How farm transition plans can preserve conservation values and legacies

This blog is authored by Bethany Baratta, senior writer at Iowa Soybean Association. 

A significant number of farmland acres in Iowa will be transferred to the next generation of farmers in the coming decade, providing a great opportunity for preserving and expanding conservation practices that have proven financial and resilience benefits.

According to Iowa State University, 60% of Iowa farmland is owned by people over the age of 65, and 35% of Iowa farmland is owned by those over 75. By 2024, landlords in the U.S. expect to transfer 91.5 million acres, or 10% of all U.S. farmland.

The way in which the land is transferred from one generation to the next could have a profound impact on the future of conservation efforts, and of the land itself.

Having a farm transition plan that includes conservation not only ensures the continuation of the farm — it also helps preserve a farmer’s conservation legacy. Here’s how two Iowa farmers are navigating their planning to ensure their conservation legacies endure.

One farmer’s “aha” moment

“We are all committed to trying new practices that make soil better and protect our water,” says farmer Ray Gaesser of Corning, Iowa. “And we need to have a plan for how we can continue those efforts when we step away from the farm.”

Farmer Ray Gaesser of Corning, Iowa.

Ray and his wife Elaine are currently working through their formalized transition plan with their son, Chris, and his wife, Shannon, who are partners in their row crop business.

Chris recalls the moment when he and his parents watched four inches of rain fall in one hours’ time, washing away crop residue that had built up over decades. The painful event prompted them to increase their conservation efforts.

“Even though we were doing something already, it wasn’t enough, and we knew we had to do better,” Chris says.

The family planted cereal rye as a cover crop to help stabilize their soil and build soil health. Currently, the Gaessers have about 65% of their acres covered in cover crops. They see their dedication to conservation as a perfect complement to their transition plan, which sets up the continuation of the family’s commitments.

“We have a responsibility to transition and help the next generation,” Ray says. “We also have to be able to learn to let go and let them make some of those decisions. As we learn that, we need to keep the value and the business model intact.”

Planning to mentor the next generation of farmers

Well known for his conservation efforts, Mitchell County farmer Wayne Fredericks and his wife Ruth have one daughter who lives in Texas with her family. Wayne hasn’t identified an heir who will take over the farming operation when he retires.

“We will definitely write a conservation lease,” says Wayne. “In there, we will have the goal on what we want to happen in terms of tillage practices and conservation efforts.”

Iowa farmer Wayne Fredericks is well known for his conservation practices.

The Fredericks raise soybeans and corn in a 50-50 rotation and have been long-time users of no-till and strip-till. They have spent many years working on trials with the Iowa Soybean Association and have implemented cover crops on nearly all of their acres. They have installed grassed waterways, buffer strips and have implemented other practices which build soil health and protect natural resources. Wayne also has some land set aside as a pollinator habitat.

Though he doesn’t have a transition plan formalized for his land, he expects to reach out to younger farmers showing progress and promise in continuing his conservation legacy.

“My goal is to transition my acres to maybe one, two or three young farmers who are either already strip-tilling, no-tilling or transitioning to that point,” he says.

“There’s some real value” in conservation inheritance

Wayne says conservation practices and improved soil health ought to be figured into farmland values, much like Corn Suitability Ratings are for farms in Iowa.

“When you really sit down and put value on soil carbon and what the inherited value of that organic matter is to the soil, there’s some real value there,” Wayne says.

Through Wayne’s soil testing, he’s calculated a 2.5% increase in organic matter on three different farms over the past 25 years. According to a USDA analysis, every percent increase in soil organic matter equates to an additional 16,500 gallons of water available in the soil and approximately $18 per acre value1 in improved moisture and soil resilience.

Soil organic matter also provides a significant source of nutrients. At current prices of commercial fertilizer, every percent increase in soil organic matter equates to approximately $11 per acre value2 in nutrients, bringing the total estimated value of improved soil organic matter to approximately $29 per acre for both the nutrient value and available water holding capacity, which Wayne says ought to be accounted for.

“My field should be more productive than the farmer across the field that has the same soil and does full-width tillage,” Wayne says. He added that incentives like reduced crop insurance rates should be provided for more productive acres with increased soil health scores, since they reduce risk potential. Having a farm transition plan that includes conservation not only ensures the continuation of the farm — it also helps preserve a farmer’s conservation legacy. Click To Tweet

How to pass conservation commitments on to the next generation

David Baker is the director and a farm transition specialist with Iowa State University’s Beginning Farmer Center.

“There shouldn’t be anything holding farmers back from continuing conservation practices,” Baker says.

Baker says mentorship, coupled with financial assistance programs for conservation practices, will help grow conservation efforts in the state. He’s worked with several farmers to determine the best ways to include conservation in contracts and agreements with their heirs and non-heir tenants and operators.

Some resources Baker recommends include:

  • USDA programs such as the Conservation Stewardship Program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Reserve Program, which help support conservation practices.
  • Iowa’s Soil and Water Outcomes Fund, which is positioned to provide financial incentives to farmers and landowners to implement agricultural best management practices and monetize the resulting environmental benefits by selling verified outcomes to the beneficiaries. The Fund helps elevate the incentives and opportunities to grow conservation practices in the state.
  • Iowa State University’s Water Quality Program and the Water Rocks Program, which support edge-of-field structures and practices, and in-field management practices.
  • Iowa State University’s Beginning Farmer Center and the Ag Link Matching Program, which helps connect non-related parties for the transitioning of a farm business.

Whether carried on through contracts or mentorships, farmers like Ray Gaesser and Wayne Fredericks are demonstrating why conservation legacies are worth preserving, contributing to both a personal sense of fulfillment and in setting the next generation of farmers on a better, more resilient course for the future.

A version of this blog originally posted on the Iowa Soybean Association Newsroom. For questions, contact Bethany Baratta at bbaratta@iasoybeans.com.

1 Calculated using an average commodity price from 2009 through 2013 for corn and soybeans.

2 At an average mineralization rate of 1.5%, a 1% increase in soil organic matter could account for 17 pounds of nitrogen and 1.75 pounds of phosphorous.

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