Rural study finds overwhelming support for conservation incentives, not regulation

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

Rural residents strongly favor incentives to help farmers battle climate change but are deeply skeptical of government environmental regulations, according to a new study from Duke University on rural residents’ attitudes about environmental issues.

Upwards of 90% of Upper Midwest rural residents surveyed said they support financial incentives for water quality and soil conservation — the two top environmental issues in Iowa and across Rural America. Eighty-four percent favor government spending on climate change that helps farmers and rural communities, and 76% support carbon fees to spur agricultural capture of carbon dioxide from the air and its burial in the soil.

All the data in the two-year study founded on polling and focus groups confirm previous surveys, plus our own experience having spent a lifetime in farm-town Iowa: Rural residents are acutely aware of climate, they feel a moral obligation toward stewardship, they don’t want to be told what they can do with their land by someone from Washington, they favor local solutions, and they listen to scientists and other farmers about how to deal with environmental issues.

The study, led by Robert Bonnie of Duke University’s Nicholas Institute (who served as undersecretary of agriculture to Secretary Tom Vilsack), generally comports with focus groups and polling by Selzer and Associates of West Des Moines, which conducts the Iowa Poll. Selzer has found that climate was the number two issue behind health care among likely Iowa caucus-goers, and that Trump voters identify water quality as a major issue. The Iowa Rural Life Poll by Iowa State University shows that over 60% of farmers want to do more with conservation if only they could convince the landlord. The Iowa Poll reported repeatedly that most rural residents are highly concerned about water quality.

Duke’s survey found that rural residents believe they have a more intimate relationship to the land and environment than urban dwellers. They have a sophisticated understanding of environmental issues. But when you attempt to regulate how they approach a seasonally wet spot through EPA enforcement, they will bring out the pitchforks. Need I mention Waters of the United States, the proposed EPA regulation that was just dumped by the Trump Administration? Few really knew what WOTUS was, but they didn’t like it because it was a regulation.

The data tell us that rural residents believe in carbon sequestration, that they would plant grass over corn if someone would pay them to do so, and that they want help in making agriculture more resilient from extreme weather. Right now, farmers in western Iowa are preparing for more epic flooding from the Missouri River due in weeks. Last year, floods scoured 95,000 acres in Southwest Iowa. In northern Iowa, it was so wet corn could not get planted on time and suffered yield losses of up to 15%.

Rural folk, especially farmers, are reluctant to acknowledge climate change per se because they fear a federal boot on their neck. But they will talk about extreme weather all day long as they wait for the rain to stop or the drought to relent.

They do trust information from other farmers. That’s why the Practical Farmers of Iowa is drawing in legions to hear about how sustainable ag techniques can save on chemical costs while improving yields through better soil health. The survey showed that farmers do listen to universities when they can get the information — just last week Iowa State announced a climate webinar with the director of the Midwest climate hub. ISU agronomist Rick Cruse has been evangelizing about soil loss due to extreme weather for years, and people are now paying attention to him. Most of the information comes to farmers from ag chemical companies and the Farm Bureau, the survey reports. Bonnie recommends taking care in who the spokesperson is for conservation — Dr. Cruse is better than an environmental spear carrier from Chicago.

The Des Moines Waterworks lawsuit illustrates rural attitudes. Up here, people were outraged that agriculture was being sued by city folk. Gov. Terry Branstad called it a war. That the Clean Water Act could be imposed on agriculture was a violation of religious dogma in Northwest Iowa. But the lawsuit changed the conversation in Iowa, because people in Des Moines one generation removed from the farm know where the Raccoon River’s pollution comes from.

Nature is forcing us to a reckoning, and the Duke study confirms what we know: Rural residents are eager for conservation incentives, they want unbiased scientific information from land-grant universities and a conduit for that information, and they feel a strong obligation to preserve natural resources for future generations. They just would like a way to make it profitable. The secret is: Sustainable, or regenerative, agriculture is profitable, it does offer public environmental benefits that are worth the farm subsidy, and we can solve our climate crisis if rural people think you are working with them and not against them.

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