During his years as a practicing physician in Phoenix, Arizona, Dr. David Rabinowitz made a decision to invest in land, rather than the stock market. Research and a sincere interest in nature and growing things led him to Iowa and South Dakota, where he bought a number of farms between 1978 and 1995.
Dr. Rabinowitz served a full practice and had a family, so the farms existed at the fringe of a busy life. He hired professional management companies who leased the land to local farm operators, who planted and harvested crops. Predictably, envelopes arrived with harvest reports, checks, and a friendly note. The investment became a hobby. Every August the Rabinowitz family traveled to Iowa to see the farms and go to the State Fair.
“Dad loved to come to Iowa,” says Ruth Rabinowitz, David’s daughter. “He couldn’t hike because he had asthma, so the managers pulled the car up and he looked at the farms from the road. They kept the books, paid insurance and property taxes, and never introduced him to a farmer—since 1978! He had good luck buying land and put 100 percent trust in these individuals, whom he came to see as friends.”
When his health took a turn for the worse in 2014, Dr. Rabinowitz moved to California to live near Ruth and another daughter, Shauna. The new arrangements and his health forced a fresh look at the land investments, which Dr. Rabinowitz continued to manage after ending his medical practice.
Said Ruth, “Dad stopped going to Iowa then. When his health failed, I needed to see the land accounts. We signed forms authorizing the land management companies to copy Shauna and me on reports and communications. I began to see interesting bookkeeping and low rents.”
Ruth went into investigation mode. For two years she studied reports, asked questions, and took notes on farm visits.
“The further I got in, the more I realized things were not going well. I talked with Dad about disconnecting from the management companies, but he resisted because they had a long relationship. Finally the issues became so blatant that something had to be done. For example, when I asked about soil fertility there were no regular soil tests. I went to Iowa State University (ISU) Extension and they confirmed what I was seeing.”
Ruth took a stand.
“I was used to managing contracts for my own photography business. I cared about the condition of the land, and I could see the land was being shortchanged. I thought, ‘I can do better. It won’t be perfect, but I can do better.’”
Ruth outlined why the contracts had to be terminated and the family agreed to proceed. After an intense period of communication with management partners, one company stepped out overnight, leaving next year’s contract negotiations in Ruth’s lap. Intending to hire new management, she researched, looked at data, and talked with advisors during frequent visits to Iowa.
“Working with ISU, I got a lot of confidence I could do this myself,” says Ruth. “They said, ‘You don’t need management companies! You can work directly with tenants and hold the leases.’ I’m a people person. I’d owned two businesses and written contracts. I finally said, ‘I have to do this, and be really brave.’”
NEW LEASES REFLECT VALUES
Ruth studied leases from a contractor and three management companies they’d worked with, downloaded a lease model from ISU, and used The Landowner’s Toolbox, available from Drake University’s Agricultural Law Center to draft a lease.
“It was like writing a thesis,” she says. “We didn’t have a lot of time, so I paged through them all, highlighted language that made sense to me, and put together a contract that reflects our priorities.”
Two attorneys reviewed the draft and offered very different perspectives—a plus, says Ruth. A trusted farmer gave boots-on-the-ground advice, talking her through the lease page by page. The result is an 11-page contract that the Rabinowitz family likes and understands.
“It has an exhibit called ‘Schedule Of Operator Improvement’ in which the landowner agrees to help pay for improvements,’” explains Ruth. “That part of the lease has opened up a dialog with every farmer, because it shows how we can improve the land together. The farmer who reviewed our lease thought this was fantastic.”
COLLABORATIVE CONSERVATION WITH FARMERS, ADVISORS
In addition to scheduled fees, payments, and opportunities for collaborative improvements the Rabinowitz lease lays out how natural resources will be managed and cared for, including a four-year cycle of soil testing by the owner; soil amendments; crop residue, grazing, plowing, chemical, and fall tillage parameters; a Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) strategy; well and well water agreements; hunting rights; compensation for improvements by the tenant; and annual management and yield reports.
Ruth now manages contracts for 75 percent of the family’s land. She is in Iowa two to four months of the year to visit the farms; connect with tenants and neighbors; work with Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Soil & Water Conservation District offices to implement projects; and attend Women, Food and Agriculture Network’s annual conference.
“It’s a new experience,” says Ruth. “We are supporting ourselves with the farm business. I’m getting to know our tenants and neighbors. I walk the properties; check the condition of fences; stock the pond with fish; work with NRCS on timber stand improvement; put timber, slough, and prairie land in reserve; and add CRP land, filter strips, and grassed waterways. These are large scale farms with many soil types, so there’s a lot of complexity.”
Ruth is learning fast and seizing every opportunity to improve land she says was waiting for someone to come back and care about it.
“The farms needed repair. I found myself in gullies up to my belly sometimes, gullies that were hidden from the road and not pointed out. This is land, not stock! I was raised loving the earth and now it is exciting to see how much we can do, and how much nonprofits want to help us live our values on the land in such a big way.”
Someday Ruth Rabinowitz plans to move to Iowa, where she can pay more attention to the farms she has come to know and love.
“The paycheck is good,” she smiles, “but this is the juice. Dad provided the raw material and we are making it five stars now. I can’t think of anything more satisfying. Dad gave me the best job in the world, here, just waiting for me.”