Pressure to maintain profit margins a barrier to conservation

Farm Forum

AMES, Iowa – Despite attempts to reduce agriculture’s impact on soil and water quality that date back to the 1930s, soil erosion and water quality degradation are still widespread in Iowa. While evidence points to recent progress on water quality through efforts associated with the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, continued major reductions in nutrient and soil loss will be required to meet water quality and other sustainability goals.

The 2015 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll ( asked farmers why, despite long-term efforts from state and federal governments, land grant universities, farmer groups and others, agriculture still has soil erosion and water quality impairment issues.

“You hear farmers and other people involved in agriculture talk about different barriers and challenges to minimizing soil erosion and nutrient loss,” said poll co-director J. Gordon Arbuckle, associate professor of sociology and extension sociologist at Iowa State University. “The 2015 survey asked farmers their opinions about some of the more commonly discussed reasons for continued problems.”

Farm Poll respondents were asked to rate each of ten different reasons on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). The use of tillage was the highest-rated reason, with 72 percent of farmers either agreeing or strongly agreeing that “tillage makes soil vulnerable to erosion”. The second highest rated reason was related to the economics of commodity production; 57 percent of respondents agreed that the pressure to make profit margins makes it difficult to invest in conservation practices.

“It was interesting that these two reasons rose to the top, because they are related,” said Arbuckle. “Even though the science shows that tillage generally has negative impacts on soils, many farmers feel like they have to till to warm or dry the soil so they can get their crop planted in time to maximize yields. So the pressure to make annual profit can lead to reductions in long-term soil health and productivity.”

Several items focused on other challenges associated with corn and soybean production systems. About 44 percent agreed with the statement “soil erosion is difficult to avoid in corn-soybean production systems”, while 37 percent disagreed and 19 percent were uncertain. Forty-two percent agreed that nutrient loss is difficult to avoid in corn-soybean production systems, compared to 34 percent who disagreed. Twenty-six percent of farmers agreed that nutrient loss is difficult to avoid in tile-drained fields, compared to 33 percent who disagreed. The largest response category on the tile drainage and nutrient loss item, at 41 percent, was uncertainty.

“Given the amount of attention paid over the last couple of years to reducing nutrient loss from tile drainage, I was a little surprised at the level of uncertainty on that item,” said Arbuckle. “That might point to a need to raise awareness of the link between drainage and nutrient losses, and ways that those losses can be minimized.”

Two items focused on financial aspects of soil and water conservation. About 40 percent agreed that cost share and other support from government agencies is insufficient, while 19 percent disagreed. Thirty-nine percent agreed that many farmers do not have the economic resources to adopt sufficient conservation practices, while 31 percent disagreed.

The remaining items showed more disagreement or uncertainty than agreement. Thirty-five percent of respondents disagreed with the statement that “many farmers are not aware of water quality impacts”, compared to 33 percent who agreed and 32 percent who were uncertain. The study also showed that 33 percent disagreed that nutrient loss is difficult to avoid in tile-drained fields and 42 percent disagreed that many conservation practices have negative impacts on yields.

“I think a main takeaway is that many farmers find it hard to avoid soil erosion and nutrient loss in corn-soybean production systems,” said Arbuckle. “We need to continue efforts to help farmers learn about and implement practices such as no-till and cover crops, and develop more effective strategies that can help farmers make necessary investments in long-term soil health, while also meeting short-term profit objectives.”

The Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll has been in existence since 1982, surveying Iowa farmers on issues of importance to agricultural stakeholders. It is the longest-running survey of its kind in the nation.