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Land rents move beyond word of mouth

Bird Dog solves an age-old problem – how to match tenant, landowner values

We’ve all heard the horror stories about farmers who went overboard in their zeal to rent land. Like, guys who alienate the community by knocking on doors and offering an extra $50 an acre to rent the owner’s farm. Or showing up at the neighbor’s funeral to chat up the widow.

On the flip side, too often farmers just don’t know how to market themselves. Or, they are too worried about looking overly aggressive, so they let land opportunities slip away. Word of mouth is an imprecise way to connect farmers with new land to farm.

We’ve learned from countless farmer interviews that land rent decisions aren’t just about the highest bid. One Indiana farmer we talked with recently discovered that his new cover crops were becoming a calling card to potential landlords. His conservation ethic was not only saving soil, it was helping him build a land base because landowners liked that green carpet they saw each fall.

Frankly we’d like to see more of that.

Now there is a program that lets you professionally market yourself, and your approach to farming, to landowners looking to find new tenants. The program, called Bird Dog, helps farmers reach out to landowners and market their services in a professional way without coming across as too aggressive – in part because the service leaves both sides anonymous until there is a meeting to negotiate terms.

In part, a farmer creates a profile and completes a questionnaire that focuses on agronomic and conservation practices and beliefs. “How important is the appearance of your farm?” is one question you will consider. You’ll be asked to identify specific land tracts or areas (via zip code) where you would like to be considered as a tenant.

Are you good?

 A 2007 study from Iowa State shows that over 65% of landlords rented to farmers because they were considered a “good farmer.” Now, you may be a ‘good’ farmer by most any definition. But does your landlord agree?

“Good farmers can easily lose acres because their value is not recognized,” says Dave Myers, co-founder at Bird Dog. “For many landowners, it can be that the relationship has been in place for so long that the term 'good farmer' doesn’t really have much meaning beyond the relationship.”

With Bird Dog, landowners are also filling out forms and questionnaires. This is where things get interesting. Say you are a landowner but your land has been less productive compared to other farms in the area. One logical approach is to seek out farmers who have a track record of soil and yield improvement. Better farming practices may raise the value of your land investment.

With Bird Dog, landowners are quizzed on what’s important – do they care if the farmer uses precision technology or conservation practices? Keep the ditches mowed? Who should pay for investments like tile?

Bird Dog will take all that information and try to make the best match recommendations on both sides of the land rental equation. There is an initial wall of privacy between farmers and owners. Once you go through the steps and identify a particular farm you’re interested in, the folks at Bird Dog will contact the owner anonymously. If there’s reciprocating interest, Bird Dog will set up a meeting. It’s up to you to negotiate terms.

Bird Dog costs $299 per tract or landowner. For landowners, it cost $299 per farmer. In other words, the more you pay, the more opportunities for matches.

I like this idea and it’s probably long overdue for agriculture. We’re high-tech in many other ways, but not so much when it comes to land leasing. There could be downsides to Bird Dog, too. There’s a lot to be said for real business relationships, and this program may make it fairly quick and simple to just drop a tenant to see if there’s something better for next year.

Even so, now there is a way to provide information so that your values or track record as a farmer can be documented and marketed to potential landowner clients. You can make your case without looking pushy.

That’s professional, and it’s the future.

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