Alexis Econie and poster

Alexis Econie with her poster presentation of her LAKES REU research project.

The first in an 11-part series featuring the results of this year’s student research on water quality in the Red Cedar Watershed:

It’s been said that we are the product of the five people with whom we spend the most time. In my case, I am (very luckily!) the composite of my kind and talented research partner, Clare Salerno, my brilliant and enthusiastic research mentor, Dr. Nels Paulson, my two charming roommates, and, of course, the houseplant that sat atop my desk as I researched Non-Operating Landowners and BMP (Best Management Practice) Lease Agreements in Dunn County and Barron County at the University of Wisconsin-Stout this summer.

While the idea of reproducing the values and characteristics of the people we hang around most seems obvious, it has powerful implications in every scenario to which it is applied, be it the workplace, personal relationships, or land use. In the case of our research, we found that non-operating landowners who have close relationships with their tenants and are connected to other non-operating landowners through groups and organizations — such as farmer’s unions, sportsman’s clubs, and church groups — are more likely to include best management practices in their lease agreements with the farmers who rent out and farm their land.

Our research was motivated by curiosity about people who own farmland, but do not farm it themselves. These Non-Operating Landowners (NOLs, as we called them) own roughly 40 percent of the farmland in the United States and rent it out to one or more tenants for farming. The relationships between NOLs and tenants are diverse.

Survey results

After mailing surveys to over 900 non-operators who own land in Dunn and Barron counties, we observed NOL-tenant relationships that varied from “very close” to “very distant” — with some NOLs requiring written lease agreements, while others were satisfied with a verbal promise of stewardship and a handshake.

What most interested us, however, was why some of these lease agreements required BMPs while others did not. BMPs are conservation practices used in farming such as no-till, cover crops, grass waterways, and manure management that help preserve the land being farmed, keep the soil on the land, and contribute to cleaner and healthier streams, lakes, and rivers in the watershed. As BMPs play such an important role in watershed health, we were eager to uncover the factors that motivated NOLs to include these practices in lease agreements with their tenants.

We found that landowners who have closer relationships with their tenants were more likely to include BMPs in their lease agreements. Further, NOLs who were involved in organizations and groups were also more inclined to include BMPs in their lease agreements.

These social interactions among NOLs and from NOL to tenant are very important for knowledge transfer about land management and for shared value of land conservation and BMP usage. Perhaps most importantly, those who have a high sense of trust in their neighbors and trust in the local community in the watershed are more likely to have BMPs required in their lease agreements.

Engagement is key

So what do we do with this information? Being informed and aware is certainly a step in the right direction, but what does knowing this information really do to help clean up the Red Cedar Watershed?

We must take action. Civic and social engagement is important for NOLs for both long-term vitality of their land and for the betterment of the watershed. Just as members of a book club meet on a regular basis to exchange opinions and discuss ideas about the books they have most recently read, there needs to be a space for landowners to congregate and discuss matters relating to their land practices and their relationships with their tenants. NOLs need to be connected to one another and to their tenants so that they can discuss matters relating to their land and then apply them.

Such civic engagement does not even need to be within environmental organizations or farming organizations for this knowledge transfer to occur. Other organizations, like a Rotary club or a church group, can likely function in these ways for NOLs, too.

We all know that the people with whom we spend our time shape our ideas, values and actions. But what many of us do not see is that moving toward a cleaner watershed may be as simple as getting people connected and engaged. And now the evidence is in — we must do so.

Wisconsinites are renowned in this country for their commitment to one another. The desire for strong communities has historically driven Wisconsin’s remarkable agriculture, tourism industry, education system, and environmental movements. So, Wisconsinites, let’s get connected!

Alexis Econie of Illinois State University was among the 11 students from across the country who took part in LAKES REU.

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Dunn County News editor

Barbara Lyon is the editor of The Dunn County News in Menomonie, WI.

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