Monday, July 20, 2020

Absentee landowners who know little about farming may stymie farmers from protecting water and soil

Absentee farmland owners may be preventing farmers from embracing conservation practices because they don't net as much profit, Dan Charles reports for NPR.

Midwestern farmers only own about half the land they use, on average, and rent the rest. Many landowners are retired farmers themselves, but many are urban investors who don't know much or anything about farming. "That means when it comes to managing that land . . . it often plays out like this: say that someone owns 160 acres, of which 30 acres are ill-suited for growing crops. The landlord still will rent out the whole parcel," Charles reports.

Steve Bruere, president of Peoples Company, an Iowa company that buys, sells, and manages farmland across the nation, told Charles that they create detailed maps of each farm to assess how much money farmers earn on every acre, using both publicly available data and proprietary data collected by farmers' GPS-equipped machinery.

Bruere said about 10 percent to 15% of all acres in Iowa aren't profitable because of various factors. "These can be hillsides with eroded soil, or parts of a field where water sits in a big puddle after every rain. That's where Bruere's company advises farmers to cut their losses and maybe bring back some prairie instead," Charles reports.

So-called "prairie strips" are unprofitable chunks of land within soybean or corn fields where farmers plant tall-stemmed grasses and wildflowers. The strips allow native wildlife to maintain a toehold and help protect the farmland from water and wind erosion. But urban landowners pressure farmers to till all available land to make more money, even if it's lousy land, Charles reports.

The practice of renting farmland can discourage farmers from planting cover crops in the off-season, according to environmental advocate Sarah Carlson with Practical Farmers of Iowa. Cover crops can protect and enrich the soil, and is good for the environment, she told Charles, but it costs money up front. "Farmers who rent land, and who may not have access to that land in the long run, are reluctant to spend that money," Charles reports.

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