Chris and Ray Gaesser stand in a field.

Chris Gaesser says his parents instilled a strong conservation ethic. Ray Gaesser sees the opportunities in transitioning the farm to his son and daughter-in-law. (Photo: Iowa Soybean Association)

Family Tradition: Preserving conservation values and legacies

May 5, 2021 | Bethany Baratta

According to Iowa State University, 60% of Iowa farmland is owned by people over the age of 65, and 35% of Iowa farmland is owned by those over 75. By 2024, landlords in the U.S. expect to transfer 91.5 million acres, or 10%, of all U.S. farmland. 

The way in which the land is transferred from one generation to the next could have a profound impact on the future of conservation efforts and of the land itself. 

Having a farm transition plan that includes conservation not only ensures the continuation of the farm — it also helps preserve a farmer’s conservation legacy. 

One farmer’s “aha” moment 

“We are all committed to trying new practices that make soil better and protect our water,” says farmer Ray Gaesser of Corning. “We need to have a plan for how we can continue those efforts when we step away from the farm.” 

Ray and his wife Elaine are currently working through their formalized transition plan with their son Chris and his wife Shannon, who are partners in their row crop business. 

Chris recalls the moment when he and his parents watched four inches of rain fall in one hour’s time, washing away crop residue built up over decades. The painful event prompted them to increase their conservation efforts. 

“Even though we were doing something, it wasn’t enough, and we knew we had to do better,” Chris says. 

The family planted cereal rye as a cover crop to help stabilize their soil and build soil health. Currently, the Gaessers have about 65% of their acres covered in cover crops. They’ve been incorporating terraces and waterways for more than 40 years, and they’ve been 100% no-till for 30 years. They see their dedication to conservation as a perfect complement to their transition plan, which sets up the continuation of the family’s commitments. 

“We have a responsibility to transition and help the next generation,” Ray says. “We also have to be able to learn to let go and let them make some of those decisions. As we learn that, we need to keep the value and the business model intact.” 

Mentoring the next generation 

The transition looks different for Wayne and Ruth Fredericks, who haven’t identified an heir who will take over the farming operation when they retire. Their daughter lives in Texas with her family. 

“We will definitely write a conservation lease,” says Wayne. “In there, we will have the goal on what we want to happen in terms of tillage practices and conservation efforts.” 

The Fredericks raise soybeans and corn in a 50-50 rotation and have been long-time users of no-till and strip-till. They have spent many years working on trials with the Iowa Soybean Association and have implemented cover crops on all their acres. 

Though he doesn’t have a transition plan formalized for his land, he expects to reach out to younger farmers who show progress and promise in continuing his conservation legacy. 

Value in conservation inheritance

Wayne says conservation practices and improved soil health should be figured into farmland values, much like Corn Suitability Ratings are for farms in Iowa. 

“When you really sit down and put a value on soil carbon and what the inherited value of that organic matter is to the soil, there’s some real value there,” Wayne says. 

Wayne calculated a 2.5% increase in organic matter on three different farms over the past 25 years. According to a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) analysis, every percent increase in soil organic matter equates to an additional 16,500 gallons of water available in the soil and approximately $18-per-acre value in improved moisture and soil resilience. Wayne also sees nutrient retention value in this organic matter increase and assigns it an $11 per acre value. 

“My field should be more productive than the farmer across the road that has the same soil and does full-width tillage,” Wayne says. He added that incentives like reduced crop insurance rates should be provided for more productive acres with increased soil health scores since they reduce risk potential. 

Pass it on

David Baker is a farm transition specialist and the director of Iowa State University’s Beginning Farmer Center. 

“There shouldn’t be anything holding farmers back from continuing conservation practices,” Baker says. 

Baker says mentorship coupled with financial assistance programs for conservation practices will help grow conservation efforts in the state. He’s worked with several farmers to determine the best ways to include conservation in contracts and agreements with their heirs and non-heir tenants and operators. 

Whether carried on through contracts or mentorships, farmers like Ray and Wayne are demonstrating why conservation legacies are worth preserving, contributing to both a personal sense of fulfillment and in setting the next generation of farmers on a better, more resilient course for the future. 

This story was originally published in the Spring 2021 issue of the Iowa Soybean Review.