Is there ever a situation where you, as either a farmer or farmland owner, wouldn’t want a written lease?
The general wisdom of the land access world is no. And we’d agree with that in almost every case.
But that doesn’t mean an oral or “handshake” lease can’t work well for a time.
A prime example is the farming relationship between the two people pictured above. Will Glazik, the farmer, is on the left. Jaci Davis, the landowner, is on the right. They spoke together at the 2018 Common Ground event that The Land Conservancy of McHenry County and we hosted at Soulful Prairie Farm in McHenry County.
Jaci and Will have a crop share lease for the 150 acres of tillable land in Ford County that Jaci owns. This arrangement is now going into its sixth year, during which Will has transitioned the land from conventional corn and bean production to organic diversified grain production. Just last year, for example, the spelt harvest was tremendous. And the arrangement, under which Jaci shares in both the expenses and the revenue from the crops, is working fine.
Learning what makes their relationship work so well is a way of learning important ingredients for any good farmer-landowner relationship. And it all starts with trust.
“I trust him so much,” says Jaci. “I don’t think we’ve ever disagreed about farming matters.”
If you ask Jaci about other reasons why the relationship works even without a lease, she points to several factors. For starters, they share a common commitment to restoring the health of the soil. In fact, they met at a conference when Jaci overheard Will speaking enthusiastically about cover crops. They struck up a conversation and the rest is history.
“Landowners are sometimes uncomfortable because they think they don't know enough to "talk soil and farming" with a farmer,” says Jaci. “All one has to do is be sincerely interested in the land and carefully steward it. Find a farmer with the same passion and you have a partnership.”
“We have shared values,” adds Will, “but Jaci doesn’t have strong feelings about exactly how I go about meeting her expectations. She wants me to respect the land and be profitable. That gives me the freedom to be creative and adapt to changing conditions.”
Nearly constant communication helps, too. Jaci lives on the land and the grain storage is also at the farm. So they see each other literally almost every day that Will comes to farm. They talk by phone frequently, too.
“It’s often many times a day,” says Will.
Because they have a crop share arrangement, she is also closely involved in discussing what will be planted. There are no surprises. She knows what is happening and helps decide what will happen. They share the risk and reward fairly and transparently.
That level of communication and shared decision-making is critical for the trust that they share. And Jaci makes a key point that a written lease cannot be a substitute for trust. “You can’t put every caveat in a lease,” she insists.
For another farm that she owns, however, Jaci believes a written lease will ultimately be best for her and the family who will begin transitioning the land to organic starting this year.
Part of the reasoning is just the distance. The other farm is a long way from Ford County so every day contact just won’t be possible. A lease will be better for the family and her.
“What a lease does is protect people,” Jaci says. “We need to protect each other.”
In the end, there are exceptions, like the handshake lease of Will and Jaci, which prove the rule. We believe that written leases are generally the best, especially when you are dealing with long-term regenerative farming.
But based on the experience of Will and Jaci, we’d propose a second rule of farmland leasing – as much as possible, find a farmer or farmland owner who you share fundamental values with and can have candid, open conversations with.
Written leases are easier to design fairly in that kind of situation, and when the unexpected happens, as it almost certainly will at some point, having trust and common values will give you a better chance of working out a good solution.
And it’s even possible to create a good friendship along the way.