Learning From Our Landowners
Like many Midwestern states, Missouri has seen a shift in land ownership in recent years. Landowners are giving more consideration to devoting land to recreational uses such as hunting, fishing and the overall enjoyment of natural communities. They are also beginning to manage their land with these objectives in mind. However, agriculture and the production of food and fiber remain priorities for most landowners. According to the 2002 Census of Agriculture by the United States Department of Agriculture, 43 percent of the land in Missouri is considered cropland, with another 11 percent each devoted to both pasture and woods.
Landowners contact the Department of Conservation daily to inquire about technical or financial assistance, equipment availability, or to stay in touch with their local conservation agents. Providing beneficial stewardship advice to these individuals engaged in improving and managing fish, forest, and wildlife resources in the state has been a Department priority for years. To that end, the Department’s Private Land Services Division developed a survey to gain a better understanding of our performance when working with landowners.
In addition to assessing landowner satisfaction with our services, the survey sought to learn more about the needs of landowners contacting us for assistance. How much land do they own? What types of assistance are they interested in receiving? What management practices are important to them?
Private landowners who contacted the Department for assistance from the years 2000 through 2004 were selected to receive the survey, which was based on previous on-site visits, the development of management plans for fish, forest, or wildlife resources, and experiences with financial assistance.
In April 2005, a Landowner Assistance Program Survey asking 18 questions was mailed to 6,563 Missourians. Fortunately for many species of wildlife, Missouri landowners have a long-held tradition of being concerned with soil, water and wildlife resources and provided an outstanding response. A total of 4,266 surveys, or 65 percent, were returned. Many survey experts consider this to be an exceptional response rate.
So who responded to the survey?
The average age of the individuals who responded to the survey was 57.6 years old, with 86 percent reporting that they earned less than 10 percent of their income from farming. Many landowners likely purchased a tract of land with hunting or outdoor recreation as their primary purpose.
From a survey perspective, this is an important question because it helps determine what influences a landowner’s decision to manage the property. In many cases, with land that is purchased to produce an income, the landowner is less likely to participate in conservation programs because he or she believes it will take land out of intense agricultural production. However, many of the conservation and incentives programs available today are fully compatible with agricultural production and allow an individual to maximize production on the most profitable acres while devoting the least profitable acres to practices beneficial to bobwhite quail or other wildlife species.
What are their properties like?
Forty-nine percent of the Landowner Assistance Program survey participants own 125 acres or less. Surprisingly, 45 percent of the individuals responding claimed to own between 126 acres and 1,000 acres. The census of Agriculture in 2002 stated the average farm size for Missouri farm operators was 280 acres.
What we learned
One goal of MDC’s overall private land assistance efforts is to help landowners effectively use the state, federal and private conservation assistance programs and technical support that is available. Accordingly, survey participants were asked if they used the management practices suggested by the resource planner. Over 88 percent of the individuals responded that they had used either all, most, or some of the management practices recommended by field staff.
The development of a management plan, for some landowners, is an invaluable document that will guide their activities over the next several years. Once a landowner determines the objectives for a piece of property, a plan can help identify the critical needs and limiting factors for many wildlife species on a given tract of land. With this in mind, survey participants were asked if the management practices recommended by department staff helped meet their objectives. Over 94 percent of the landowners responding indicated that the practices had either somewhat helped or very much helped meet their objectives.
The Landowner Assistance Program Survey also asked participants to identify limiting factors that may keep them from completing various management practices. The majority of responses focused on the funding, time and manpower required to install the practices.
Funding provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the 2002 Farm Bill, along with many state and non-governmental conservation and landowner incentive programs, has greatly improved landowners’ ability to complete beneficial habitat management practices. Unfortunately, a 2003 Farm and Rural land ownership survey conducted by the Department indicates that 53 percent of the individuals responding were not aware of the management assistance available to private landowners. This is one reason why we must continue to improve our communication with landowners.
Landowners short on time and manpower may want to take advantage of specially trained conservation contractors. A series of conservation contractor workshops were completed in February and March to help link contractors with landowners and individuals wanting to install conservation practices. Additional training will be provided to the contractors to reinforce the needs of many wildlife species.
The most important piece of information provided by the survey was an indication of landowner satisfaction. Survey participants were asked, “Thinking about your most recent contact with MDC, how satisfied or dissatisfied were you with the assistance you received?” To the credit of many eager landowners and dedicated Department employees across the state, nearly 90 percent of the survey respondents were either somewhat or very satisfied with the assistance they received.
The results are certainly positive and indicate that most landowners are satisfied with the assistance received. However, much work lies ahead. The Department of Conservation has a goal of providing assistance to all state landowners, not only to those individuals restoring native prairie remnants in Northern Missouri or pine savannas in the Ozarks, but to the cattle producer in west-central Missouri, the cotton farmer in the southeast part of the state, and every landowner in between.
One way of accomplishing this delivery of service is to foster partnerships with agricultural and conservation organizations and entities in the state. Partnerships have proven to be effective, and we will continue to expand in this area wherever opportunities exist. But the most important method in advancing private land stewardship is to continue to listen to all Missouri landowners.
Many individuals receiving the survey took time to write in suggestions, concerns or to mention a staff member or program area they were particularly pleased with. One of the most frequently cited concerns from landowners was the lack of follow-up assistance available after a management plan or contract has been developed. Please know that your comments—both positive and negative—will be used to improve our delivery of services to landowners.
Landowner involvement is the critical component for the future of Missouri’s natural resources. A call to your local MDC office can be a great place to begin your quest. The Department of Conservation is just one of many agencies and conservation partners delivering assistance to landowners. Your local county Soil and Water Conservation District Office, Natural Resources Conservation Service, or Farm Service Agency offices all offer assistance. These professionals can help a landowner get going in the right direction!
We thank all of the individuals across the state that took the time to respond to the 2005 survey and look forward to working with Missouri’s landowners for years to come.
When asked how satisfied or dissatisfied landowners were with the assistance they received, their response was:
- 69% very satisfied
- 19% somewhat satisfied
- 5% neither satisfied nor dissatisfied
- 4% somewhat dissatisfied
- 3% very dissatisfied