The Power of Good Reference: What to Look for in a Farmland Tenant

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Your farmland is likely one of your most valuable assets—and if you’re not the person farming your land, you’ll need a tenant that you can trust.

Whether you want to lease your land for the first time or it’s just time to find a new farmland tenant, it can be hard to decide who is the right farm partner for your land.

That’s where references come in. Once you’ve found a farmer to whom you’d like to lease your farmland next year, it may be tempting to go on gut instinct alone. But following your initial conversation with the prospective tenant, you should contact the farmer’s references.

Talking to people who’ve worked directly with this person will give you a sense of how a farmer has managed farmland in the past and how they’ll likely manage yours. Here’s what you need to know about checking farmer references to make sure you find the best steward for your farmland.

Types of references you should request from a future farm partner

Tillable asks farmers for three types of references: one financial reference, an industry reference and a past landlord they’ve worked with. These references can answer key questions about a farmer’s record of soil health management and making timely payments.

The three contacts should look something like the following:

The financial reference: This will probably be a banker that the farmer has worked with. Or, if the farmer isn’t writing rental checks from their own account, talk to their financial institution or agricultural lender. That way you can make sure you know their cash flow is solid and that they’ll be able to pay rent.

The industry reference: This can be an equipment dealer, a seed dealer or a chemical or nutrient dealer. These are the folks that farmers interact with year after year and can help you get a read on the person.

The past landlord: This is a landowner like you who has leased their farmland to this farmer in the past. Ideally, to get the most objective feedback, this won’t be a family member.

It’s important to speak a reference from each of these areas because it will help build a full picture of this prospective tenant’s financial and professional capacity.

How to lead the conversation with a farmer’s reference

It can be helpful to keep your conversation with a reference somewhat open-ended so that your contact has room to highlight whatever they think you should know.

When talking to financial references, you should ask if the farmer is financially stable and able to pay your annual rent. It’s also important to know if they’ve had trouble with loan payments in the past.

When talking to industry references, ask about their use of equipment and input: Do they use nice equipment and do they do take care of it? Do they finance their inputs and machinery, or do they pay for them upfront? Do they do anything special like pay for premium inputs? Find out whether they’re using sustainable farming practices.

When talking to past landlords, you have the opportunity to find out first-hand what this farmer was like to work with. You might ask a past landlord to describe their relationship: How did it start and how communicative were they throughout the year?

You can also ask past landlords if the farmer made their payments on time, and dig in to find out how they handled weed issues or if they mowed ditches. This is also your chance to ask if the farmer has offered to raise the rent in the past or how the farmer presented their argument for lowering the rent, if they felt they needed to do so.

Any of these contacts can tell you if and how this prospective tenant went the extra mile. Beyond knowing how communicative or tech-savvy a farmer is, these conversations can reveal whether the farmer left a positive (or negative) impression as a farmland tenant.

Red flags in a farmland tenant’s history

Most indicators that a farmer is unqualified will be pretty glaring. For instance, if a prior landlord doesn’t have much to say except that the farmer paid rent and kept to themselves, you should be wary. A farmer who didn’t proactively communicate with their landlord probably wasn’t thoroughly engaging in the asset and its care.

Communication should be strong between a farmer and a landowner—farmers should keep their landowner in the loop about what’s happening on the farmland, and deliver any data that was promised in the farmland rental agreement.

Similarly, if you’d like to receive updates about fertilization and yields from your farmland tenant within a certain time frame, and a landlord reference says he didn’t consistently get that data from this farmer, there’s no guarantee that they’ll have that information for you in a timely manner.

Occasionally, something may come up in conversation that prompts you to run a background check or search a public infractions database. In this case, the research is just due diligence, but this kind of deep-dive isn’t recommended for every prospective farmland tenant.

Good references support strong farm partnerships

Asking for references shouldn’t just be an application formality that you don’t follow through on. These conversations are a great way to identify suitable tenants and weed out unqualified farmers who don’t share your priorities.

Whether or not you live near your farmland, making a few phone calls to a potential farmer’s references is a critical step to finding the right partner for your farmland. Better yet, it will help you maintain a healthy network in your local agricultural community and indicate that you care about the stewardship of your farmland.

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