Feral Farm
Agroforester Casey Dahl (left) leases land from Brattset Family Farm (represented during this field day by Kirsten Jurcek) in Jefferson, Wisconsin.

Your land access journey as a farmer is not over when you sign a lease with a landowner. 

We know of several lease relationships that were terminated early because the relationship between farmer and landowner deteriorated. That is a huge, stressful disruption to your life and business. You don’t want to go there if you can prevent it. 

And even if the lease relationship doesn’t end prematurely, a troubled one can make your farming life an uphill struggle. A troubled one can also haunt your next land access search as landowners, especially if they live in the same community, can talk. 

The good news is that there are ways to increase your odds of your farmer-landowner relationship not only being largely trouble-free but even downright enjoyable. 

Of the seven tips we share below, some come from our experience and observations. Others are from two terrific articles we’d recommend – one by Missouri-based adaptive grazier Greg Judy (check out his videos for great learning) and another from grazier Ben Waterman. Both articles were originally run on the On Pasture website. 

1. Treat landowner with respect and integrity in everything you do: The longer the lease the more you can find yourself taking the landowner for granted over time. Don’t. So pay on time (or even early). Respond promptly to communications and calls. Be courteous and gracious when you are speaking to them and when you are speaking about them to other people. 

2. “Manage the property like you own it:” Greg Judy, whose grazing business model relies on leased land (and cattle who he does not own either), makes this one of his core principles and is, in fact, the source of the quote. So protect the resources of the land and the infrastructure there. Enhance them as much as you can. Keep the property looking as good as you can. Landowners don’t want to hear from neighbors that the property is messy. If the property is in better shape at the end of the lease then it was at the beginning, the landowner will likely want to keep you.

3. Understand the priorities of the farmland owner: It’s really helpful to know what matters to your landlord. Appearances? Habitat for bird life? Soil health? So pay attention and ask some good questions. Once you understand, do what you can to prioritize addressing those areas. 

4. Communicate Regularly:  Ben Waterman says, “Why is communication so crucially important? Lease agreements go sour when it is absent.” He also says, “Communicate as often as possible in an open, friendly manner as common sense dictates.” 

Farmer Taking Picture for Landowner
Sending a photo to your landowner is a quick way to share your work and care for the farm.

Make it a habit to send regular updates (in the format that works best for your landlord) with photos about the crops and weather and other interesting things happening on the land.  You might even send articles likely to be of interest to the landowner about farming and that help explain why you farm the way you do. 

A special annual letter or report that provides information about what you grew, how you grew it, and how things went can also be a very nice touch at the end of the year. This is where knowing what the landowner cares about comes in handy. If you know they love birds, for example, your updates on bird activity will be appreciated.

Like any good relationship, be honest and timely in letting the landlord know if there is any bad news (erosion, an accident, etc.). They should know they’ll get the unvarnished truth from you.

And finally, if you are dealing with a family that owns the land, make sure you’re communicating with everyone within the family who wants or who would be interested in news of the farming on their land. It’s good for you and for the family to know you and your farming.

5. Show appreciation creatively: There are some landowners who care only that they are paid and paid on time. But there are many others, who also care about the land and like to have good relationships with the people using their land. Be creative in how you might show appreciation to landowners of the latter type. If you grow vegetables, for example, why not share a basket of vegetables as a nice surprise? Giving them your time by offering a tour is another good option and connects them closely with their land. Consider saving them money in ways that aren’t a big burden to you.

6. Protect your boundaries of your interests and of terms of lease: There can be slippery slopes of requests and demands. Don’t be seen as so desperate for your lease that you will do things that don’t make sense for your energies and resources.  Look for win-win solutions even as you stick to boundaries dictated by the lease.

7. Choose the right landowner and lease to begin with: In land access, an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure. Greg Judy recommends that you do everything possible BEFORE you sign a lease to know whether the landowner and you will likely be able to work well together. In the process of working out a lease (do this well!), did you find each other’s communication styles compatible? Are your values compatible? 

What if their dreams and your dreams are compatible, but they seem used to calling the shots and might not respect your autonomy? When you feel uneasy in your gut about your interactions with a potential landlord, think twice before signing a lease.  

Of course, it takes two to tango! Look for a future article with tips for farmland owners on good lease relationships with your farmer.