New Report Shows More Needs to be done to Protect Rivers and Lakes from Agricultural Runoff
"Without higher adoption, there will be no significant improvements in impaired lakes and rivers, which fish and wildlife desperately need."
A new report by Datu Research shows that voluntary adoption of conservation practices on agricultural land is still low, despite years of taxpayer-funded incentive payments and outreach programs according to the National Wildlife Federation.
Agriculture is a leading contributor to water quality problems in the Mississippi River Basin, including the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and toxic algal blooms in the Great Lakes. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer and manure can reach rivers, and estuaries, polluting important aquatic habitat for fish, migratory birds and other wildlife.
Conservation practices like cover crops, a crop that is planted in between cash crop rotations to protect the soil, and reduced tillage lessen the amount of polluted runoff reaching water bodies. Conservation practices are not generally required, but voluntary. Too much agricultural land is currently being put into production without an appropriate level of conservation to protect water quality.
The report shares the results of a survey conducted to determine the level of conservation agriculture found on Iowa farms. Among the survey results:
- Less than half of farmers in Iowa use no-till, planting and harvesting crops without tillage and keeping crop residue on the ground. Only 21 percent use long-term no-till.
- Only 23 percent of farmers in Iowa use cover crops, and most do not plant cover crops on every acre. The majority of cover crops are only planted on 100 acres or less.
- Only 4 percent of farmers use strip-till as a practice.
"Clearly, current policies and approaches that have been in place for years are not going far enough to encourage adoption of conservation practices. Without higher adoption, there will be no significant improvements in impaired lakes and rivers, which fish and wildlife desperately need," said Lara Bryant, agriculture coordinator at the National Wildlife Federation.
Why aren’t more farmers using conservation practices, and what can be done to encourage adoption? Datu’s survey reveals a few barriers and opportunities in getting more conservation practices on the ground:
- Many farmers test their soil, but mostly for nitrogen, phosphorus and organic matter. More comprehensive tests that show soil health may show the benefits of conservation practices to the farmer’s bottom line. The study shows that 49 percent of farmers are interested in getting more information from their test results.
- Most farmers rely on fertilizer salesman on recommendations, which may result in an excess of fertilizer purchased, leading to fertilizer overflow in rivers and lakes. Educating farmers on the use of cover crops for the reduction of fertilizer costs may result in better water quality and protection.
- Creating certainty and building incentives for conservation within crop insurance may increase adoption of practice and eliminate confusion on impacts cover crops may have on farmers’ crop insurance.
- Many farmers rent from absentee landowners. Landowners need to better understand the benefits of conservation agriculture to encourage sustainable practices on their land.
- Seed corn and cellulosic ethanol providers both benefit from increased cover crop adoption and are potential avenues to provide incentives for planting cover crops.
Sarah Mine, report author from Datu Research claims, "By continuing to demonstrate and document the economic impact of conservation agriculture, we can ensure that a fair share of the benefits end up where they belong – in farmers’ hands."