Some farmers reap hunting dollars to boost acreage output

Canton, IL, farmer Ted Artis figures that some of his neighbors aren't happy that he has opened his land to hunters.

Yet leasing his land has given him some moments that he will cherish for years. Three teenage boys got their first deer on his land, and he'll long remember their excitement and youthful smiles. Artis knows they will never forget his central Illinois farm for as long as they live.

Those boys and their fathers - along with about 40 other hunters from as far away as Georgia and New Hampshire - paid Artis a fee to hunt wild turkey and white-tailed deer on his farm along the Lamoines River. For deer they paid $50/day, and for wild turkey, $35/day.

"Some people around here remember hunting for free," says Artis. "They don't realize the economic benefits of what leased hunting means to our farm, and to the community as a whole."

For Artis and other midwestern farmers, leasing hunting and fishing rights is becoming a good source of supplemental income in a depressed commodity market. Artis and 312 other landowners work with Access Illinois Outdoors, a program serving a five-county area of central Illinois that acts as a matchmaker between farmland owners and people who are looking for land to use for recreational purposes.

Project manager Judy Smith explains, "Our program emphasizes the benefits of rural economic development. Our farmers make additional income from their acres in very tough economic times, while others without access to farmland now have an opportunity to hunt, fish, watch birds and even have family picnics if they like.

"Those in the adjacent communities benefit, too, with income from tourism. These outside users need places to stay and eat, and they buy groceries and gas. It really is economic development," she adds.

Increasing interest. There is enough interest in leasing farmland for recreational use that absentee landowners and agribusiness personnel in the Chicago area, through an organization called Chicago Farmers, are exploring the concept. Meanwhile, a discussion of leased hunting is part of the featured program for the Farmland Investment Fair 2000 that is scheduled for February 26 at the Pheasant Run Resort in St. Charles, IL.

"I'll tell you how much this has grown," says Jeff Martin, of Mt. Pulaski, IL, another farmer who leases land to hunters for a fee. "When we started this three or four years ago, there were only two or three hunting preserves in Illinois on the Internet. Now there are 20. I don't know when we will reach a saturation point. But this is something we felt we had to move on quickly, while there was still an opportunity."

Added income. Martin, his son, and his brother farm 3,500 acres of corn and soybeans. But they have always been involved in hunting and fishing and were named Illinois Wild-life Landowners of the Year in 1995.

They have long been involved in conservation-style farming practices, including the use of buffer strips and prairie grass strips. They are now considering enrolling some of their land into a riparian conservation reserve program specific to Illinois. They lease upland bird-hunting rights to hunters mainly from nearby Springfield. "We were just approached about setting up an exclusive leasing arrangement," Martin says.

Up until now, the family has offered day fees. "It is a good supplemental income for us, and our goal is to reach 10 to 15% of our annual gross income from leasing the hunting rights," Martin explains. "I don't think we have the manpower to turn our farm into a hunting preserve, which means hunters can come in from September through April. What we have now fits well into our farm labor situation."

Access Illinois Outdoors charges outside clients a $25 membership fee but signs farmers up for free. The program has members from more than 35 states.

Smith notes that there are many similar programs around the nation. Some introduce fishermen to farmers with ponds. Some lease hunting rights for hunting ducks and geese.

Martin says that, besides the possible resentment of neighbors and the extra labor involved, the only detriment to leasing land for recreactional use is buying liability insurance. "And you've got to have it," he states. He recommends Outdoor Underwriters, Dept. FIN, Box 431, Wheeling, WV 26003, 800/738-1300.

Variable rates. Smith says that the market dictates what each farmer charges for recreational use of his or her land and that the fee is often set in the coffee shop.

"Our farmers have a whole range of arrangements. Per day. Per week. Or seasonal. It is between them and their clients. We are the go between."

Martin says he offered free hunts to members of Pheasants Forever to "assess our resource" and to determine fair market value.

Royce Bryant, with Capital Agricultural Property Services in Memphis, TN, a land management firm, agrees that there is no set structure. "It's the same as real estate. Location and oftentimes history determine what a farmer can get out of such an arrangement."

He adds that farmers can arrange gross earnings from 5 to 50% by leasing land for recreational activities. "Regardless of the agreement, the key for all involved is protection of liability. Both parties should seek coverage, and I don't think a minimum of $1 million is out of the question." Bryant suggests checking with local carriers first.

"Some farmers work through organizations like ours, and others work through outfitters," Smith says. "A word to the wise: There are some very good outfitters out there, and there are some that just aren't very good."

For more information, contact Access Illinois Outdoors, 110 E. Fayette, Pittsfield, IL 62362, 217/285-2464.