What do farmers think?


Most farmers believe that soil health can lead to better profits, but they or their landlords to not agree that they can afford to implement soil-conserving practices. That’s the main message from the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll conducted annually by Iowa State University released on April 26: 57% of poll respondents agreed that the pressure to make profit margins makes it difficult to invest in conservation, and just 28% agreed that their landlords understand the importance of soil health to farm viability.

That is perhaps why 63% did not shift marginal lands into other uses such as pasture or hay over the past decade, or why more than half of those surveyed continue to apply fertilizer in the fall when there are no crops to use it.

Farmers want to protect soil health, but high rents and cultural resistance stand firmly in their way.

There is little incentive in this cruel world for adopting soil conservation techniques if you are a renter or farm manager, and the landlord doesn’t want to hear about the cost of terraces or leaving grass filter strips near streams. About 70% of Iowa land is rented. Owners who believe their land is worth more than $10,000 per acre demand rent checks that justify that price. They are not the ones working the land and who can see where it all is flowing — down the Raccoon and Cedar Rivers.

The entire system is set up for scale and efficiency. That’s all that has been preached over the past 30 years. You must get bigger to survive, which means you must rent more acres and get higher yields at lower costs every single year. Who would gamble on taking marginal land next to the river out of production? You buy the best crop insurance you can afford and plant that river bottom.

Most farmers do not think they can afford the cost-share with federal conservation programs. And, those very programs are under assault in Congress, which is trying to shift environmental responsibility to the states. Where is a farmer supposed to turn when the entire industry and government is telling him to run straight ahead on the same route he has run for decades?

The poll tells us that farmers might not need as much education as farm managers and landlords. You cannot count on the fertilizer company to show you ways to reduce fertilizer consumption. We count on Iowa State to show us new ways to manage the Iowa landscape while keeping the stewards of the land properly fed. But there, too, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture has been emasculated from what it was supposed to be. The Practical Farmers of Iowa are, in the main, considered to be a curiosity.

The poll shows us what we already should know. Iowa has a long way to go in instilling the conservation ethic in Iowa, where more than 60% have not changed their approach to conservation in the past 10 years.

Cast against that context, Gov. Terry Branstad on Monday railed against the Senate Democrats for blocking his “big and bold” water quality proposal that would steal hundreds of millions of dollars in sales tax revenue and redirect it toward agribusiness. A little late to the game, the governor at his weekly press conference endorsed a minority plan in the Senate that would raise the sales tax by one-eighth of a percentage point to generate more than $100 million per year for water quality.

Except …

Except that it would be revenue-neutral, which suggests that the revenue for water quality will still come out of the hides of public education. Nearly every local school district is bracing for staff reductions in the next couple years because state appropriations are not keeping pace with inflation.

Branstad is asking the state to make a major and historic commitment to ag conservation when members of his own party in the US House are trying to eliminate the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Security Program, which are both designed for to deliver conservation assistance to working farmland.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal said he blocked the governor because a bipartisan coalition of senators were not willing to see education take another hit. He urged Branstad and his Republican friends in the House to come up with a calibrated program that can work and do it in a sincere fashion after the election. Gronstal is taking the cautious approach and it proves prudent if you are familiar with the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll. Farmers and rural residents aren’t quite sure what to do about conservation improvements. Iowa’s most forceful factor — inertia — has not given way to allow politicians to craft a plan in an electoral vacuum. Branstad may enjoy diving into that swirl, but Gronstal is once again keeping the governor from his worst instincts.