Land Tenure and Nutrient Management Practices: Identifying Economic Barriers and Incentives for Landowners and Tenants to Meet Growing Soil and Water Conservation Needs

Aug 2016


Agricultural nutrient runoff and farmers’ adoption of conservation practices have become a hotly debated topic across the Corn Belt. With almost half of the acres leased in the Midwest, and the majority of those from non-operator landowners, it is important to investigate how tenants and landowners make conservation practice decisions. It’s also important to explore what economic and legal incentives are necessary to achieve greater adoption.


The overall goal of this project is to enhance adoption of nutrient management practices and result in win-win situations for landowners and tenants.


Two statewide surveys will be conducted to examine the economic incentives of adoption. A special section on land tenure and conservation will be added to the state-mandated Iowa Farmland Ownership and Tenure survey. This statewide survey has been conducted by phone every five years from 1982 through 2012. Second, a similar but separate survey will be conducted among tenants in Iowa.

Project Updates

December 2018


The key messages we want to share about this research:

  • More attention and research is needed to examine how land tenure affects conservation decisions. About 53% percent of Iowa farmland is leased, with the majority of farmland leases being cash rental arrangements
  • Cover crops are grown on approximately four percent of Iowa farmland, while no-till is currently used on 27 percent of acres.
  • About 20 percent of farmland owners expressed willingness to pay a portion of planting costs to encourage more adoption of conservation practices on the land they own.

Eight presentations were given on this project at the time of the final report.

Find additional details in the 2017 Iowa Farmland Ownership and Tenure Survey report and video, at:

March 2018

This quarter, the team continued to work with staff members at the ISU Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology (CSSM) to clean up and code the responses to the land ownership survey, and develop a land survey codebook. The team held two meetings with CSSM staff to understand the setup of the dataset from the survey and how typical responses are recorded based on patterns of the responses. Work also is underway on the creation and interpretation of the statistical weights of landowners and farmland owned to better extrapolate survey responses to statistically represent various situations in Iowa.

December 2017

Over the last quarter, the team has worked closely with ISU Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology staff to continue the land ownership survey collection process. The data collection process was completed with valid responses from more than 500 landowners, yielding a 60 percent response rate for the statewide telephone survey.

September 2017

The survey now is underway. A Qualtrics-based data entry system was developed to manage survey responses. Investigators worked with the ISU Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology to train more than 10 telephone survey enumerators on the logistics of the survey, and how to enter responses into the system. Several guiding documents for the enumerators were developed, including a glossary of key terms, and how to probe for responses under certain circumstances.


June 2017

Over the last quarter, investigators worked with the ISU Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology staff to finalize the survey questionnaire. This included adding a new section on “Land Tenure and Conservation.” This section is aimed at soliciting landowners’ opinions and knowledge of current and future conservation practice adoption, enrollment in conservation programs, impediments in conservation practice adoption, and reaction to alternative nutrient policies geared towards more conservation practice adoptions.

March 2017

The target population for this study is Iowa land being used for agricultural purposes as of July 1, 2017. Because no complete list of owners of Iowa farmland is available, owners of land were sampled through a two-stage area sampling design. The first stage consisted of randomly selecting 705, 40-acre parcels. The next step consisted of identifying and contacting the owners of the selected parcels of land. Investigators now have obtained landowner names as of April 1, 2017, for all parcels chosen. Letters were sent to county auditors to obtain contact information for these landowners.

December 2016

Work is underway on the 2017 Iowa Land Ownership survey, with a special section planned on land tenure and conservation. During this quarter, investigators worked with interested commodity groups and potential funders to help pay for the survey, which is mandated every five years by Iowa law.