There was a time, some years ago, when a hunting lease could be had in the state of Mississippi for a mere 50 cents to $1 per acre. But that time has long passed, and some farmers are reaping the rewards of rising lease costs.

“We've seen these fees escalate tremendously, almost beyond belief,” says Grey Ferris of Vicksburg, Miss. “There seems to be no limit to what people will pay for a quality hunting and fishing spot.”

A cattle producer, lawyer and former state senator, Ferris first realized the value of recreational land about six years ago, when property adjacent to his own became available for lease. He began receiving calls from interested lawyers in south Louisiana.

“My first thought was why anyone in New Orleans would want to lease isolated 16th Section land in Warren County, Miss.,” he says. “The reason, of course, was that there was a lack of available land in their area.”

Ferris doesn't believe he has seen an end to the rising value of such land. “I think it'll continue to grow. We have tremendous potential in Mississippi, including better habitats for wildlife. Sportsmen are willing to pay more and more for quality hunting locations.”

Ferris leases out different sections of his farm to clubs for hunting. This works well in his operation, where cattle graze throughout the property. “No one plan will work for everyone. We all have different situations, and what works for me may not work and may not be advantageous for someone else,” Ferris says.

When Ferris first began considering how to best maximize his returns from hunting and fishing leases — and how to improve the quality of wildlife habitat on his property — he realized he needed to hire a professional. “We simply were not equipped to make the decisions that would allow us to continue making improvements in our habitat, so we reached out for professional help,” he says.

A wildlife technical services consultant surveyed Ferris' property and conducted a baseline study to determine the types of habitat on the land. Now, Bill Tomlinson with Wildlife Technical Services in Vicksburg, Miss., manages all of Ferris' wildlife and timber resources, and he works with the various hunting clubs utilizing the land to make improvements on the leased property.

He also monitors the wildlife harvest each year and provides Ferris with a detailed report that helps him continue to improve the wildlife habitat on his farm. “Bill's assistance has been invaluable to us. If you don't feel fully equipped to make the necessary and correct decisions, then you might want to strongly consider hiring a wildlife professional.”

Ferris is part of a family farming operation, including brothers and sisters who meet throughout the year to make decisions concerning the farm.

“We're all committed to being good stewards of the land. We want to practice the very best conservation practices. And, while it is important to receive as much income as possible from the land, it's even more important that we find a group of people who will form a hunting club that shares our philosophy about conservation.”

Ferris says his family probably sacrifices some returns in favor of developing long-term relationships with clubs that will take care of the land and help improve wildlife habitat throughout the farm. “We work closely with six hunting clubs, and we have wonderful relationships with them,” he says. “We appreciate their contributions, and they appreciate our continuing efforts to improve the wildlife habitat. As time goes on, I expect these relationships to develop further, and our habitat will be improved significantly as a result.”

Another method of protecting family farm land is the use of conservation easements. “Anyone who has large tracts of land they want to preserve for future generations should at least look at the concept of conservation easements,” Ferris says. “It allows you to place restrictions on property that in no way will interfere with your ability to use the land. There also are significant tax benefits in placing those restrictions.”

Landowners, however, shouldn't consider conservation easements solely on the basis of financial returns, he advises. “If you want to insure that a tract of land is held in perpetuity — and protected from developers — then conservation easements may be the answer. I think it's a concept that should be used more in Mississippi.”

Ferris does more than talk about conserving the state's natural resources. He recently donated a 2,114-acre conservation easement to the Mississippi Land Trust. The donated land runs along the Big Black River and includes bottomland hardwoods and some pasture.


e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com