The benefits of soil health practices take multiple years before realized,” says Baskerville. “Annual leases, even if renewed over multiple years, provide no assurances the farmer will still have access to the land when expected benefits of conservation are realized. A multi-year agreement with annual rent and term modifications removes the barriers.”

Other multi-year lease agreement advantages include:

  • Unlocking guaranteed access to the land, which enables tenants to adopt and steward practices consistently over time.
  • Providing security and peace of mind for landowners and tenants alike during uncertain market conditions and unexpected weather swings.
  • Ensuring long-term stewardship and preventing potentially disruptive planting seasons.
  • Opportunity to add cost-sharing lease addendums that can provide potential tax benefits for landowners and put tenants on stronger footing with lenders.

“Help your landowner understand the challenges you face in improving the health of their soil. By working collaboratively on conservation farming practices through long-term and consistent investment, you can identify solutions that will benefit you both,” says Baskerville.

Provide ROI Proof for Conservation Practices  

Maximizing return on investment using conservation practices can be a reality. The Illinois Corn Growers Association has established a Precision Conservation Management (PCM) program to help farmers understand and manage risks associated with adopting new conservation practices. The objective is to assist with making sound financial decisions.

“This unique program evaluates conservation practices on both their impact to the environment and their impact to family farmer profitability,” says Megan Dwyer, nutrient loss reduction manager for the Illinois Corn Growers Association. “It uses whole field data to assess financial and environmental outcomes associated with adopting conservation practices.”

PCM's extensive database of actual farm results reveals how specific practices are good for Illinois soil and water. For example, no-till is the most common tillage practice for the highest profit soybean fields. Details about all practices can be found in the resources section below.

“Because PCM was created by farmers for farmers and takes a hard nose financial look at the return on investment of conservation practice adoption, it is a great tool to help farmers engage not only with their landlords but also ag lenders. They can show how conservation practices can make farmland more profitable and improve resources for the future,” she says.

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Learn More from These Conservation Partnership Resources

  • University of Illinois Agricultural Law lease addendums guide farmers through the multiple different ways conservation can be added to the farm/lease at
    • Nutrient Management Addendum walks through the importance of conserving water quality and reducing nutrient losses, nutrient application and costs.
    • Soil Health and Conservation Addendum tackles environmental requirements, NRCS guidelines, practices, structures and rent adjustments.
    • Conservation Habitat Addendum focuses on wildlife habitat maintenance and NRCS standards to manage critical areas, costs and rent adjustments.
  • ILSoyAdvisor ( will host a webinar, August 20, 10 a.m., with Gary Schnitkey, University of Illinois, to share information about the leases above.
  • American Farmland Trust Understanding and Activating Non-Operator Landowners