Farming comes with myriad financial risks, from violent weather that destroys crops to unexpected drops in wholesale prices. For farmers looking to mitigate some of those losses, leasing their farmland for guided hunts can bring in additional income. Private hunting leases can provide farmers with a way to garner income from their land during the off-season, after the last crops have been harvested and the fields are dormant.
Leasing land can be done in a number of ways, but many landowners choose to work with a hunting outfitter. Hunting outfitters operate as a go-between for farmers and hunters. They connect landowners with interested hunters, work with them to draw up a lease, supply hunting guides, and more.
Monetary gain from leasing land to a hunting outfitter varies widely depending on location, topography, and available game. Here in Vermont, it's not uncommon for hunters to trade maple syrup or other agricultural goods or services for hunting rights on a neighbor's farm. In Chazy, New York, Matt Martin, owner and hunting guide for Frontier Waterfowl Guide Service, leads fall and spring waterfowl hunts on local farmland. Each hunt lasts 2 or 3 days. Martin charges $200 to $250 per hunter per half-day. He says that farmers get a small revenue stream from their lease, plus the benefit of knowing that someone they trust is taking care of their property. While farmers won't get rich leasing their land to an outfitter, they're usually able to earn enough off-season revenue to offset taxes or update a piece of farm equipment.
Trust is essential to a successful leasing agreement between farmers and hunters. A farmer himself, Martin says he's familiar with the pitfalls and anxieties that can come with allowing public access to private land. When negotiating a hunting lease with a farmer, Martin includes individual provisions specific to that farmer's needs and concerns, such as setting a cap on the maximum number of hunters, agreeing on the duration of the lease, specifying hunting style, and spelling out payment.
Working with a reputable outfitter can alleviate some of the worries that come with allowing hunters onto your property. "More and more people are detached from nature, so they need help knowing what defines safe hunting," says Steve Hall, owner and operator of Kansas Farmland Outfitters. When taking groups of hunters on a guided hunt, a reputable guide will keep an eye on each hunter and ensure that evidence of their presence on the land is minimal. And a good guide will more than likely make sure that the farmer gets a share of game for his own freezer.
Hall says his farmers receive between $5 and $25 per acre. He offers guided hunts for whitetail deer, Rio Grande wild turkey, waterfowl, dove, and predators. He also offers lodging and meals on his own farm for an extra fee — another source of income to consider if you choose to lease your land.
In addition to monetary gain, leasing farmland to a hunting outfitter means additional property supervision. Even if a farmer posts their land as private, oftentimes reckless hunters will still trespass. These poachers are a nuisance and a liability. Hunting outfitters are extra eyes on your property, with guides keeping a lookout for trespassers and providing general property oversight.
Hunting big game in the West is lucrative for both outfitters and ranchers/farmers. Swan Mountain Outfitters in northwest Montana charges approximately $1,000 per day for a custom hunt and $5,000 per hunter for a seven-day elk and deer combination hunt, among other hunting trips. Montana's farmers and ranchers benefit financially from setting up a leasing agreement, plus they can gather fresh information about their land from hunting guides. Guides are skilled at noticing what others may not, and are especially useful when they lead hunts on a property year after year. Broken fencing, dead animals, downed sap lines, and signs of predators and trespassers are just a few of the things a good guide can spot and report back to the farmer. The hunting parties' presence on the land may itself be a deterrent to predatory animals.
Both Hall and Martin emphasize that their clients will be hunting on small, family owned farms and ranches where they've spent many hours scouting for wildlife. Both men are familiar with the topography and animal habitat on each of those farms. Neither outfitter uses feeders, fences, or anything that forces wildlife to gather in small areas for easy hunting. Rather, they spend thousands of hours scouting the land and developing their knowledge of creek bottoms, travel corridors, migration routes, ground cover, and wetlands. Trophies aren't promised, but instead the experience of an authentic, old-fashioned hunt.
Hunting is also a great tool for game management on your land. Good guides will keep close track of animal populations and stay updated on changes in state game limits. Hunting and trapping is a critical part of wildlife management, and is designed to maintain animal populations ideal for the amount of space they inhabit. There's a science to determining ideal population numbers, and both national and state wildlife management groups collect data on animal and fowl populations to determine the length of harvesting seasons and the kill/trap quota for each species. Often, money from hunting licenses helps fund wildlife research and conservation efforts.
There are options when it comes to leasing out farmland, so do your research and find the hunting outfitter and lease agreement that's the best fit for you. If there are no reputable local guide services to turn to, you can check out the many larger outfitters and hunting lease specialists, offering detailed information online about their services. Some farmers turn over their property to a licensed real-estate company that connects hunters with outfitters offering short guided hunts, and the ability to share a land lease with other hunters to reduce costs. You can always sign on with a company that will handle every detail, but for a fee. Still, that fee often covers liability insurance to protect both the company and the farmer.
To protect the farmer and ensure that outfitters meet certain standards, there are rules and requirements that regulate outfitters, as well as outfitter boards and associations that govern how outfitters conduct business. Regulations vary by state, so it's the responsibility of the outfitter — and a good business practice for the landowner — to know their state's requirements. For instance, the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies requires all guides to possess first-aid certification, while in Utah a guide must produce satisfactory evidence of upright, moral character and have proof of hunting guide-related training. The general rule is that if an outfitter is licensed, bonded, and insured, they will know how to organize, manage, and execute a hunt without conflicts or problems.
As more hunters turn to rural farmland, the demand for private hunting spots will increase. Whether they have a handful of acres or a few thousand, it's worth a farmer's time to look into their options for profiting from off-season farmland through hunting leases.
Dale and Darcy Cahill are freelance writers living in Vermont. They've written two books about tobacco sheds in the Connecticut River Valley.