Farmer awareness of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy nearly doubled during the past year, according to a statewide survey of more than 350 farmers. This familiarity, say Iowa Soybean Association leaders, is the key to increasing the pace and scale of adoption of on-farm conservation practices proven to have a positive impact on water quality.
The telephone survey was conducted Dec. 17-19 by Iowa-based CampaignHQ and commissioned by the Iowa Soybean Association. Funded by the soybean checkoff, the survey found that 69% of the 353 farmers polled were familiar with the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, up sharply from just 39% in 2013.
Survey was funded by soybean checkoff and taken in December
Approved by the Iowa Legislature in 2013, the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is a science-and-technology-based framework to assess and reduce the amount of nutrients coming from point and nonpoint sources and entering to Iowa waters and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. The strategy is a voluntary program whereby farmers are able to choose and use the nutrient reduction management practices that work best on their particular fields.
The strategy has been under fire recently, with Des Moines Water Works officials saying it's been ineffective in reducing nitrate losses from farm fields that enter the state's streams and rivers. The Water Works has had to use its costly nitrate removal system this winter to remove nitrates from the metro area's drinking water. The Water Works has notified three rural northwest Iowa counties, and their drainage districts, that it plans to sue them for high nitrate levels in the Raccoon River. The river supplies water for the Des Moines Water Works.
Combination of various nutrient reduction practices are needed
With specific respect to non-point sources, including agricultural land uses, a suite of infield and edge-of-field practices will need to be implemented to achieve a 41% load reduction in nitrogen and 29% reduction in phosphorous to meet the aspiring 45% reduction goal included in the strategy. No deadline has been set for reaching these voluntary goals.
Roger Wolf, ISA director of Environmental Programs and Services (EPS), says this strong upturn in farmer awareness of the strategy bodes well for achieving its goals and improving overall environmental performance. "Awareness is the precursor to engagement," Wolf notes. "Now, it's about providing farmers with the technical assistance and resources needed to transform this awareness into action."
The ISA survey supports this approach. When asked what information is most valuable to encourage greater participation in the strategy, 73% of respondents said providing additional analysis about the cost and effectiveness of individual practices. And 68% cited additional information about the strategy as being valuable, while 62% value the opportunities to view on-farm demonstration practices. Sixty-one percent want more technical assistance.
Now is time for farmers to target specific practices and plans
ISA president Tom Oswald says the soybean association's EPS division is uniquely poised to provide farmers with the information they need to act. He raises corn and soybeans near Cleghorn. "Adaptive management has always been an important part of agriculture," Oswald adds. "Now is the time for farmers to target specific practices and plans in order to achieve our overall goals for productivity and the environment. The EPS team at ISA has 15 years of experience with these practices and can help Iowa farmers meet their nutrient reduction goals."
"There is urgency to adopt more conservation practices in more places and at a quicker pace to demonstrate progress," Wolf says. "To achieve results, it's critical to be thoughtful in how we proceed. This includes improving overall nutrient and land management in combination with tailoring the use of cover crops, bioreactors, saturated buffers, buffer strips and other practices to proper soil types, hydrology and geology."
Big task ahead to meet goals of nutrient reduction strategy
Wolf says this is going to be a monumental task and it is going to take some time, but the voluntary, educational approach of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is gaining momentum. Last year, nearly 2,400 farmers and landowners invested $22.5 million on conservation practices in Iowa to prevent soil erosion and improve water quality, of which $13 million came out of farmers' own pockets.
When asked what environmental practices they currently use 89% of respondents to the ISA survey said grassed waterways followed by conservation tillage (69%), no-till (61%) and terraces (57%). Buffer strips were used by 53% of respondents while 21% said they've planted cover crops.