Study: 80% Of Iowa Farmland Is Debt-Free

Abundant Growing Corn plants in a cornfield.

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(Undated) -- A study by Iowa State University has found that 80% of Iowa farmland is debt free. Wendong Zhang, says that's a fairly recent occurrence, due to recent high commodity prices and high farm payments, which have allowed many land owners to pay down debt. He says that's especially true for older farmers compared to younger ones. The percentage of debt-free ownership during the farm crisis of the 1980s was roughly 60-percent. The finding is one of numerous in the Iowa Farmland Ownership and Tenure Study, conducted at Iowa State for decades.

The study also found 58% of Iowa’s farmland is now leased out, a significant increase from the last time the same study was conducted in 2017.

“There is a long-term trend toward farmland leasing since 1982,” said Wendong Zhang. Zhang is an assistant professor of economics at Cornell University and conducted the Iowa Farmland Ownership and Tenure Survey with Jingyi Tong, a PhD student in the Department of Economics at Iowa State. “The percentage of farmland being leased in Iowa increased from 53% in 2017 to 58% in 2022. This represents a relative increase of roughly one million acres over five years, which is quite significant,” Zhang said.

The survey found that the average age of Iowa’s farmland owners is still increasing. In 1982, only 29% of Iowa farmland was owned by those over the age of 65. That percentage has steadily increased over the years, totaling 60% in 2017 and 66% today. Tong noted that women own 46% of Iowa’s farmland, and they hold a larger share among senior owners.

Tong indicated several factors are contributing to the increasing age of Iowa’s farmland owners, including the increase in using farmland as an inheritance or long-term investment, fewer young people going into farming, and those young farmers facing large start-up costs. “Also, some senior farmers may retain ownership of their land due to a lack of succession planning, thus keeping the farm even if they aren't actively farming. The survey shows 17% of landowners neither have a successor for ownership or management,” Tong said.

The recent survey also reveals changing trends in how ownership of Iowa’s farmland is held. In 1982, 80% of Iowa’s farmland was owned through a combination of sole ownership and joint tenancy; however, those now only account for 52% of Iowa farmland ownership. Meanwhile, the amount of farmland held in trusts has skyrocketed from 1% in 1982 to 23% today.

“Trusts have grown in popularity due to their numerous benefits. Particularly for farmland owners, trusts can ensure the preservation of the farm within the family, manage land transitions, and potentially provide tax benefits, making them a valuable tool in succession planning,” said Zhang.

The survey also looked at conservation practices. No-till farming saw a significant increase from 21% of owners and 27% of acres in 2017 to 29% and 30%, respectively, in 2022. “The use of cover crops also saw a slight increase over this period, from 5% of owners and 4% of acres in 2017 to 7% for both owners and acres in 2022,” he said. However, only 2% of Iowa landowners have already participated in a carbon credit program and another 3% are considering doing so, but, Zhang said, “most landowners are either not interested or have never heard of them.”

More information about the 2022 Iowa Farmland Ownership and Tenure Survey results can be found on the CARD website at

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