Advancing our understanding of conservation on rented lands: National survey of Non-operator Landlords - American Farmland Trust

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Advancing our understanding of conservation on rented lands: National survey of Non-operator Landlords


So maybe you have heard by now all this talk of non-operator landlords, or what we affectionately call NOLs. You may even be familiar with several studies (see our references list in our recent report) that have explored these somewhat elusive actors in the agricultural landscape. Our interest in this group arises from the fact that nearly 40% of farmland in the U.S. is rented or leased from agricultural landowners, and yet we often don’t know much about these individuals, as they are not widely surveyed in the way farmers are surveyed every four years via the Agricultural Census.

According to our formal and informal sources, conservation and farmland preservation is harder on rented lands. Often, there is a perceived, and sometimes real, assessment that those who rent out their agricultural land just don’t care as much about its stewardship as those who manage and work with it day-to-day. We are facing unprecedented challenges in farm country due to the coronavirus pandemic. The need to better assess the varied needs of diverse actors in the agricultural landscape is more important now than ever as we seek to both protect and steward farmland, farms, and the people who own, operate, manage, harvest, and process our food.

Given how much land is rented, the interest in NOLs, and the lack of information, it has been clear for some time that we need a better understanding of NOLs (beyond what USDA does via its very intermittent TOTAL survey) to guide our engagement with them and their renters to achieve more conservation and farmland preservation outcomes on rented lands.

Here at American Farmland Trust, in partnership with The Nature Conservancy, Rachel’s Network, The Great Lakes Protection Fund, and an informal Non-operating Landowner National Survey Work Group (see our report list of participants), we decided to initiate a definitive study of these NOLs, with the following goals:

  • Learn more about NOLs in general (e.g. age, gender, familiarity with farming)
  • Increase understanding of the land management decision-making processes of NOLs
  • Identify ways to overcome barriers to resource management decision making and
    implementation on rented lands
  • Use the survey information gained to improve incentive mechanisms and policies aimed at promoting resource conservation on rented lands

To achieve these goals, AFT surveyed 11 states in 2018 and 2019. Although we primarily focused on those states with the largest amount of rented lands (Figure 1), we also looked at other factors such as sampling a variety of USDA production regions. The 11 states include Arkansas, California, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, and Washington (see all state summaries here).

Figure 1. Map showing percent of acres of land in farms rented or leased in 2017 (Data source USDA Agricultural Census)

Figure 1. Map showing percent of acres of land in farms rented or leased in 2017 (Data source USDA Agricultural Census)

We have now released a full report of all our findings from this study including an assessment of differences across states, between men and women NOLs, and those with farming experience and those without.

As you can imagine, this report is very comprehensive, so we developed a standalone executive summary for those who want to read the highlights.  I think it is important that we focus in on five key findings and how those findings should motivate and direct future action and engagement with NOLs. Consider this our “call to action,” so to speak, to guide future outreach, engagement, and policy efforts aimed at supporting NOLs and their renters.

Key Finding #1: Lack of knowledge about, and engagement with, programs that could support greater conservation is a real barrier to achieving conservation practice adoption on rented lands. This is particularly true for those with little experience or background in farming and is more common among women NOLs. Therefore, we suggest our first call to action: Cultivate greater awareness among NOLs of government conservation programs.

Key Finding #2: Our results suggest that respondents are comfortable with taking several actions to support the use of more conservation on the land they own. This included support for making changes to lease agreements, such as extending the length of their operator’s lease to facilitate implementation of conservation practices or asking to amend or make an addendum to their lease requiring conservation practice use by their renters. Therefore, we suggest our second call to action: Amplify NOLs’ willingness to support their operators with conservation practices on the land.

Key Finding #3: Women NOLs are still an important audience for outreach, yet we need to be sure to reach all NOLs to improve conservation and preservation outcomes on farmland. However, we found that a lack of experience and knowledge, particularly among women, may limit feelings of confidence for engaging in conversations with renters or conservation professionals on relevant conservation topics, as women were more likely to say they “don’t know enough about farming to participate in decisions regarding management.” This leads me to our third call to action: Reach out to female, and male, NOLs to improve outcomes on rented land.

Key Finding #4: The survey results clearly illustrate that those who have either directly farmed or helped operate a farm are more comfortable asking their operators to use certain conservation practices on their land, more likely to amend or make an addendum to the lease requiring conservation practices, and more willing to include lease provisions relating to specific conservation practices. So, our next call to action argues that we need to better: Engage NOLs to cultivate greater opportunities to strengthen their ties to farming, the land, and community.

Key Finding #5: We report that among respondents many do not know who the next owner of their land will be yet nearly all indicate that their land management decisions are motivated by a commitment to future generations of their family. Therefore, our final call to action argues that we must: Emphasize the need for succession planning among aging NOLs to reach farmland preservation goals.

Please check out our full report and state summaries to take a deeper dive into this work and be sure to follow the good work of the Women for the Land program here at AFT as we led the effort to collect this research and will be building on it for some time to come.     

About the Author
Gabrielle Roesch-McNally, PhD

Women for the Land Director

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