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Absentee Landlords Interfere With Farmers Protecting Water, Soil

NOEL KING, HOST:

Some of our biggest environmental problems, like water pollution and endangered wildlife, are caused by large-scale farming, which means farmers are in a position to reduce environmental damage or at least mitigate it. Why don't they? One reason - they often don't own much of the land that they farm. Here's NPR's Dan Charles.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Lisa Schulte Moore loves nature. I reached her while she was visiting the forests of northern Minnesota.

LISA SCHULTE MOORE: I can only describe it as healing - you know, just all of the stress of our world and such - you just forget about it when you're in one of these beautiful old-growth forests.

CHARLES: She teaches ecology at Iowa State University. But when she moved to Iowa 17 years ago, she struggled a little. She didn't have that same feeling standing in vast fields of corn. She wasn't hearing any birds or seeing many bugs.

SCHULTE MOORE: All I can hear are the leaves of the rustling corn around me and not one other biological noise at all, right? It's - you know, they call it the green desert.

CHARLES: And there is a lot of land like this. This year, corn and soybeans covered land that's equal in size to all the East Coast states from New York to Georgia. But Schulte Moore says it doesn't have to be a green desert. She's been studying what she calls prairie strips, stretches of land running through fields of corn or soybeans where farmers have set aside maybe 10% of the land for tall stemmed grasses and wildflowers. It's a different world there, she says.

SCHULTE MOORE: Birds singing. There are bees buzzing. There were crickets chirping. There was stuff hopping around.

CHARLES: These bits of prairie also protect soil and water, capture carbon dioxide from the air. For this to happen, though, farmers have to be willing to give this land back to nature. And many experts on farmland say it can make economic sense. One of them is Steve Bruere, president of Peoples Company in Des Moines, Iowa, who buys, sells and manages farmland across the country.

STEVE BRUERE: One of the first things that we do - and we do this on every farm that we manage - is we run these profitability maps.

CHARLES: His company creates a detailed map of the farm, what they spend and what they earn on every acre. And they're finding consistently that some of that land loses money.

BRUERE: It's amazing. About 10 to 15% of all the acres in Iowa aren't profitable.

CHARLES: There are those hillsides with eroded soil, spots where water collects in a big puddle after every rain. That is where they advise farmers to cut their losses, maybe bring back the prairie. Some farmers are doing this kind of thing. Most are not. And one reason, the farm experts say, is an underappreciated fact about America's farmland. Farmers only own about half their land. The rest of it they rent year by year from a collection of landlords. Linda Prokopy from Purdue University has studied those landowners.

LINDA PROKOPY: They're a very diverse group of people - much more diverse than farmers.

CHARLES: Many are elderly, retired farmers now renting the land to the next generation. Some inherited it from grandparents.

PROKOPY: You have younger urban people who co-own a piece of land with many cousins and don't know anything about farming.

CHARLES: So when it comes to managing that land, Steve Breuer from Peoples Company says it often plays out like this. Let's say somebody owns 160 acres. Thirty of those acres are lousy for growing crops. But they'll rent out the whole thing.

BRUERE: As a landowner, you want those 30 acres farmed because you're trying to get rental revenue on every acre that you can get.

CHARLES: And the farmer will go along because he or she really wants the 130 good acres. Sarah Carlson, longtime environmental advocate with the group Practical Farmers of Iowa, gets annoyed by landowners who just want their rent check.

SARAH CARLSON: We need to start calling landlords slumlords in a lot of cases. They're just as guilty.

CHARLES: She says consider something else - cover crops, vegetation that farmers can plant in the off-season to protect and enrich the soil. It's great for the environment and for your crops in the long run. But it costs money up front. So tenant farmers who may not be there in the long run are reluctant to spend that money. Carlson says some landlords do care enough that they'll spend the money to protect the environment, build those prairie strips, pay for cover crops. But they're the exceptions.

CARLSON: I mean, even my mom wasn't that kind of landlord. And I'm her daughter. Like, I'm like, what do you mean we're not going to do cover crops? What is wrong with you?

CHARLES: Steve Bruere the land broker says he does see signs that things are changing. There's a new kind of landowner showing up - people who didn't inherit the farm land but decided to buy it, some of them because they care about how food's produced and the environment. Others are purely investors. For them, the land is a financial asset. But they understand that this asset can increase in value if they protect it. Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.