Editorial: Reaping the profits

Weeks after the Georgian apartments dispute, the University is making property an issue once again. But this time, it actually owns the property and is justified in its actions.

Twenty acres of land owned by the University across the state have been converted from crop share to cash lease after a policy change last fall. University spokeswoman Robin Kaler said the change makes the University a better steward of its resources and that the policy makes more money for the University during difficult financial times.

The rights to farm on 12 parcels of University-owned land went up for competitive bidding last year due to the change. Each of these parcels will be put up for a new bidding process every five years.

Kaler said the change was necessary because the University had not been following the sorts of standard business practices it should have been. She said the previous policy of receiving half of the profits from crop sales was not the best way to utilize the University’s farmlands.

The only problem with the new policy is that the farmers who have worked the land – for more than five decades, in some cases – may not be able to live there anymore. The last bidding process attracted more than 140 bids to farm the parcels, which worsens the odds that the current farmers can remain on the land. But the University made efforts to accommodate farmers who were working on the land before the policy change by giving them extra points in the bidding process. Eight such farmers bid on their land and half of them won, Kaler said.

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    The University is showing some financial smarts and practicing good business. By charging a flat fee to farm a certain portion of their land, the University is minimizing the risks of crop sharing – especially during a bad year. It’s unfortunate that some families that have been on these lands for generations have to leave, but the University must adapt to the loss of state funding. Efficient management of its assets is a crucial step.

    The families admit they knew there were risks in farming rented land, and this is just one risk that became reality. It’s not like the University was out to strong-arm the farmers off the land – as evident by their giving current farmers a leg up during the bidding.

    One issue with this new system, however, is that it transfers all the risks to the farmers. By charging a flat fee, the University forces farmers to pay the same amount whether or not they have a good year. Farmers cannot control the weather and a flat fee instead of a share of the crops just hurts farming families during lean years – just look how a similar system impoverished Southern sharecroppers during the early 20th Century. Furthermore, the University will forgo long-term relationships with farmers because of the five-year cycle. This only serves to impair relations with the agricultural community.

    While we understand the University’s predicament, it should consider tweaking its new policy somewhat to keep all parties involved happy and prosperous. It is important for the University to manage its assets shrewdly, but it should find ways to balance its financial needs while remaining mindful that there are families who have spent generations farming University land.