In accordance with the Soil and Water Resources Conservation Act (RCA) the USDA has released a pre-publication of its assessment of the country’s natural resources. The assessment had this to say about farmland ownership:
Farms operated by part owners (those who both own and rent land) and tenants (those who rent all their land) were larger, on average, than similar operations of 30 years ago, and on average are larger than those operated by full owners. In 2007, part owners operated 915 acres on average (up 17 percent since 1978) while tenants operated 582 acres (up 52 percent). In addition, constant dollar sales per farm grew for both tenure classes—doubling for part owners and tripling for tenants between 1978 and 2008. This trend away from full ownership could have implications for conservation to the extent that operators have less control over the land and less incentive to conserve natural resources.
It is importance of the landowner role in this relationship, and the ability of the landowner to both ensure appropriate conservation practices are employed and to mitigate the tenant operator’s lack of “incentive to conserve natural resources.” This can be accomplished through negotiations between landowners and tenants to develop lease agreements that have conservation compliance mechanisms, such as specific crop rotations, limiting livestock access to streams, adherence to conservation and nutrient management plans, and following other best management practices, while providing incentives to the farm operator. Depending on the characteristics of the landowner and tenant, such incentives might include increased tenure security, cost-sharing, risk-sharing, and access to additional sources of income ranging from recreational leases to environmental service contracts.
The assessment contained the following information in relation to alternative agricultural markets:
Local food systems. Locally marketed foods account for a small but growing share of total U.S. food sales. Direct-to-consumer sales by agricultural producers increased from $551 million in 1997 to $1.2 billion in 2007, according to the Census of Agriculture. The number of farmers’ markets has nearly doubled over the last 10 years, and the number of other forms of local marketing, such as farm-to-school programs and community-supported agricultural organizations, has increased as well. Local food markets can increase the financial viability of farm operations located close to urban centers. Farmers near urbanized areas, particularly in the Northeast and on the West Coast, had the highest levels of direct-to-consumer sales in 2007 (fig. 2-9) [below].
Recreational use of agricultural land. Much like changing consumer preferences for food, changing preferences for recreation can influence agricultural land-use decisions. Roughly 2.5 percent of farms reported income from farm-based recreation in 2004 —such as fees for hunting, fishing, petting zoos, and horseback riding (Brown and Reeder 2007). Farmers located in the South accounted for more than half of all U.S. farmers reporting recreational income in 2004, and farms located in areas with broad-based recreational economies were more likely to provide recreational opportunities.
Environmental markets. There are potential opportunities for farmers to market ecosystem services. For example, water quality credit trading programs allow farmers to sell credits for nutrient and sediment reductions. These credits can then be sold to industries that are subject to pollution abatement regulations. Similar markets exist for the preservation of wetlands and are being considered for greenhouse gas mitigation. When coupled with voluntary markets for ecosystem services and with labeling standards, such as USDA’s organic label, these markets could compensate landowners for undertaking environmentally friendly farming practices (Ribaudo et al 2008).