New analysis: Majority of Iowa farmers support additional conservation requirements

Q

Former Iowa Environmental Council executive director Linda Appelgate captured this image of a corn field eroding into the Nishnabotna river in 2010. According to the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll, nearly 80% of Iowa farmers agree they need to do more to “reduce nutrient and sediment runoff into streams and lakes.”

Iowa farmers support expanding conservation requirements for soil erosion and the control of nitrogen and phosphorous runoff, according to a new analysis of Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll data from 2009 and 2010.

According to a new article by Iowa State University sociologist J. Gordon Arbuckle, nearly 80% of farmers agree they should “do more to reduce nutrient and sediment runoff into streams and lakes.”  A majority also agree farmer action on these environmental concerns should be required regardless of whether they participate in federal farm programs.

Image shows a thick mat of green algae with the text "Let's clean this up!"Arbuckle completed the analysis, published in the current issue of the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, to determine the degree to which farmers support Conservation Compliance, a federal policy intended to protect vulnerable soils from excessive erosion.

Under that policy, first adopted by Congress in 1985, farmers who grow crops on highly erodible soils without a conservation plan in place risk losing their eligibility for a variety of federal farm programs.  As Arbuckle points out, the policy has generated substantial conservation benefits by reducing federal farm subsidies for environmentally harmful practices.

As Congress attempted to write a new farm bill in 2012, many conservation groups called for expanding the current role of conservation compliance by connecting it to federally-subsidized crop insurance subsidies.

Congress’s failure to pass a new farm bill leaves that aspect of conservation compliance’s future in question, but according to Arbuckle, Iowa farmers support expanding the program and even applying it to farms not participating in federal farm programs.

In fact, 66% of Iowa farmers said they support extending conservation compliance requirements to all highly erodible soils whether or not the farmer is participating in federal farm programs.

And concerning nitrogen and phosphorous runoff—an area not currently covered by Conservation Compliance—62% of farmers agreed they should “be required to control nutrient runoff into ditches, streams, and other waterways regardless of participation in federal farm programs.”

Last November, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, together with officials from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Iowa State University released a state nutrient reduction strategy they say will help resolve this problem.

The Iowa Environmental Council and other environmental and conservation groups have criticized the plan because it continues existing all-voluntary conservation programs without additional goals or accountability for creating clean water results in Iowa.

According to the new analysis, Iowa farmers may be willing to consider mandatory options for controlling nitrogen and phosphorous pollution some state leaders—including Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey—have stated they wish to avoid.

The poll results showed an overwhelming majority of Iowa farmers (92%) agreed “a good farmer is one who minimizes soil erosion,” and more than 80% also agreed the health of streams running through or along their land is their responsibility.

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