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Endorse voluntary conservation

Certification — whether voluntary or regulated — is playing an ever-larger role in agriculture.

People take some level of comfort in knowing an individual, company or farming operation has been certified by a third party as meeting a set of standards or criteria. That’s the idea behind the more well-known certification programs, such as those for commercial pesticide applicators, for instance, and organic farming.

Key Points

Fourteen farmers have been certified as being committed to conservation.

Goal is to have a list of certified conservation farmers in each county.

Landlords looking for a tenant need to know who is certified.


Farms may be certified for following certain standards in crop production, too. The certifications help set those farms apart from the competition in niche farming operations. Now, a program is being developed in three counties in western Iowa that could set tenants who are certified as top-notch conservation producers apart from those who aren’t as strong in demonstrating they will give the best of care to land, water and other natural resources on the farms they rent.

Time is right

“It makes so much sense to certify the best conservation operators, I don’t know why it wasn’t done 10 years ago,” says Tom Buman of Agren in Carroll, Iowa, one of the people guiding the pilot certification effort. “But the timing is right now, too, with high land prices. Conservation is basic to landowners protecting their investment, and tenants who practice conservation are critical to that protection.”

Fourteen conservation-minded farmers, the first group to ever do so, are making their way through the pilot conservation certification program designed for tenants who are committed to conservation. The pilot project in Calhoun, Carroll and Sac counties is being carried out by Agren and funded by a Conservation Innovation Grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service to Conservation Districts of Iowa.

“Farmers had to apply for the program. We interviewed each of the applicants, and selected the first 14 farmers,” says project coordinator Peggy Buman. “Each farmer has to complete 40 hours of conservation in the classroom, as well as log more time for practical in-field observations on conservation techniques.” She says each participant will also develop a “whole farm” conservation plan on land they farm.

The process calls for continuing education on the part of the conservation tenants, and includes a certification renewal every three years. “We’re looking to certify the best of the best in this program,” says Tom. “The conservation plan they develop will be a robust one.”

Tom likes what he’s seen in the first group of applicants. “I’m really impressed with the quality of farmers, and the conservation commitment and knowledge we’re seeing,” he says, “and we’re all very excited that the group includes young farmers who see the big picture of all of this.”

Iowa State University and Iowa Department of Natural Resources professionals have served as classroom instructors. The intent is to have the first group certified by February, notes Peggy, and a second group certified by late winter.

Promote certified tenants

One long-term goal is to have a list of certified conservation farmers available in each county, just as lists of conservation contractors are available. The certified farmers would be expected to promote conservation in the community and share their conservation knowledge. Their work would be graded, possibly each year, by independent third-party conservationists.

“We don’t have that all worked out yet,” says Peggy, “but we know we want to be sure they walk the walk on conservation. Their certification could be revoked; farmers in the program and others we’ve talked with want it to have some teeth.”

Connecting certified tenants to landowners is very important. “We’ve learned over the years, that if you want more conservation on the ground, you need to get more ground farmed by conservation farmers,” Tom notes. “So we need to do more than certify these conservation tenants; we need to make sure landlords who are looking for a tenant know who the certified conservation tenants are in their area. Just getting these people on a list doesn’t do them or a landlord any good; they need to be able to get together.”

To do that, the conservation community needs to get behind the program. “In the three-county project area, we will send out lists of the certified conservation farmers, and ask landlords who are replacing tenants to consider these strong conservation tenants,” Tom explains. “What’s needed is to have this done statewide and across the country, to get as much land farmed by the strongest conservation farmers — those tenants dedicated to conservation — as we can.”

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CONSERVATION CERTIFICATION: Tenants certified for conservation will be experienced users of conservation practices that save soil, improve water quality, and offer habitat to wildlife.

This article published in the January, 2012 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.