John Mesko (00:30):
Hi, I'm John Mesko. Welcome to another edition of The People of Soil Health, a podcast of the Soil Health Partnership, exploring the relationships and the work which are building soil all over the US. The Nature Conservancy, often referred to as TNC, is striving to create a world in which both nature and people thrive.
John Mesko (00:52):
Joining us today is Randy Dell, the soil health and nutrient strategy manager with The Nature Conservancy. In his role, Randy works to provide farmers and others in the agriculture community with the economic and scientific data, technical resources, and opportunities, to increase agriculture production while safeguarding land and water resources.
John Mesko (01:14):
Welcome, Randy. Thanks for being on the podcast today.
Randy Dell (01:17):
Hi, John. Thank you. Thanks for having me.
John Mesko (01:19):
I know I'm interested, and a lot of the listeners that are going to be listening to this podcast are looking for how to connect everybody that's working. Right? We have so many different people now working in soil health, and everybody comes from a little bit different background. And I'm curious how your journey in soil health began and how you ended up at The Nature Conservancy.
Randy Dell (01:43):
Yeah, so my introduction and journey began a little bit later in my career. So my background, or my training, is in economics, in agricultural economics, but my only biology class was biology for business majors. I didn't really have a deep understanding or appreciation for soils. After I started my career, initially with Ducks Unlimited – another conservation organization – working on carbon credit opportunities for prairie and grassland preservation, that I went to a local farm conference in Bismarck, North Dakota, where I was living. And I caught a presentation by Jay Fuhrer with the NRCS North Dakota.
Randy Dell (02:19):
He was talking about some of the things he was doing with farmers like Gabe Brown, and it really lit a lightbulb for me, just seeing these really different practices, approaches, the results they were getting, and just the excitement and enthusiasm. It really triggered "Something different's going on here." And that generated my interest in soil health.
Randy Dell (02:38):
Few years down the road, I had the opportunity to join TNC and moved back to Michigan, where me and my family are originally from. And now I get to focus more on soil health and be part of the movement.
John Mesko (02:48):
Well, that's fantastic. And I know that the folks in Bismarck have inspired a lot of people in the soil health movement. Many different facets of the work that is going on have found their source or their inspiration there, and certainly can appreciate that. Now tell us a little bit more about what you do at The Nature Conservancy in your role.
Randy Dell (03:08):
So I am with TNC's North American Agriculture Program and providing food and water sustainably is one of our global priorities. And, in North America, that really focuses on increasing the scale and the durability, adoption of soil health and nutrient management systems and practices. So TNC, we work with a broad range of partners, such as Soil Health Partnership, researchers at universities, and others throughout the supply chain. Farm commodity groups.
Randy Dell (03:36):
And in my role in particular, I focus on incentives. How can we create new and better incentives to really drive the increased scale of the adoption of these practices? So, really, just taking kind of applied economics. So how can we take and create better economic incentives, financial incentives? And also kind of realizing there's a behavioral component to a lot of this. How can we create better learning systems and technical assistance to farmers and their advisors to increase the skill of these practices?
John Mesko (04:03):
Well, you bring up a really important piece of the work that is involved in helping people understand and consider changes in farming practices, whether it's a new technology, new equipment or a change in the way they treat their soil. There is this, as you said, this behavioral component, and it's a rapidly changing view of the world, in a lot of ways, because of course we have social media and the opportunity for people to connect with like-minded individuals across the miles. It doesn't have to be your neighbor or somebody in your township or in your county that you're comparing notes with as a farmer. You can compare notes with someone across the country. And certainly that's been a huge change in the last few years in agriculture.
John Mesko (04:51):
And one of the other changes that has been going on for many years, and is continuing, is this trend towards the absentee landowner or the landowner that does not operate the farm and rents it out. About half the ground in the US is rented from non-operating landowners. And I know that you've done quite a bit of work in digging into this and really trying to understand how those relationships work and how those non-operating landowners can begin to learn about some of these options. Tell us how TNC got into that and what have you been learning?
