The first time you contact a landowner is the most important step in the pasture-leasing process. It is your sales pitch; you are selling your grazing plans. The landowner will decide immediately whether or not to further consider your offer.
Your first conversation will probably be over the phone, but if the landowner lives nearby and you are acquainted with him or her, you may be able to just pay a visit.
There’s no one-size-fits-all script you can follow each time you approach a landowner. Each person must be treated as an individual. They all have different levels of familiarity with livestock production, and diverse reasons and plans for land ownership. The key to a successful sales pitch is knowing your audience and tailoring your approach to connect with them.
Explain briefly who you are and that you are interested in leasing their land to sustainably raise livestock. If the person is a fellow farmer, this will be enough information for them to decide whether or not they’re interested. The farther they are removed from agriculture, the more time and effort you will need to invest in making sure they understand your proposal completely.
Some landowners may tell you right away that they aren’t interested. Maybe they’re planning to sell the land in a year or two, build a house on it, or farm it themselves. If there is already someone leasing the property, don’t try to convince the landowner to give it to you. You will end up paying an inflated price and probably creating a conflict with the current leasee. The reason you’re leasing is to decrease the stress of raising livestock! Thank the landowner for their time and walk away.
As long as the landowner is willing to listen, the more information you provide, the better. I personally enjoy writing and graphic design, so I always offer to mail or drop off a brochure I made that explains the basics of mob grazing. The landowner can look at pictures of a mob-grazed farm and consider my offer on his or her own time.
If you’re not inclined to making your own promotional materials, just have a simple business card made at an office supply store. It will make a professional impression on landowners, especially ones you’ve never met.
Depending on the background and personality of each landowner, you will need to emphasize different points when explaining your plans and production methods. For example, a conventional cattleman will be most receptive to hearing about how you will make their pastures more productive and increase their stocking capacity. A suburban couple who camp and hunt on their land may be most interested in being part of natural, local food production.
Listen to the questions the landowner asks; you will usually be able to pick up a common thread running through them. It will tell you what he or she is thinking, so you can focus your pitch on that aspect. One landowner I spoke to kept asking about the income potential of a grazing operation on his property. I realized that he sees his land as an investment from which he wants a return. I went home and made a simple spreadsheet for him that showed the revenue, expenses and profit for an example grassfed beef enterprise on his 100 acres.
If you meet a landowner on his or her own house, you can pick up valuable clues about the best way to sell your grazing enterprise. If you see fishing rods and game mounts, use the symbiosis of livestock and wildlife as your main selling point. If there is a garden, take the opportunity to discuss local food production. Pay attention to your surroundings and ask yourself, “what does this tell me about the landowner’s personality and interests? How can I tie my grazing plans to this?”
If the landowner is willing to consider your offer, get the basics on the property. How many acres are open grass, timber, and brush? What soil types are present? Is there any existing fence? Are there ponds, water tanks, creeks, or a municipal water line? Is the property zoned for agricultural use? You need to get enough information to decide whether the land meets YOUR needs. If it doesn’t, thank the landowner and move on.
After the sales pitch pressure is off, the leasing process becomes more like a job interview. You are now trying to get the landowner to choose you for the job of managing their property. If you already have an operational farm, invite the landowner to see your management in action. This will go a long way in getting him or her to trust you with their land, especially if they are not a farmer. If you don’t have your own animals yet, ask a friend who practices holistic management if they would be willing to host you and your landowner for a visit.
Once the landowner understands your grazing philosophy, it’s time for you to tour the lease in question. It’s a no-brainer that you should never sign a lease without seeing the entire property. If an absentee landowner cannot personally give you a tour, insist on getting permission to look around yourself. Ask the landowner to bring an aerial map of the property. If they cannot provide you with one, go online to the NRCS’s Web Soil Survey page. Locate the land on the satellite map database and print an aerial view of the lease. You will want to make notes on it and use it to plan your grazing rotation. My next article will discuss in detail what to look for in a potential pasture lease.
Evaluate the landowner as well as the pasture. Figure out what kind of person they are, and make sure their goals for the land align with yours. Are there parts of the property they want left alone? Specific improvements they want to see happen under your management? A big fishing campout they host on the land every summer? Think seriously about how well your personalities match up before you sign a lease. Don’t be afraid to say “no, thanks” if you have doubts about establishing a good relationship with the landowner. The progress of your grazing enterprise will be seriously hindered by spending years dealing with an uncooperative owner.
Come to the tour prepared with a list of all the topics you need to include in the lease contract. Discuss each one with the landowner, then go home and write up a lease proposal (if you decide to proceed with one). If you aren’t finished shopping around yet, tell him or her you’ll give them an answer within 2-3 weeks.
It’s easy to put your landowner on the back burner once you have a signed contract in your hand. Don’t make the mistake of forgetting about him or her. You’ve gone from a salesperson to a job candidate, and now you’re a politician. It’s never too early to start running for re-election—lease renewal. Become friendly with your landowner and demonstrate the benefits to their land of “voting” for you. Contact him or her once a month with updates. Absentee landowners will appreciate you being their “eyes and ears,” keeping watch over their property. When your operation is up and running, walk the farm with your landowner and explain how you’re building soil, forage and animal productivity. Keep an open dialogue about what each of you want to accomplish through grazing.
Both you and your landowner can reap incredible benefits from a grazing lease. The landowner receives income from his or her investment with no labor involved, plus a caretaker who will improve the value and biological health of the property. You can skip the overhead, risk and paperwork of land ownership to concentrate on raising livestock. It’s grass under your animals’ hooves and money in your pocket.