IN ONTARIO, MORE than four million acres of farmland is rented, leased, or share-cropped, representing 35 per cent of total provincial farmland. This number has been steadily increasing, up from 23 per cent in 1975. These landlords include active farmers, widowers, retired farmers, local governments, and investors. In southwestern Ontario, about 40 per cent of farm landlords are non-farmer investors or investment companies.
Beyond the political and economic repercussions of land rental, this trend also has consequences on the environment. Do farmers treat their rented fields with the same care as their own?
Research by Dr. Brady Deaton and graduate students at the University of Guelph suggests that farmers in Ontario are not as likely to make the cash investment to plant cover crops or apply manure to rented land. They are just as likely, though, to use no-till at the same rate because the equipment investment has already been made.
If rented fields aren’t as well cared for, they could be more prone to soil erosion and downstream water quality issues, and this affects more than just the owner and renter. But is long-term soil management the responsibility of the landlord or the farmer? Are there opportunities to improve?
SOIL HEALTH RESPONSIBILITY
The responsibility for soil health lies with both parties and there are opportunities to strengthen soil conservation on rented land through creating more awareness and through adding environmental stipulations to land leases. What would it look like if rental agreements got beyond the price per acre and began to put value on the time and inputs farmers use to improve soils?
Deaton’s research shows that well over half of farmland rental agreements are based on nothing more than a handshake and that there are no agronomic or stewardship practices stipulated in the majority of agreements.
Could rental agreements stipulate the application of manure to a field, and even the timing of that application? What if cover crops and soil testing were a condition of the lease, or what if landlords hired agronomists to assess the farming practices on their rented fields? That would be a game changer.
And perhaps specific environmental stipulations would be secondary, because we know that the longer a farmer feels he or she can rent a field, the better the field will be treated. Dr. Deaton’s data revealed that after farmers have rented land for more than five years, they begin to treat it and invest in it like it is their own. For the farmer, short-term rental agreements conflict with the fact that soil health and economic benefits of agricultural best practices are only realized in the long term.
Building organic matter and soil fertility requires a long-term perspective and a one-year lease simply can’t encourage good practices such as longer crop rotations or cover crop use. Ideally, land rental agreements would be three to five years and reviewed annually to discuss management decisions and adjust rental rates if needed. Any landlord would understand this because land is a big investment and it just makes good business sense to conserve it.
Larry Davis, a Brant County farmer and director of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, builds his sandy soils with hay and manure or other organic materials in the rotation. Many years ago, he was outbid on a rented field by a vegetable farmer. “After only four years of intensive cabbage crops, gullies were forming in the field,” says Larry. “When no one else in the area would rent that field, the landlady came back to me and paid me for two years to rehabilitate the farm. And I’ve been renting it ever since.”
Mike Strang is a Huron County cash-cropper and director of the Innovative Farmers Association of Ontario. When he heard that a nearby field was up for rent, he gave his neighbours a PowerPoint presentation in their living room with photos of his own farm and how he uses cover crops and strip tillage to improve soils. Mike recalls, “It was clear that about halfway through I had struck a chord with them. We shook on it and never even talked about the price.”
Farm & Food Care Ontario has created resources for farmers and landlords to have this discussion. The project was funded by the Great Lakes Agricultural Stewardship Initiative (GLASI), and also involved Ontario Farmland Trust, Miller Thomson LLP, and Conservation Authorities. The project compiled information and case studies from across the sector into a website and brochure. The website is at www.farmlandagreements.ca and includes short videos, a sample lease agreement, an educational glossary on soil health, and a downloadable discussion guide. The resources are to encourage environmental practices to be incorporated into land rental discussions and agreements.
The times are changing so perhaps we will soon see the day when land is rented to the farmer with the best environmental practices and not the one who can write the largest rent cheque.
If you have any comments or a rental story of your own, Farm & Food Care would love to hear it. Please contact Melisa Luymes at email@example.com or (519)837-1326 x291. •