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2009 Farm and Rural Life Poll: farm policy and commodity production*

AgDM Newsletter
April 2010

The Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll is an annual survey that collects and disseminates information on issues of importance to rural communities across Iowa and the Midwest. Conducted every year since its establishment in 1982, the Farm Poll is the longest-running survey of its kind in the nation. This article highlights information from the 2009 survey on farm policy and commodity production.

Farm policy and commodity production

When the Farm Poll survey was mailed in January 2009, the 2008 Farm Bill had been in effect for six months, giving farmers and the farming community some time to learn about changes and continuities in the legislation and reflect on what they might mean for them. The survey included questions that focused on farm policies and programs and their potential effects on farmers, farming practices, markets and rural communities.

A first set of items allowed farmers to assess some general statements about the impacts of commodity programs. Two statements about ethanol policy received the highest levels of endorsement, with 72 percent of participants agreeing that federal ethanol policy had been good for Iowa farmers, and 71 percent supporting an increase in the percentage of ethanol that can be blended into gasoline. (See Table 1.) A third ethanol-related item - that ethanol policy should focus more on developing cellulosic and other non-grain forms of biofuels - earned much less support, with only 37 percent agreeing with that statement and 44 percent expressing uncertainty.

Farmers’ general assessments of commodity programs were uneven. Seventy percent of farmers agreed that every time the Farm Bill is renewed they worry about how changes will affect their operations (Table 1). This indicates that uncertainty about Farm Bill policies and programs can be a source of stress. On the other hand, a majority of participants also agreed that commodity programs have been good for most Iowa farmers (57 percent) and that they have served as an important safety net for their operations (55 percent). Finally, however, a sizeable minority (46 percent) of participants agreed that commodity programs favor agribusiness corporations over farmers.

Table 1 and 2

A number of statements focused on the specialized production of commodities such as corn, soybeans, hogs and cattle and the impacts of that specialization on farmers and rural communities. The statement “Profit margins on corn and soybeans get eaten up by land rents and input costs faster than they used to” received the highest levels of endorsement, with 86 percent of farmers in agreement (Table 2). Seventy-two percent of farmers agreed that increasing specialization in commodities has led to the loss of farms, 68 percent agreed that they sometimes feel like they have little control over the profitability of their farms, 55 percent agreed that overreliance on corn and soybeans contributes to financial risk for row crop farmers, and 50 percent agreed that farmers have to continually increase acreage in order to make a living farming corn and soybeans.

Two statements focused on the long-term impacts that specialization trends have had on Iowa’s farmers and rural communities. The first asked participants to rate their agreement or disagreement with the statement “The shift away from diversified farm operations and toward specialized grain or livestock operations has generally been good for Iowa’s farmers.” Only 19 percent of farmers agreed with that position, and 48 percent either disagreed or strongly disagreed (table 2). In response to an identical statement regarding rural communities, even fewer farmers agreed (14 percent) and many more disagreed (55 percent) that a greater reliance on specialized commodity production has been good for rural communities.

Finally, several items centered on markets and cropping decisions. The argument is often heard that commodity programs discourage farmers from diversifying into non-traditional crops. However, 70 percent of farmers agreed that they would plant the same mix of crops and livestock even if there were no commodity support programs in place. Thirty-five percent agreed that the shift to corn and soybeans as the dominant crops has reduced market opportunities for other crops. Only 18 percent agreed that in the absence of commodity programs, Iowa farmers would grow more fruits, nuts, vegetables and other non-program crops.

Survey information

Iowa State University Extension, the Iowa Agriculture and Home Economics Experiment Station and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship are all partners in the Farm Poll effort. The information gathered through the Farm Poll is used to inform the development and improvement of research and extension programs and is used by local, state and national leaders in their decision-making processes. We thank the many farmers who responded to this year’s survey and appreciate their continued participation in the Farm Poll.

Who participates?

The 2009 Farm Poll questionnaires were mailed in January and February to a statewide panel of 2,201 farm operators. Usable surveys were received from 1,268 farmers, resulting in a 58 percent response rate. On average, Farm Poll participants were 64 years old, and had been farming for 39 years. Fifty percent of farmers reported that farm income made up more than half of their overall 2008 household income, and an additional 20 percent earned between 26 and 50 percent of their household income from farming. Copies of this or any other year’s reports are available from your local county Extension office, the Extension Distribution Center (www.extension.iastate.edu/store), Extension Sociology ( http://www.soc.iastate.edu/extension/ifrlp/about.html), or from the authors.

*Reprinted with permission from the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll, 2009 Summary Report, PM 2093. Renea Miller provided valuable layout assistance to the questionnaire and this report. The Iowa Department of Land Stewardship, Division of Statistics, assisted in the data collection.


J. Gordon Arbuckle, Jr., extension sociologist, 515-294-1497, arbuckle@iastate.edu
Paul Lasley, extension sociologist
Peter Korsching, professor
Chris Kast, research assistant