Action Stories

Matt Russell, resilient agriculture coordinator for Drake University Agricultural Law Center, says he frequently hears from farm landowners who wish they’d put conservation goals in lease agreements. “They want conservation on the land,” he explains, “but often lack the language, experience, and social support to initiate it.”

Landowners who are clear about their role and goals can improve the condition of land while building productivity and income. Russell, who fields calls for Drake’s Sustainable Land Tenure Initiative, observes that landowners typically drive conservation on leased land, but a farm lease arrangement is always a partnership.

Matt Russell snaps a selfie on his own farm.

Matt Russell snaps a selfie on his own farm.

“Landowners need farmers who share goals and are responsive to their wishes,” says Russell, “and farmers need leasing partners who are responsive to the realities of farming.

“The farmer,” he says, “can help by asking about landowner goals, explaining USDA farm cost-share programs geared to the operator, and looking for ways to partner with the landowner.” The operator can also offer first-hand knowledge of the land and operational insights for strong decision-making.


The goal is a working alliance with clear responsibilities, strategies, costs, and benefits.

“Every conservation practice has benefits and costs,” says Russell. “You can include almost anything in a contract: tillage, government programs, grassed waterways, terraces, crop rotations, chemical use, seed, and so forth. But you must discuss costs. Identify what they are, and be as transparent as possible. Assign costs and benefits so it is equitable and fair to both parties. Build in flexibility, in case of extreme weather, and anticipate what it’s possible to anticipate.”

Conservation practices such as contour strip farming are manageable when landowner and tenant work together.

Conservation practices such as contour strip farming are manageable when landowner and tenant work together.


Russell encourages non-operator landowners to learn independently, then seek support. “Connect with the Beginning Farmer Center, Women Food & Ag Network, Practical Farmers of Iowa, Land Stewardship Project, Center For Rural Affairs, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, or another farm organization in your state that is prepared to answer your questions and offer counsel. Decide what you want and how to make it happen. Talk with your operator, if you’ve chosen one. Then reach out to a lawyer to create a contract.”

The Landowner’s Guide to Sustainable Farm Leasing, developed by Drake University, is a trusted source for the basics of sustainability and farm leases. Find help for clarifying priorities, advice for talking with your tenant, insights on law related to farm leases, and key considerations for finalizing an agreement.


“With these tools landowners are finding more opportunities to use their own voices in lease arrangements,” says Russell. “There are lots of women landowners now. Conservation is important to them—an ethical value. They often have strong communication and relationship skills. In a farm lease relationship that’s a plus, because it is a lot less stressful to talk often and problem solve early. It’s less judgmental.”

“Think. Talk. Write,” repeats Russell. “A good lease anticipates and helps everyone remember the same conversation.


— Story by Nancy North, NewGround, Inc.