By Jimmy Dula, NFU Intern
For a beginning farmer, who may not have the means to purchase their own land, leasing is often the most viable route to starting an operation. Typically, a lease doesn’t require a hefty downpayment or burdensome loan, and the financial risk is shared between the landowner and the tenant. However, farm leases can come with their own set of challenges. They often are short-term, meaning that the infrastructural and ecological gains will not necessarily benefit the producer who dedicated time and resources to achieve them. Additionally, a landlord’s expectations may conflict with the tenant’s, thus limiting the producer’s autonomy. Navigating this territory plenty of work with just one lease, but some farmers may need several separate leases to obtain enough land to eke out a living. On top of planting, harvesting, marketing, and other on-farm tasks, juggling a handful of contracts and landlord relationships can be onerous.
Most leases go back decades and began with a handshake and good faith. Leases today are much more formal, requiring legally binding, written contracts. But regardless of the lease’s degree of formality, landowner/tenant relationships include unique agreements. On some land, a producer may accommodate the landowner’s hunting trips by leaving strips of crop in the field for wildlife forage. Other leases distribute a percentage of farm revenue to the landowner. In some cases, that landowner is a family member. This type of family land lease is seen across the county, weaving the fabric of the modern day family farm.
Anne Schwagerl, Minnesota Farmers Union member and NFU Next Generation Advisory Committee member, rents about a quarter of her 800 acres from family members. She grows a variety of grains, some of which are currently in transition from conventional to organic. She says that “most new farmers have issues with capital to get through the transitional years,” but by both leasing land from her family and having access to collectively owned equipment, she is able to make ends meet.
Nick Levendofsky, Wisconsin Farmers Union government relations associate, and his family farm over 1000 acres, of which about three quarters is leased from several different landowners. Levendofsky says that establishing a relationship should be the top priority when leasing land. “It’s gotta work for both parties. Each side has to understand where the other side is coming from. Set expectations ahead of time, before you do anything,” he recommends. Heavy communication at the start can save you troubles and conflict down the road.
Schwagerl also emphasizes it is important to do your homework. “The only way to really determine the average cash lease rate is to ask around and make sure you get a fair deal.”
Have your experiences with land leases been similar? What advice do you have for beginning farmers seeking to lease land? Please share in the comments below.