Machine sowing maize
Austria has several programmes that promote sustainable soil management – such as sowing maize not on bare soil. © Couleur / Pixabay

The number of farms has been declining for decades, and many of those who inherit a farm no longer tend their fields themselves but lease them out. On the other hand, the remaining farms are under pressure to expand in order to remain competitive. Farmers will therefore often take up tenancy agreements on large areas of land. The question is, whether an agricultural enterprise looking for expansion has any interest at all in keeping land fertile through sustainability measures, rather than exploiting it as much as possible? And if this is the case, should policy-makers not be called upon to take countermeasures?

These central questions were addressed by a research group from the University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences (BOKU), Vienna, in the context of a project funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF. “It was empirical work,” explains project team member Heidi Leonhardt. According to her, the group worked with different data sets. “When farms apply for subsidies, they have to declare what produce they grow on their fields. In addition, there is also information about the overall ground situation, such as slope gradients, or whether the farming enterprise is the owner or tenant of the land,” says Leonhardt. All in all, the data on arable land covers over 400,000 fields and 60,000 agricultural enterprises in Austria.

Maize cultivation as an indicator

There is little direct information about the sustainability measures farmers take, but there is information about what they grow. The research team mainly tried to identify wide row crops, such as maize, that involve wide spacing. “The main issue here is soil erosion between rows. When maize is sown, the soil stays without cover for a relatively long time, and until the maize has grown tall the soil is also exposed to the weather for a long time,” Leonhardt explains. The researchers found a correlation between land tenancy and wide row crops. “Put in simple terms, the bottom line is that more maize is grown on tenured land,” Leonhardt notes, but adds that this is not because tenured land is treated differently by farmers. Farmers do not differentiate between their own land and land they lease. They just make use of the land to generate greater yields. According to Leonhardt, this means that “farms that lease more land grow more maize.”

“In general we can say that farms that have more tenured land are more profitable,” adds the principal investigator Klaus Salhofer. The team was able to draw that conclusion after examining the data of 150 arable farming enterprises which included detailed accounting data. The researchers identified the most profitable farms and measured the others against them. “We have learned that farms that have more tenured land are more economically efficient, but show worse results in terms of soil erosion,” says Salhofer.

What policy-makers can do

In order to shed light on how exactly these issues interlink and to differentiate between farms in terms of their motivation, the team also conducted surveys. As Leonhard explains, the objective was to divide people working in agriculture into different categories: “There is a group that takes an environmentally motivated approach to the land, one that aims for economic success, one that considers it to be its mission to produce food for the world, and one that places particular emphasis on freedom and self-determination.” The team also examined the extent to which these groups participate in agri-environmental schemes.

Austria has several programmes that promote sustainable soil management – such as sowing maize not on bare soil, but on the unrotted organic residues of the previous crop on that field. It turned out that environmentally aware farmers participate more in such programmes than the average, whereas those looking for economic success participate less. Klaus Salhofer emphasises that he was mainly interested in finding out how policy-makers can best intervene to address the issue: “If farmers have different attitudes, they need to be motivated differently to participate in programmes.” For some, a monetary incentive might be right, whereas for others advisory services might be more important.

Long-term tenancy contracts

In general, the researchers found the level of environmental awareness to be high among all farmers, including those looking for profitable business results. The situation in Austria is a far cry from that in the Czech Republic or Germany, where huge areas are tenured and farmed in one package, and where some of the investors have no connection to agriculture at all. In that respect the Austrian findings are reassuring. “A lot of land is leased between family members. Sometimes the wife leases the land to her husband. And most of them are quite sure that their tenancy agreement is long-term,” says Leonhardt, and he adds that tenancy agreements in Austria generally tend to be long term. After evaluating the questionnaires the researchers concluded that farmers are hardly interested in exploiting the land for short-term profit at the risk of harmful long-term consequences.

The project, which was scheduled to run for three years and was completed in 2021, was part of a cooperative research project of the German Research Foundation (DFG). Six other universities from Germany participated alongside Salhofer’s team from the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences. The Austrian part of the project was funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF, and its duration was recently extended by three years.

Tending and conserving arable land has a socio-political dimension, which has recently been given more attention in connection with soil sealing. When asked whether Austria will be able to feed its own population in the future, Klaus Salhofer has a reassuring answer: “In fact, agricultural productivity has increased, although the surface area has decreased. If the degree of self-sufficiency in cereals or oilseeds is going down, this is also due to the fact that we are producing more and more meat and dairy, and that Austria is an exporter of these products”, says Salhofer. Maize in particular is cultivated as animal feed.

Personal details

Klaus Salhofer is an agricultural economist at the Institute for Sustainable Economic Development at the University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences, Vienna. His research focus is the quantitative analysis of economic issues related to the agriculture and food sector. He is a board member of the European Association of Agricultural Economists and the Austrian Economic Association (NOeG).

Heidi Leonhardt is a research associate at the Institute for Sustainable Economic Development at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna. She is interested in agricultural economics, agricultural sociology and sustainable management.


Eder A., Salhofer K. and Scheichel E.: Land tenure, soil conservation, and farm performance: an eco-efficiency analysis of Austrian crop farms, in: Ecological Economics 2021

Leonhardt H., Braito M., Penker M.: Why do farmers care about rented land? Investigating the context of farmland tenure, in: Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 2021

Leonhardt H., Penker M. and Salhofer K.: Do farmers care about rented land? A multi-method study on land tenure and soil conservation, in: Land Use Policy 2019

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