Smaller farms also need help in conservation

Most full-time farmers in Iowa who make a living from their land have a relationship with their local soil and water conservation district and USDA agencies. Even those with smaller farms know where to get conservation help and have used technical and cost-share assistance programs for the most part, a Wallace’s Farmer survey confirmed last year.

That’s not the case, though, with most people who own between 5 and 100 acres who don’t depend on their land for their livelihood. In fact, a survey last year of small-scale landowners in Warren and Madison counties found that the majority didn’t know where to get help in caring for their land and water resources.

“These small-scale landowners own far less land in total than farmers with more than 100 acres. But in the two counties just south of Des Moines (Warren and Madison), we found they outnumber larger farmers by 60% to 40%,” says Dennis Pate, director of planning for Validus, a private-sector conservation firm in Urbandale.

Key Points

People who own 100 acres or less are increasing in numbers in Iowa.

They need to get information on caring for their soil and water resources.

Surveys show interest in conservation among small-scale landowners.

“There are about 1,300 landowners in each county who own less than 100 acres; they’re a mix of hobby farmers, recreational landowners, absentee heirs of farmers, wildlife and hunting enthusiasts, and others who just want a piece of land they can call their own,” Pate says. “While they don’t have a lot of land-care knowledge, many do have a strong interest in conservation.”

Validus and other conservation groups partnered with the Iowa Heartland Resource Conservation and Development group in an NRCS conservation innovation grant last year to learn more about small-scale landowner conservation needs and goals. More than two-thirds of the 650 small-scale landowners responding to a mail survey wanted to be contacted, and 85 small-scale landowners asked for a consultation on their farm.

“We know there’s interest in conservation in this group,” says Harold Whipple, a Warren County Soil and Water Conservation District commissioner and a small-scale landowner. Whipple also sees how difficult it’s been for the USDA workforce to serve the needs of so many small-scale landowners with the workload NRCS and FSA have on larger farms.

Validus contributed cash and employee time toward the project to help determine if there would be a market for private-sector conservation assistance on a fee basis. As part of the grant, a professional planner from Validus or Pheasants Forever met with interested landowners. “More than half the people were interested in building or renovating ponds,” says Wes Phillips, a forester/technical assistant with Validus who met with most of the landowners. “They were also most interested in erosion control, wildlife habitat, tree planting and prairie renovations.”

Willing to pay for help?

The survey found small-scale landowners would be willing to pay for professional guidance in caring for their land. “That’s been true to some extent, but we are still in the initial stages of finding out how strong that market might be,” notes Phillips.

Validus is still exploring that market and is now offering conservation planning and follow-up consulting to small-scale landowners on a fee basis. “We believe there’s a gap in service to this group,” Phillips says. “We want to help a small-scale landowner meet his or her resource goals within his or her budget, guiding them through the options they have to care for their land.”

The small-scale landowner work is a new service from Validus. The firm has worked nationwide for a number of years with larger landowners to develop conservation plans such as comprehensive nutrient management plans and Conservation Reserve Program plans. For more information, contact Phillips at

Betts writes from Johnston.


PONDS ARE PRIORITY: Small-scale landowners list ponds as their most sought-after conservation practice, followed by general erosion control, wildlife habitat, tree planting and prairie renovations.


PROFESSIONAL PLANNER: Wes Phillips, a forester and technical assistant with Validus, helps small-scale landowners plan ahead to meet their conservation needs.

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

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.