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Corn harvest

Many farmers work leased land instead of or in addition to land they own.

URBANA — Reggie Dowell has been farming land owned by the University of Illinois in central Illinois for 40 years. It bothered him that the university chose to make its land available to the farmer with the highest bid.

“There is no incentive to do anything to maintain the land,” said Dowell, who farms university land in Menard and Sangamon counties.

So Dowell was happy when the university, based in Urbana-Champaign, changed its policy to consider farm practices as well as price in deciding who farms its land now and in the future. Longer leases will allow farmers to consider the long-term health of the land. That is good for the farm, the farmer and the university, he said.

Dowell, whose family farms about 380 acres for the university, got some of his passion about how the school’s land was cared for from Ralph Hunter, whose land he farmed years ago. When Hunter, who had no children, died, he left his land to the university.

“Mr. Hunter said the reason was because the university did a lot for him in learning how to farm. He wanted to continue that legacy,” Dowell explained.

Dowell, who is semi-retired and farms with his son David, said if a farmer knows he only has land for one year, he will be reluctant to invest in it with cover crops or creating and maintaining grassed waterways, for example.

The university came to the same conclusion, prompting it to change its land renting policy for its 10,000 acres of farmland that came as gifts from alumni, the state and other supporters.

“As a land-grant university with deep roots in an agricultural state, it has been our privilege to steward those farms and we take pride in managing them responsibly. Our management approach has varied over time, and most recently centered on cash bids in an effort to maximize income for initiatives such as scholarships, 4-H programs and research,” said Tim Killeen, University of Illinois president, last fall.

“When Kim Kidwell became dean of Urbana-Champaign’s College of ACES last year, she encouraged us to take a fresh look at how we approach operator selection and other issues connected to management and oversight of our farmlands,” Killeen said.

The decision-makers also gathered input from the Illinois Farm Bureau and others in the farming community, as well as from faculty in the College of ACES and others across the university’s system. Based on that review, the university adopted an approach that will emphasize selecting the most qualified operator rather than just the highest bidder.

The old policy didn't "align with the spirit and the intention of the farm community,” Kidwell said. 

Longer leases will give farmers more time to get to know the land and learn the best way to farm it and be able to implement good stewardship practices. Unless there is a change in management or the land is not being managed well, it would remain with the same farmer, she said.

That “best candidate” approach will assess applicants based on a wide range of factors such as their experience in farming, their records as careful stewards of land, their educational background and whether their use of modern agricultural technology and machinery best fits the parcel of land that is available.

“The most qualified applicant will then be offered the operating contract at a predetermined rate based on local market conditions,” said Killeen. “Our new approach aligns more closely with farming practices and culture in Illinois, which emphasizes building strong relationships and careful stewardship of our fertile cropland.”

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