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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: Farmers have to balance their interests with those of urban landowners

Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

What you expect to find at Spokane’s Ag Expo Farm Forum are shiny new equipment, sellers of seed and services and most of the neighbors.

If you live in the middle of rural Palouse farmland, it’s a not-to-be-missed opportunity to catch up on the latest local news and commiserate over the weather. If not the weather, then crop prices going down and fuel prices going up.

When your feet are tired of roaming the exhibitor aisles, seminars provide a place to sit a spell and listen to lectures on improving field operations, coping with changing regulations, protecting your mental health, nurturing your soil health and a variety of other practical topics.

The seminar on “Building a Farm Tenant Resume” would have seemed an unlikely offering except for a conversation earlier this winter. A farmer friend warned me it would be difficult to get anyone to go on the record with an opinion on the trade war with China. Farmers are careful about being publicly political and upsetting their landlords. Losing a lease could affect their livelihood.

According to USDA’s Economic Research Service, “farmers operate almost as much leased land as land they own.” Over 60% of farmland in Lincoln and Whitman counties is leased, typical of grain production areas of the country. While some landlords are retired farmers, the rest is owned by distant individuals, investors or trusts. These landowners and farmers by proxy aren’t likely to be at Ag Expo catching up on improved farming practices.

Farmers and urban landowners don’t always share the same political interests, or the same time horizon. Investors and retirees expect a check every year for their share of crops sold. Trusts benefiting nonprofit organizations may rely on a harvest check for cash flow. They can’t afford to take more risk than farming already faces.

Tim Cobb of Farmland Company, formerly Hatley/Cobb Farmland Management, presented the farm resume seminar. Cobb serves as a go-between, monitoring about 120,000 acres in Eastern Washington. He described his job as making sure tenants are “planting seeds and managing weeds” on behalf of remote landlords. He encouraged farmers to get their resumes polished and be ready to jump on opportunities.

Competition for leases is fierce. The shiny new equipment exhibited at Ag Expo explains why. Half-a-million dollars in big equipment requires a big operation to recover the cost. It’s not worth risking losing out on a lease over a few conservative words offending a not-so-conservative landowner.

Most large dryland family farms include a mix of owned and rented land. Cobb advised farmers attending the seminar to include photos of their operations to tell their story, both when seeking a new lease and to keep long-distance landlords on board. Cobb described one absentee landowner living in California who was thrilled to get a picture of “their” farm, a farm they’d never set foot on but were holding because great-grandma told them to keep it.

Farmland ownership transfer isn’t just about family legacy. If you drive the back roads of the Palouse, signs on fields indicate Shriners Hospitals, Whitworth University or other organizations are benefiting from generous bequests.

This shifting ownership pattern has implications beyond stifling political frankness. Leases are usually on a share basis with 28%-30% of the net to the landlord. Moving to sustainable farming processes, like switching from conventional to direct seeding, may take five to 10 years of reduced production before the benefits take effect and production returns to pre-change levels. Landlords have to be OK with 30% of a smaller number. Or 30% of zero.

Transitioning to regenerative agriculture using cover crops and livestock to reduce or eliminate the use of herbicides and fertilizer is riskier. The techniques have worked in the Midwest with different weather and crop conditions, but it’s still experimental in the Inland Northwest and experiments are risky.

Farmers have always faced the risk of weather. Trade wars are not new, and farmers who spoke off the record said standing up to China has been a long time coming. They’ll wait it out like an untimely summer thunderstorm at harvest. Explaining farming to a software engineer in San Francisco or an investment trust out of New York is a new kind of risk in a country increasingly divided between urban and rural culture.

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