Poll: Nutrient Reduction Strategy Is Well Known

According to the latest Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll, the majority of farmers are aware of and support Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a science and technology-based approach used to assess and reduce nutrients delivered to Iowa waterways, the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.

J. Gordon Arbuckle, a sociologist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, noted that these results are important because awareness of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy is a critical first step toward participation in actions to help meet the strategy’s goals.

“A majority of farmers knew about the strategy, which means that progress is being made. We also found that farmers with more than 500 acres of corn and soybeans were more knowledgeable about the NRS. Since those larger-scale farms represent most of Iowa’s cropland, this indicates that the stewards of that land have already crossed the awareness threshold,” said Arbuckle, who co-directs the annual poll with Paul Lasley, also an ISU Extension and Outreach sociologist.

The NRS addresses both point sources such as municipal wastewater treatment plants and industrial facilities, and nonpoint sources including farm fields and urban stormwater runoff, to address nutrient loss of nitrogen and phosphorus. The science assessment, the foundation of the nonpoint source portion of the strategy, was developed by Iowa State University and the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. There also was support from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

The report, “Farmer Perspectives on Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy” (PM 3072), draws on data from the 2014 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll. The survey, conducted from February through May 2014, focused on farmers’ awareness and knowledge of the nutrient reduction strategy, awareness and concern about nutrient-related water quality issues, attitudes toward the strategy and perceived barriers to action. The results represent an early measure of farmer perspectives on the strategy that was implemented by the state of Iowa in 2013. A total of 2,218 farm operators were surveyed; 51 percent, or 1,128 surveys were returned. Arbuckle and graduate student Hanna Bates co-authored the report.

“A first objective of the study was to measure farmer knowledge of the NRS,” said Arbuckle. “If farmers don’t know about the strategy, they’re not likely to participate.” The survey showed that most farmers knew about the NRS, and more than half rated themselves as at least “somewhat knowledgeable” about it. Only 20 percent of farmers indicated no knowledge of the strategy prior to reading the survey’s introductory text.

Corn and soybean farmers, for whom the NRS is perhaps most relevant, reported higher levels of knowledge than farmers as a whole. “Because the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is focused largely on reduction of nitrogen and phosphorus loss from crop fields, farmers who plant corn and soybeans are of particular interest,” said Arbuckle.

Survey results indicated that farmers with more corn or soybean acres show higher knowledge levels: more than two-thirds of farmers who had 500 or more acres said they were at least somewhat knowledgeable, compared to 37 percent of farmers with fewer than 100 acres.

Farmers had heard about the NRS from some sources more than others. “As expected, the farm press had been instrumental in raising awareness of the NRS, especially among larger-scale farmers,” said Hanna Bates, co-author of the study. “Government agencies such as ISU Extension and Outreach, the USDA-NRCS, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, IDALS and commodity or farm organizations were also important information sources.”

The least common information sources were local agricultural retailers, seed company salespeople and independent/private crop advisers. “It’s crucial for private sector advisers to get more involved,” Bates noted. “Iowa State and IDALS and other public sector and non-governmental organizations that are working on the strategy should continue to work closely with their private sector partners to help engage them as messengers.”

Most Farm Poll participants expressed concern about agriculture’s impacts on water quality (76 percent), and believed that Iowa farmers should do more to address nutrient loss. Fifty-two percent agreed that nutrients from Iowa farms contribute to hypoxia, an oxygen-depleted water zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Forty percent were uncertain about the impacts of nutrients from Iowa on Gulf Hypoxia.

Survey questions measuring attitudes toward the NRS and related actions showed that Iowa farmers were generally supportive of the strategy and believed that farmers should do more to reduce nutrient and sediment run-off into waterways. Nearly three-quarters agreed that they would like to improve conservation practices on their own farmland to help meet the strategy’s goals.

Arbuckle said respondents indicated openness to receiving help from advisers. “About 60 percent agreed that fertilizer dealers — the group that most farmers look to for nutrient management advice — should do more to help their clients address nutrient loss,” he said. Nearly half expressed willingness to have someone help evaluate the effectiveness of nutrient management practices on their farms.

Farmers also were asked to rate their agreement or disagreement with statements about potential barriers to nutrient management-related conservation actions. More than half (56 percent) agreed that landlords often are unwilling to spend money on conservation. Likewise, 55 percent agreed that short-term pressure to make profit margins makes it difficult to invest in conservation practices when benefits are mostly long-term. Only 16 percent agreed the cost of further reduction of nutrient losses from their farm operation would be too high. However, 55 percent selected “uncertain” on this question.

“The survey results showed that farmers know about and support the NRS,” said Arbuckle. “The challenge going forward will be to translate awareness and positive attitudes into more widespread adoption of diverse conservation practices and farming systems that keep nutrients on farms.”

“The Nutrient Reduction Strategy focuses on ways farmers, agricultural stakeholders and cities can take action to reduce nutrient loads by 45 percent,” said John Lawrence, associate dean in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and director for Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension and Outreach.

Lawrence said the Iowa strategy was designed to be a dynamic document, evolving as new information, data and science are discovered and adopted. “The strategy summarizes ongoing research from Iowa State on the effectiveness of ‘best management practices’ in reducing nutrient loss from farmland,” he said. Lawrence also serves as director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, established in 2013 by the Board of Regents, State of Iowa, and serves on the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance advisory board.

“Farmer Perspectives on Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy” (PM 3072) and previous Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll summary and topical reports are available to download from the ISU Extension and Outreach Online Store, https://store.extension.iastate.edu/, and Extension Sociology, www.soc.iastate.edu/extension/ifrlp/about.html.

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