When one of his largest landowners walked away last year, Rob Richards of Indy Family Farms in Indiana realized that his communications to landlords were falling short. The loss was a wake-up call for the family business, which covers 12,000 acres in counties south of Indianapolis and includes 164 landlords, who range from retired farmers to investors.

“We lost a significant landowner and they never communicated (the reason) to us,” says Richards. “We had been making sweeping assumptions for all landowners, and we realized we could be at risk with others. We needed to better understand what they wanted.”

The challenge, Richards says, is to find each landlord’s specific priority and act upon it. Meeting that challenge became the guiding principle in the operation’s revised landowner relations plan, which includes:

  • A website: www.indyfamilyfarms.com/
  • Weekly updates posted online and emailed to landlords
  • Landowner Appreciation Day
  • Semi-annual newsletters
  • Responding to specific requests on survey response
  • Exceeding expectations whenever possible

But the first step to an improved communications plan was a December 2011 survey of landowners. Richards, who grew up on a farm but worked for telecommunications companies for almost 30 years before returning to manage the farm with his sons Eric and Aaron, drew upon his corporate background in quality improvement and root-cause analysis to develop and execute the survey.

“These were just baseline questions,” he says. “Nothing super secret. The success is that we did it.”

The findings weren’t earth shattering either, Richards adds. Whether the landlord's highest priority is to be paid on time, have their kids ride the farm equipment or stewardship of the land, they all value integrity, honesty and accountability.

Finding out what each landowner wants and delivering it is key to landlord relations planning, says David Bryden, manager of Business Development for the FamilyFarms Group in Brighton, Ill.

“I think landlord relations is extremely important and isn’t given as much attention by operators as they could – or should – give it,” he says. “People realize it’s important, but on any given day there are other things that are more urgent. The balance between what’s important and what’s urgent is very difficult to find.” 

Bryden, who has worked with the Family Farms Group for three years, grew up on a farm and says he’s seen the landlord-tenant relationship change over the years. Rather than farming a retired neighbor’s land, more operators are farming for absentee landlords or even investment groups that require a business approach to communications.

“Those folks have different needs and different methods of communicating than the traditional landowner who lives nearby,” Bryden says. “I don’t think any business is going to survive long-term without good customer service, and that’s what landowner relations is…the customer service portion of farm operations.

“The relationship is very important,” he adds, “but operators shouldn’t think the relationship is going to carry them through not communicating with the landowner, not taking care of the land and not exceeding their expectations.”

As president of Slonaker Farm Management in Centerville, Ind., Steve Slonaker serves as the pivot between landowner and tenant, making sure both sides communicate and are satisfied with the relationship even though he represents the landlord.

“It’s a dual match,” Slonaker says. “I try to match the skills and operation of the tenants to the farm.”

One farm he manages belongs to Malcolm Miles of Liberty, Ind., who bought a 168-acre farm from his grandfather’s estate. The farm is a mix of rolling cropland, pasture and woodland. Miles says he bought the farm more for emotional reasons than practical ones, but he still wants to make it as productive as possible.

Miles’ scenario is typical of Slonaker’s clients, who tend to be one or two generations removed from the farm, but still interested in keeping the land in the family, Slonaker says.

“I generally ask landowners what are your objectives for this farm, and they are almost always the same: to be a good steward (of the land), maximize the available resources and to be a good neighbor,” he says.

After a survey of the farm, Miles and Slonaker wrote up specifications for a tenant and requested bids. The main criteria: someone interested in crop production and a cattle/calf operation. After reviewing five bids, they signed a one-year lease with addendums to cover long-term improvements.

“It’s a business like anything else,” says Slonaker, who advises the tenants he works with to “communicate, communicate, communicate,” and do whatever they can – even if it’s as simple as a logo on stationery – to differentiate themselves from the competition.

Echoing that sentiment, farmer Dave Summers of Lewisburg, Ohio, says farmers can’t be too professional when dealing with landowners.

When he first started renting ground almost 30 years ago, Summers says the basis of the agreement was the relationship between landowner and tenant, and the tenant’s reputation. Now, the financial arrangement is the bedrock of the relationship.

“Farmers need to use all the communications tools available to grow their operations.”

Most importantly, he says, tenants need to be able to answer the question all landlords will ask: What can you do for me? A farmer’s communications to landowners should be designed to answer that question.