Randy Dell (05:27):
Yeah, so, great set of questions. So, TNC, a few years ago, published our Soil Health Roadmap, which identified 10 key policy, economic, and science themes or areas that we need to really unlock the benefits and the adoption of soil health systems. And non-operating landowners are one of those components of the Soil Health Roadmap.
Randy Dell (05:49):
And I think everyone knows there's a lot of ground that's rented, as you mentioned, in some counties. And in the Midwest up to 80, 90% of the ground is rented out. And there's been a little bit of research, but not a lot, looking at what is the adoption of conservation practices on those rented acres. And then just more basically, who are these people? How do they own their land? What's their relationship with their farmer? How much land do they own? Et cetera. So TNC came into this with a very kind of open-minded research approach, trying to better understand who are these people, how can we help them make better conservation decisions, and just understanding what are the needs of both farmers and landowners to go on this journey?
Randy Dell (06:28):
And one of the first things we did is we held a series of workshops in the three "I" states – Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa – where we pulled together kind of the broader landowner, if you will, ecosystem. So attorneys, farm managers, farmers, commodity groups, Extension, both ag economists and sociologists, and others, and kind of went through a day of understanding what are the perceived barriers to conservation adoption with these people, and then what are the needs and what are some of the solutions, potentially.
Randy Dell (06:59):
And, across the three states, the input was pretty similar across three States. One, is that there's a need for a simpler soil health metric. I mean, the scientists, the technical people, they grasp and understand it. But if we can have a simpler metric or set of metrics that landowners, farmers can more readily use, we can incorporate that into leases. We can incorporate that into financial incentives and we can just kind of let the market work on that.
Randy Dell (07:27):
The other thing is that it's not really a legal barrier here. So a thing that comes up a lot is that a lot of these leases are verbal, they're year to year. And sometimes it's identified as a potential barrier to taking longer term conservation practices, and there's a component to it. But it's really just communication and a behavioral aspect of getting farmers and landowners to talk and kind of figure out what works for their systems, for their relationships, to put these practices in place.
John Mesko (07:54):
That leads me to another question. You mentioned early on in your comments about trying to get a feel for the demographics of the non-operating landowner. Of course, they're not all the same and there's many reasons why somebody may own land and choose not to farm. And tell me what you found in terms of the demographics? What type of people are we talking about?
Randy Dell (08:18):
Yeah. So as you said, there's no average farmer, there's no average landowner. And it ranges from the true absentee landowners, people who might live out of state or on the coast and several generations removed from farming, to retired farmers, to spouses of retired farmers. People who live in-state, people have just purely investment motivations and purchased land relatively recently. And there's a diversity of ownership structures. There's individuals, there's corporations, partnerships, trusts, and they'll make decisions differently and have different motivations for owning and managing farmland.
Randy Dell (08:51):
So, the demographics has been a little bit of a mystery. So USDA – US Department of Agriculture – did a survey in the 90s and one more recently, looking at nationally non-operating landowners and land ownership of farmland. And then some states, like Iowa, have the really great Iowa Farm and Rural Life survey to have kind of a more continuous snapshot of land ownership. But there's this gap of both the demographics and then kind of more on the motivations and relationships of landowners with their farmers, with conservation and interest in different incentives or conservation programs.
Randy Dell (09:27):
So we worked with American Farmland Trust, who's been really a leader and initial partner in looking at non-operating landowners, particularly women-owned land owners. And American Farmland Trust was working with a researcher at Utah State, Peg Petrzelka, to develop a survey to really address some of these questions. And we partnered with them to implement the survey in Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa.
Randy Dell (09:49):
And there's some similarities to the USDA data, but we're also able to ask more kind of probing questions on the motivations. And, generally, in the survey, that survey respondents in the "I" states, maybe not surprising, they're a little bit older on average than farmers. The average age was 70 to 72, I believe.
Randy Dell (10:10):
And what was a little bit surprising, maybe, it was that there were still pretty close connections to the land. 30 to 52%, depending on the state, still lived on the farm land parcel. 60 to 80% were retired farmers who had parents who farmed. So, there's still a relatively close connection to agriculture and farming. And 40% of these landowners had land in their family for 70 plus years. So it's transitioning to family members and staying within families for the most part.
