What's Up at the USDA Office?

Upcoming Deadlines/Dates
December 5: Last day to return COC ballots
December 9: Dairy Margin Coverage Program
December 15: Crop Reporting for Fall-Seeded Small Grains

Landlords: Engage in Management of Your Farms
by LuAnn Rolling, District Conservationist, USDA-NRCS, Allamakee County
With the high price of cropland inputs, it’s becoming more important than ever for landlords to hold tenants accountable for the long-term sustainability of their land. For landowners, it’s no longer as easy as hiring the renter who will offer the most dollar per acre. That’s because farmers who conventionally till the soil may require fewer inputs initially and be willing to pay more to lease ground, knowing that his/her non-land operating costs will be lower compared to other fields. “An unwitting landowner might think this is a good deal and switch tenants for a slightly better rent offer – not appreciating the asset degradation the land is about to suffer in the background,” says Steven Savage in a July 29 Forbes Magazine article. “It is a poor trade, but not very visible.”

Healthy soils allow for endless cropland productivity. NRCS encourages Iowa farmers to follow five basic soil health principles to improve and sustain soil health conditions:
1. Keep the soil covered.
2. Minimally disturb the soil.
3. Keep a living root in the soil throughout the year to feed the soil.
4. Diversify as much as possible using crop rotations and cover crops.
5. Incorporate livestock into your system.

By incorporating these soil health principles, soil organic matter will increase over time and help naturally produce more fertile soils, eventually reducing input costs. Farms depleted of healthy, productive soils will not be desirable to renters. Ben Brown, a University of Missouri senior research associate for the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute, says increased volatility in farm input prices – such as fertilizer – are here to stay well into 2023. “Farmers experienced 200-300% increases in fertilizer costs in 2021 and first half of 2022 due to reductions in supply and strong demand,” Brown says. Agricultural land rental rates are closely tied to historic and regional production history. About half of Midwest cropland is rented. In Iowa, about 43 percent of cropland is rented and demands some of the highest rental rates – about $250/acre in 2022.

Brown adds that corn and other commodity prices must maintain current levels to offset increased input prices to achieve profit margins at the farm gate. (No-Till Farmer, Oct. 21, 2022) Referring to soil health practices Savage says, “It would make sense to structure a lease to include some cost sharing between the farmer and the owner during the transition process, and then have some mechanism for the farmer to share in the increased rent potential and land value.”  He says another possibility would be to identify farmers with the most experience at transitioning fields through climate-resilience farming methods and engage them to upgrade land that hasn’t been optimally farmed in the past. “The goal is not to tell farmers how they should farm, but rather to enable them to optimize the climate resilience of land in ways that makes sense,” said Savage.