Poll: More Iowa farmers using practices to reduce nutrient pollution

'We are definitely moving in the right direction'

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Iowa farmers say they substantially have increased their adoption of conservation practices intended to reduce nutrient pollution of the state’s water, according to the results of the latest Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll.

“The results show that we are definitely moving in the right direction, but there is still a lot of work to be done,” said J. Arbuckle, co-coordinator of the poll conducted annually since 1982 by Iowa State University.

The 2016 survey asked farmers to indicate whether their use of several conservation practices had decreased, increased or stayed the same since spring 2013, when the state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy was implemented.

Since 2013, 19.8 percent of respondents said they had increased cover crop plantings, a proven means of curbing soil loss and nutrient pollution, with 4.6 percent citing a major increase in cover crop acreage.

More than 19 percent of respondents said they had increased use of another proven method, no-till cultivation, with 5.2 percent citing a major increase.

More than 35 percent of respondents said they had increased use of structural conservation practices such as terraces, grassed waterways and stream buffer strips.

Arbuckle said his ISU colleagues believe all farmers will have to adopt conservation practices to achieve the nutrient reduction strategy’s goal of a 45 percent reduction of nitrate and phosphorus loads.

“The farm poll results provide evidence that more farmers are doing more, but the results also suggest that not enough are doing enough yet,” he said.

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey said he was “very encouraged” by results showing Iowa farmers increasingly aware of water quality and continuing to try new practices.

“That 20 percent of the poll respondents had used cover crops in 2015 and 33 percent said they might use them in the future is extremely encouraging, especially when compared to the number of farmers using cover crops just a few years ago,” he said.

Northey spokesman Dustin Vande Hoef said Iowa farmers planted more than 600,000 acres of cover crops last year. That number corresponds closely with the 591,880 acres of cover crops detected by Environmental Working Group researchers using satellite data during fall 2015 and spring 2016.

Iowa’s cover crop acreage represented 2.6 percent of the 22.7 million acres planted to corn and soybeans last year, Environmental Working Group Senior Vice President Craig Cox said.

While “no change” responses were greater than half in nearly all categories, decreased usage responses were modest with two exceptions, both favorable to the environment — 17 percent of respondents said they had reduced fall applications of nitrogen fertilizer, and 21.4 percent said they had reduced fall tillage.

However, 35.8 percent of respondents said they had installed more drainage tile, which hastens movement of nitrates from farm fields to surface water, and almost 24 percent said they had increased use of pesticides.

The survey also tracked 2015 use of 20 best management practices outlined in the nutrient reduction strategy.

Among the highlights:

l 46 percent reported stream or field edge buffers

l 42 percent reported using no-till

l 38 percent reported using nitrogen stabilizer

l 37 reported using terraces

l 28 percent reported growing season nitrogen applications

l 25 percent reported using in-field buffers

l 21 percent reported planting cover crops.

Poll questionnaires were mailed in February 2016 to a statewide panel of 2,089 farmers. Completed surveys were received from 1,039 of them, yielding a 50 percent response rate.

Because the same farmers are surveyed in multiple years, participants are somewhat older on average — age 65 for the 2016 survey — than the general population of farmers.

Their farms also are larger than average, with a mean of 453 acres, compared to the 2012 Census of Agriculture Iowa average of 345 acres.

Although respondents expressed a high degree of satisfaction with the quality of their lives — 87 percent said it had improved or stayed the same over the previous five years — their response represented a slight drop from 91 percent in 2014.

Respondents also expressed increasing concern about farmers’ financial health — a reflection of weakening crop markets.

In 2008, when crop prices were high relative to historic levels, just 21 percent of respondents regarded farmers’ financial health in their part of the state as a moderate or serious problem. In the recent poll, however, that proportion had increased to 39 percent.

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