John Mesko (10:39):
And when you see that kind of longevity in land ownership where the family has either been on or owned that land for a long time, does that affect that landowner's attitude towards conservation and the things that we're talking about when we think about having the environment and people thrive in farming?
Randy Dell (10:59):
Yeah, so the stewardship and the maintaining of the soil and the land is a really powerful message and resonates with a lot of these landowners. So when we asked the survey respondents to rank 15 different attributes of what makes a desirable operator or farmer, it wasn't the amount of rental pay per acre. I mean, it's not to say that the annual income isn't important for a lot of these land owners. But when asked to rank 15 different attributes, ability to maintain and improve my soil was one of the highest ranking attributes and the amount of rental pay per acre was towards the bottom.
Randy Dell (11:34):
So these landowners are generally, they're committed to their farmer. They want to see their farmer succeed. Often it's a relative or a close family friend. And the disconnect is that they value conservation. They maybe don't know what conservation practices might be implemented on their land, but they trust their farmer to be making those decisions, making good and the right decisions.
John Mesko (11:56):
One of the things that we're doing at Soil Health Partnership is trying to influence the adoption of soil health building practices like cover crops and reduced tillage or livestock grazing. And when we talk to farmers, we have a certain approach, a certain vocabulary that we use. And when we talk to landowners, we sometimes have to speak a little bit differently to help them understand what we're trying to do and how that could benefit their land and extend some of their goals or reach some of their values. And I know that Nature Conservancy did some research with Purdue University, and then also the Farm Journal Trust in Food campaign, to look at messaging to landowners. And what kinds of things did you find out in discussing these issues?
Randy Dell (12:47):
Yeah, so we learned quite a bit. And the findings from both of those efforts really reinforced some of the conclusions from the demographic survey that I referenced earlier. And just a little context on the Purdue project. So we worked with Purdue University and Dr. Linda Prokopy, in her lab. And part of the project was testing different messages to landowners, to send them a packet about soil health.
Randy Dell (13:11):
The packets had information about local technical assistance, Extension or conservation district staff and programs, as well as some information about benefits and how different soil health practices, particularly cover crops, work in their geography.
Randy Dell (13:27):
And in order to recruit, we did a little bit of an experiment. To receive those packets, we'd offer different messages. So, some were environmental or sustainability-focused, focusing more on the stewardship of the land. Some were focused on economics or profitability. And some focused on the legacy or the family connection to the land.
Randy Dell (13:47):
And, of all the different messages, the one that had the highest response rate was the simple, "What is soil health?" So, they wanted just basic information, what is soil health? And, actually, in the AFT survey, when we asked landowners their interest in five or six different conservation programs or resources or tools, they generally weren't. They didn't want to participate in workshops. They don't want to join a peer group. They didn't want technical advice from either a government agency or from a private sector program. The one that ranked the highest was just information geared towards landowners about conservation soil health practices and access to simple leasing tools that account for the benefits and costs of some of these practices.
Randy Dell (14:33):
And this was reinforced by a communications campaign that we did, also with Farm Journal media's Trust in Food program. And the takeaway from all these different efforts was that the landowners are really looking to their farmer. They want to hear about soil health, they want to hear about conservation from their operator. They trust them. They know that they're making good decisions.
Randy Dell (14:56):
They don't want to hear from The Nature Conservancy. They don't want to hear from other groups. They want to hear from their farmer. So, the better we can equip farmers to have that conversation and to demonstrate the good things they're doing on the ground and motivate landowners to join them on that journey, that's where we think we can help landowners the most.
John Mesko (15:15):
Well, that makes a lot of sense that the relationship that a landowner has with their farmer's pretty important and they certainly don't want to be at odds, generally. They want to be in agreement and they want to be working together. So, Randy, when you think about how you want to address farmers and equip them to engage with their landowners around this conversation, what kinds of tools can you put into a farmer's toolbox to have that conversation?
Randy Dell (15:46):
Yeah, great question. So there's a few things. So we need to have both parties equipped and ready to have that conversation. So part of the work we did with Purdue in talking to both land owners, different kinds of land owners and different farmers, is that, both parties, there's this reluctance to change the status quo. They don't want to rock the boat. They don't want to upset the other party.
