As a tenant grain farmer, do you know what landowners want?
To be sure, fair value for leased land is only one part of this equation. Many landlords say the decision to rent to a particular farmer is based on more than just dollars. A trusting relationship can avoid ugly surprises when it’s time to renegotiate leases.
Building relationships starts with communication — whether it’s a friendly uncle, or a wary-eyed young heir who never grew up on a farm but now finds himself with property.
“People skills, good communication and word of mouth help us keep and attract new landowners,” says Todd Wachtel, who farms with family members Calvin, Gary and Ken near Altamont, Ill.
The Wachtels work with over 40 landlords in a wide range of business agreements. That includes extended family members and absentee owners who never farmed a day in their lives.
“Building that relationship may be most crucial with absentee, nonfarming owners,” says Todd. “We take every opportunity to work with owners who may have just inherited property or don’t know much about agriculture. Often those are the landowners who may ‘hear things’ from others and begin doubting the fairness of a land lease.
“We try to break down some of the issues in agriculture so it’s easy to understand,” he adds. “Part of it is helping them understand what’s going on, but a lot of it boils down to building a relationship where they trust you.
“That has to be earned, by doing the best job you can farming their land, keeping the fields clean and using common sense, like trying not to harvest when the wind is going to blow dirt toward their houses,” he says.
To build relationships, you might start with something as simple as a Facebook page for your farm. It’s free, and you can easily share your business progress and photos online. Invite landlords or other business partners to “like” the page.
The Wachtels publish a printed newsletter for landlords, potential landlords and other business partners. A newsletter could be as simple as a one-page PDF or Microsoft Word document that you email to landlords, or a four-page color publication, like the kind the Wachtels publish.
“Our newsletter serves as a ‘lifeline’ of communication, and lets all the landlords know at one time that we haven’t forgotten them,” says Wachtel. “It gives us a quick way to update them on any pertinent farming issues or upcoming FSA decisions related to CRP or the farm bill. It’s a somewhat subtle way to let them know what is happening with input and commodity prices. It gives us a chance to ‘soften the blow’ if the ag climate is heading south.”
Perhaps most important, the Wachtels always include personal photos and stories in the newsletter, to give landlords a chance to feel personally connected to the family.
“We’re not a corporate farm with no face; we are a family serving as stewards of their land,” says Todd.
The Wachtels always invite landlords to “ride along” with them during the planting or harvesting season — in a combine, tractor, or even in a semi hauling grain.
“We get several takers every year,” says Todd. “It’s fun to see the variety of responses, from ‘This is awesome!’ to ‘Don’t you get bored doing this all day, every day?’ ”
The Wachtels sweeten their relationships — literally — by planting enough sweet corn each spring for themselves and their landlords. “This year we estimated that we gave away over 20,000 ears of sweet corn to landlords and families,” says Todd.
They also want to be proactive on new farm policies. “With the new farm bill implementation coming up, we are trying to educate ourselves as quickly as possible, so we can, in turn, educate our landlords on the decisions that will have to be made,” explains Todd.
The newsletter is printed, but Todd expects to have it available in PDF format for email for the more tech-savvy landlords he works with. “I think that’s fantastic, as it saves postage for us and will be so much easier for landlords to forward to other people.”