Landowners and Farmers Partnering for Clean Water in the Great Lakes

Bridging the gap between conservation-minded women landowners, farmers, agricultural retailers, and consultants

Nearly 284 million acres of U.S. land – or 31 percent of the nation’s land in farms – are owned and rented out by landowners who do not farm. 

Many of these landowners are women who, as widows, daughters, or sisters, inherit the land from a family member and in turn rent it out to a local farmer.

The dynamic of landowner and operator often makes the decision to implement conservation practices a complicated one. 

Women landowners want to leave a lasting legacy and want to apply more conservation on their land, but may find it hard to communicate desires to their operators.

Many operators are ready to undertake more conservation practices, but want a better way to communicate to their landlord about sharing the risk (or the increasing length of the lease).

Agricultural retailers are also key pieces to the conservation puzzle. They have established relationships with farmers and can help reinforce the utility of conservation practices being implemented by operators.

So far, no one has resolved how to engage farm retailers, women landowners, and their operators in a way that results in the long-term use of more practices to reduce nutrient and soil sediment runoff on leased acres. 

The Project

AFT's "Landowners and Farmers Partnering for Clean Water in the Great Lakes" project will address this critical assistance gap by pilot-testing a new model designed to meet the unique conservation challenges of three key groups:

  1. Women landowners
  2. Farmers who lease land
  3. Agricultural retailers or consultants who provide support and advice to farmers

This pilot project is focused in northwestern Ohio (Portage and Toussaint River Basins, click for map) and western New York (Genesee River Basin, click for map). In these watersheds, 22-49 percent of the farmland is leased.

Our Goals

  • Expand the use of conservation practices that improve soil health and reduce run-off on leased farmland in the Great Lakes region.
  • Create a coordinated, replicable model for working with women landowners, operators, and agricultural retailers to achieve measurable conservation outcomes.

Why the Great Lakes?

Our Strategy: Learning Circles, Workshops, and Roundtables

In October 2017, AFT and experts from across the Great Lakes region began hosting Conservation Learning Circles for women landowners and workshops for operators leasing land. Project partners also interviewed retailers in both watersheds to gain their perspectives on farmland ownership and barriers to conservation on leased farmland.

Learning Circles for Women Landowners

Ten learning circles have already been held in the project areas, with six more to be scheduled.  Topics covered included soil health and your land, farming for clean water, holistic farm management planning (including managing for wooded portions of the land), leaving a lasting legacy, and tips for incorporating conservation into farmland leases.

Workshops for Operators Who Lease Land

During the first year of this project, the team presented at five farmer events to gauge farmer interest in topics related to implementing practices on rented land. We raised awareness about the project and the need to engage non-farming landlords/ladies and offered leasing workshops and sessions on “courting your landlord”.  The project team found these topics to be of interest and will expand this outreach in 2018/2019. 

Learning from Agricultural Retailers

Retailers and crop consultants clearly stated that they serve their clients, the farmers, and not the landowners. However they do see a need to help their clients communicate better with their landowners about investments in the land. A lack of knowledge by landowners can certainly be a barrier to services retailers can provide to be more efficient with nutrients or other conservation practices on rented lands. 

Useful Resources

Visit the Landowner Options page on AFT's Farmland Information Center for resources and tools to help owners of farmland and ranchland improve on-farm conservation, protect their land from development, transfer their land to the next generation, and lease land to agricultural producers.

We are hosting our next Ohio learning circle on January 22nd from 9am-1pm. Please click here to register today: https://farmland.salsalabs.org/ohioglpf

Contact Us!

For information on upcoming activities in New York, please contact Joan Sinclair Petzen, interim executive director/agriculture department program leader, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Wyoming County at JSP10@Cornell.edu or (585) 786-2251, Ext. 122.

For information on upcoming activities in Ohio, please contact Beth Landers from the Wood Soil and Water Conservation District at bethlanders@woodswcd.com or (419) 354.5517.

Partners and Funders

Primary funding support provided by:


In addition to American Farmland Trust, this effort includes:



Focusing on what this project can provide to retailers, the project team drafted a brochure that focuses on existing tools and information farmers can use to work with their landowners on new land management practices. The brochure below directs interested farmers to a collection of resources to help farmers cultivate good relationships with landowners, start a conversation about conservation, learn about leasing types that encourage shared investment in conservation, and draft good leases. 

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