Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier, IA 05-06-07 Farmland ownership impacts soil conservation By MATTHEW WILDE Courier Staff Writer GRUNDY CENTER --- Farmland may be a good investment, but it is Iowa's precious topsoil that could pay in the end. Land values have soared by 73 percent this decade, sale figures show. A growing number of nonfarmers are investing in crop ground as a result. Plus, a vast majority of the state's landowners aren't exactly spring chickens. This could lead to more land being purchased or inherited by people out of state. The growing trend of absentee owners statewide --- 2 percent in the 1970s to 20 percent today, according to Iowa State University Extension statistics --- has local farmers and soil conservationists nervous. They fear people who own farmland but have no sentimental attachment to it will see it only as a money maker and not as a resource to be preserved. Since agriculture is the state's largest industry and farmland is considered its most valuable commodity, the ownership trend could have grave consequences for the state. "I think most farmers are good stewards and most want to do the right thing," said Shaffer Ridgeway, Natural Resources Conservation Service director, in charge of soil conservation programs in Black Hawk County. "The challenge is the landlord that's not a mile down the road. People who have no clue about farmland and protecting it, but have good business sense and know a good investment when they see it," he added. "I think that's where we will suffer." Soil experts say some farmland is already suffering as a result. Neglect or not realizing conservation measures like grass waterways, buffer strips along streams and conservation tillage are needed, or an unwillingness to pay for them, is causing topsoil to wash or blow away. On average, Ridgeway said landowners spend $4,000 to $5,000 on conservation measures. Government cost-share funds are available through local NRCS offices. Farmland buyers Existing farmers used to buy the vast majority of land for sale each year. The 1991 ISU land values survey indicated slightly more than 80 percent of sales that year were to producers. However, buying land hasn't exactly been a risky venture lately. Investors have closed the purchasing gap dramatically in the last 15 years, tallying 35 percent of last year's sales. Iowa has 32.6 million acres of farmland valued at $105 billion. Mike Duffy, an ISU Extension economist and survey director, said the growing trend and its potential impact on soil erosion hasn't gone unnoticed at the land grant university known for its ag programs. One of Duffy's graduate students is conducting a study on the correlation between land ownership and stewardship. "I do think there could be an issue," Duffy said. "Very definitely there are more absentee landowners. As they (landowners) age, land is being dispersed to family, and odds are not everyone lives in Iowa." The study covered eight counties, looking at land ownership, conservation practices and thoughts on conservation. Results are expected sometime in June. Farmland has become a hot commodity for investors for a number of reasons, Duffy said. The volatile stock market was not a money maker for a while. Government farm programs guarantee income for farmers and healthy land rents. For years, land offered a solid return on investment. The ethanol boom pushing crop prices higher is also fueling the trend. Last year farmland statewide averaged a record $3,204 per acre, the survey said. Prices jumped $290 per acre, on average. The latest ownership statistics compiled by ISU found 24 percent of land is deeded to people 74 years old or older, double the amount in 1982. Forty-eight percent of crop ground is owned by people over the age of 65, also nearly twice as much as 25 years ago. A lot of land will change hands in the next few years. That could hurt soil preservation efforts. Investors want top dollar when renting land and may not reinvest in conservation. Farmers renting high-priced ground --- rents have gone up by as much as 30 percent recently, Ridgeway said --- won't want to pay for improvements on land they don't own. "A renter would rather farm fence row to fence row (to maximize profit)," said Kenny Hennings, a Tripoli farmer and chairman of the Bremer County Soil Water Conservation District. "How do you fight the almighty dollar?" The battle Grundy County farmer Fred Abels owns 80 acres about 6 miles west of Grundy Center. Since purchasing the ground 10 years ago, the Grundy County SWCD assistant commissioner has spent thousands of dollars to build six waterways and 12 acres of buffer strips to prevent soil erosion. However, Abels said, the owners of the neighboring 80 acres south of his property --- Mooty Trust, the beneficiaries of which are brothers John and Melvin Mooty, lawyers from Minneapolis --- have done little to prevent soil erosion. During heavy rains, Abels said, water rushes on to his land, cutting gullies and eroding topsoil. In some instances, it even washes out crops. "I'm tired of taking on all that erosion. It's one of those deals where enough is enough," Abels said. John Mooty said the land has been in the family for 130 years, first farmed by his grandfather and then uncle. For the last 40 years, the Smit family has worked the ground. Paul Smit is the current tenant. Mooty said the family cherishes the ground and would never do anything to hurt it. "We're very much interested in the proper treatment of farmland anywhere, particularly what our grandfather farmed," Mooty said. He said it was never an issue when Abels' property was pasture ground and not tilled. "We're perfectly willing to listen to their complaint, but the ball is in their court," he continued. "We're simply doing what has been done the last 130 years." Abels plans to file a soil loss complaint later this month with the Grundy County NRCS. Soil commissioners and the district conservationist will investigate and make a ruling. The matter, if unresolved, could end up in district court. Abels recently had NRCS officials and a drainage engineer assess the problem. Soil experts, including Robert Mier, Grundy County NRCS district conservationist, concluded three waterways on the Mootys' ground linked to Abels' waterways would solve the problem. Abels estimates it would cost the Mootys about $3,000 to build the waterways. Mier and Ridgeway have heard of similar erosion issues between property owners. "Many don't even know what's going on because they don't have the knowledge. I think many would care if they had a greater understanding," Mier continued. "Fred's a good farmer and one of the best conservationists in the county. He notices more than most people would." Reaching out Educating absentee landowners about the importance of soil conservation is vital to saving the land, conservation experts said. In the past, Ridgeway and Mier said, it was easy to get the word out to landowners about ways to preserve topsoil. The vast majority were active farmers and would frequent U.S. Department of Agriculture Service Center offices ---- often housing NRCS and Farm Service Agency divisions --- on a regular basis. That is no longer the case. With more absentee landowners and business conducted via the Internet, soil experts said their job is more difficult. They will have to reach out more to owners, like direct mailings of conservation materials. "The SWCD will have to get back to basics and reach out to absentee landowners, educating those people," Ridgeway said. Installing soil-saving measures and requiring renters to follow certain farming techniques written into the lease, such as utilizing no-till or minimum-till practices, is an option. By preserving topsoil, conservationists say, the ground will be more productive and worth more in the end. Shell Rock farmer Ken Henning, also a Bremer County SWCD commissioner, said ignoring conservation needs for immediate profit isn't a wise decision. "Owners have to realize, land is not worth as much in the long run," Henning said. Contact Matthew Wilde at (319) 291-1579 or email@example.com.