Who Are the Private Landowners in the Midwest?

Who Are the Private Landowners in the Midwest?

It is estimated that 73 percent of our nation’s land is privately owned and that the majority of our fish and wildlife resources occur on those lands. Approximately 73 million people live, work, and recreate in the Midwest Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (MAFWA) region (U.S. states only), and roughly 93 percent of land area (total land and water area is 506 million acres) is in private ownership. Both agricultural and industrial development have altered most of the land found in the region. The Midwest contains some of the richest farmland in the world and is a national leader in corn and soybean production. It is also a leader in the production of grain-based ethanol and pork. Understanding the dynamics of private landownership, and the uses for these private lands, is essential for planning the region’s conservation future.

Iowa farmland

Historically, the wetlands and prairie that spread across the MAFWA region provided important breeding and rearing habitat for waterfowl and grassland-dependent species. The lakes, streams, and rivers of this region provided valuable spawning and rearing habitat for a myriad of fish and aquatic species. Forests were diverse and provided habitat for a wide range of fish and wildlife species. Today, the majority of wetlands have been drained, wetland basins and associated prairie have been converted to crop production or other uses, and development has overtaken many other native habitats.

In order to conserve the diversity of species found in the Midwest, state and federal agencies have acquired lands that are managed for these species and implemented a regulatory framework (applicable to all lands) to ensure all fish and wildlife populations are sustainable. Laws and regulations have been added to increase protections for species when population declines are sufficient to trigger a concern about the continued existence of various species. However, in spite of these protections, many species have declined in distribution and abundance. Consequently, a common working assumption is that the conservation lands held by federal and state agencies and other organizations cannot completely provide for all fish and wildlife needs.

The conundrum is that fish and wildlife are held in the public trust and managed by state and federal natural resource agencies while the majority of fish and wildlife habitat is owned and managed by private landowners. Private landowners largely own land for economic purposes and make their living from those lands, although other values (both acquired and intrinsic) often play an important role in land use decisions.

So who are these private landowners, and how can agencies do a better job of working with these essential partners to achieve greater success in fish and wildlife conservation?

Urban landowners are very numerous but collectively own a relatively small amount of total land area. Nationally, about 2 percent of the total land area is considered urban. Although urban areas take up only 2 percent of land, an overwhelming majority of Americans call cities their home. As of 2018, urbanites made up over 82 percent of the U.S. population. Here in the MAFWA region, approximately 2.7 percent of total land area is considered urban. As noted in the Mid-America Monarch Conservation Strategy – 2018-2038, urban areas can and do contribute significantly to conservation of some wildlife species such as monarch butterflies.

The largest single land cover type in the United States is forested land (27 percent of total area). For the United States as a whole, private entities own and manage 445 million acres of forest lands, made up of private corporate ownership (147.4 million acres) and private non-corporate ownership (297.6 million acres). Here in the MAFWA region, about 70 percent of forest land is privately owned (though there is no information about the breakdown of private corporate/private non-corporate ownership in the MAFWA region).

Agricultural land use has become less common over time in the United States, declining from 63 percent in 1949 to 52 percent in 2012 (the latest data available). Gradual declines have occurred in cropland, while grazed forestland has decreased more rapidly. In 2012, 392 million acres of agricultural land were in cropland (18 percent less than in 1949); 655 million acres were in pasture and range (4 percent more); 130 million acres were in grazed forestland (59 percent less); and 8 million acres were in farmsteads and farm roads (45 percent less). Here in the MAFWA region, approximately 69 percent of total land area is in farmland (350 million acres). There were an estimated 802,800 farms in the 13 state region in 2018.

In addition to the conversion of land from agriculture to other uses, the ownership of agricultural land is also changing. The Iowa Legislature established a program to review farmland ownership and tenure in Iowa every five years beginning in 1982. Although focused on Iowa farmland, this information likely provides insights about agricultural land in the states that border Iowa. The most recent survey, conducted in 2017, revealed many policy-relevant trends in the ownership and tenancy of farmland as well as characteristics of farmland owners.

Most of the results in the Iowa report are presented as a percentage of farmland in Iowa. The 2017 survey also allows the representation of the results as a percentage of landowners. Below are some of the highlights:

  • Eighty-two percent of Iowa farmland is owned free of debt, which represents a significant increase from 62 percent in 1982 and 78 percent in 2012.
  • Sixty percent of farmland is owned by people 65 years or older and 35 percent of farmland is owned by people 75 or older.
  • Forty-seven percent of farmland is owned by women, 13 percent is owned by female landowners over 80.
  • Fifty-three percent of farmland is leased, with the majority of farmland leases being cash rental arrangements.
  • Twenty-nine percent of Iowa farmland is primarily owned for family or sentimental reasons.
  • There is a continuous shift away from sole ownership and joint tenancy to trusts and corporations, which accounted for 20 percent and 10 percent of land, respectively, in July 2017.
  • Over half of Iowa farmland is owned by someone who does not currently farm, of which 34 percent is owned by owners with no farming experience, and the remaining 24 percent is owned by retired farmers.
  • Eighty percent of land was owned by full-time Iowa residents, seven percent was owned by part-time residents, and 13 percent was owned by those who do not live in the state.

Three major points can be made about private agricultural and forest landowners in the MAFWA region. First, there are many private landowners, and they range from individuals to large corporations. While this creates real challenges to making landscape level policy, it also points out that many voices are needed to find the “right fit” for sustainable land use that will work on small parcels of land. Perhaps more importantly, each landowner may have unique perspectives on sustainability.

Second, these landowners often work with others to determine land use practices, including leasing land for income. Providing tools that measure aspects of sustainability will help inform both owner and lessee on ways to ensure best practices are considered and potentially adopted.

Third, 60 percent of farmland is owned by people over 65 years of age, and we should expect to see a change in landownership. Many of these people have worked their land for many years and are very familiar with those acres, they have an opportunity to help shape land use for current and future owners or tenants. As farming operations get larger, the managers of these operations will utilize new technology that informs business decisions within the field, perhaps even down to the individual plant someday soon.

Natural resource agencies would do well to continue to develop and offer a suite of conservation tools that work across landscapes. However, it will take dedicated effort across agencies to work with each willing landowner to find a combination of tools that meet both the landowner needs and conservation goals.

Photo Credit
Rich Herrmann, Flickr
September 15, 2020