Randy Dell (16:06):
So, by having landowners be comfortable to have this conversation and encouraging them to work with their farmer to do that, that's part of the equation. But as I said, they're really looking to their landowner to guide them, or their farmer, excuse me, to guide them on that conversation and communicate with what practices might be suitable or workable for their ground. So a few things that TNC, we've been doing, is working with state corn groups.
Randy Dell (16:32):
So, Iowa Corn Growers has been a fantastic partner. They have a really great set of resources on iowacorn.org. But, testimonials from farmers and how they've worked with their landowner to put different soil health conservation practices in place. Some resource guides that we developed with Trust in Food, kind of going through, step-by-step, in how to work with your landowner and having this conversation.
Randy Dell (16:56):
And the main thing is to start simple. Even though a lot of these landowners have a background or connection to agriculture, they might not be current with modern practices, modern technology. And just demonstrating or communicating either initially with really kind of simple terms, simple concepts, and then taking the data that you have. If you're doing these practices on ground that you own, or another other acres that you're renting, showing the profitability and the performance of those acres, relative to this piece of ground. And just being patient and willing to provide information, answer questions, and kind of figure out what, from a starting point, what are the conservation objectives and management objectives of the landowner and how can you work together to implement those?
Randy Dell (17:42):
And once you're at that stage, you're close to that, on the Iowa Corn website there's some lease addendums that were developed by, actually, Illinois Corn and University of Illinois, on how to incorporate cover crops and some other conservation practices into your lease arrangement. And all these materials will also be available as well on nature.org/rentedfarmland.
John Mesko (18:06):
Okay, that's good. Nature.org/rentedfarmland, I think, is a good resource for people to explore tools that they might need.
John Mesko (18:16):
And, myself included, a lot of us have been working on helping folks learn about and understand farming practices, which can have a positive impact on the bottom line and can have positive impact on the environment and some of these relationships we've been talking about. But change is slow.
John Mesko (18:34):
I think we all recognize that helping navigate through some of the relationships and some of the changes that need to take place, it's a slow process. And yet change has occurred, as we all know. There's been a tremendous change over the last 5 to 10 years, and a number of folks that are interested in using some of these practices.
John Mesko (18:54):
I want to ask you though, Randy, from your experience, what do you think's going to happen in the next five years? What kinds of things are you really excited about that could be happening in soil health? And what's maybe something that you think is kind of a watershed event that could occur in the near future, if anything?
Randy Dell (19:15):
Yeah. So I think we are at a really kind of seminal stage in the soil health movement. I think the really rapid advances in the science and the technology, I think once we can measure and define what is soil health more easily and more understandably, that's going to unleash a whole wave of new innovation, whether that's financial incentives, whether that's just changes in management and communicating the benefits of these practices. I think that'll be a real kind of watershed advancement, once we can more readily and easily quantify what is soil health and changes in the land, or project changes in the land, to encourage the shift in jumping into soil health systems.
John Mesko (19:55):
Well. And I'm not even going to tell everybody about the setup that you gave me right there. I mean, that is exactly what we're trying to do with The Soil Health Partnership. We didn't plan this folks. That is exactly what we're trying to do, is to bring about some of that understanding and some of that quantification. It's really important and it isn't as easy, maybe, as folks thought it would be when we first started this.
John Mesko (20:18):
But the challenge really lies in helping to understand the metrics, helping to understand how that can be translated into farmland values and rental values and so forth. And a lot of that boils down to some of the things around economic advancements and the opportunity to improve the bottom line.
John Mesko (20:41):
The Nature Conservancy's been a great partner of ours for many years, as you know. And so, Randy, I really appreciate you. Not only your work there in Michigan, and around the country, on non-operating landowners, but also just the partnership that we have with you and your organization to address some of these things we've been talking about. I really appreciate the opportunity to work with you.
Randy Dell (21:06):
Likewise, John. You and the rest of your Soil Health Partnership team have been fantastic partners and great to work with.
John Mesko (21:11):
And thank you. And today's podcast is a great highlight of some of the things that we're doing together. So again, really appreciate you joining me for this and thanks so much for being on.
Randy Dell (21:23):