AgDM newsletter article, June 1999

Farmers' attitudes about sustainable agriculture

Mike DuffyBy Mike Duffy, Extension Economist, 515.294.6160,

A recent survey, conducted by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at ISU, asked Iowa farmer operators about their knowledge and opinions regarding sustainable agriculture.  A generally accepted definition of sustainable agriculture would include these vital components:

There were 1036 useable survey responses from the random sample telephone survey of conducted by the Iowa Agricultural Statistics Service during the summer of 1998.

Familiarity with sustainable agriculture

Nearly half, 48 percent, of those questioned said they were "somewhat familiar" with the term sustainable agriculture. Only 12 percent of Iowa farmers interviewed said that they were "very familiar" with the term. The remaining 40 percent said that they were not familiar with the term sustainable agriculture.  The farmers who described themselves as very familiar with sustainable agriculture were younger, better educated, and farmed more acres than the farmers who were not familiar or somewhat familiar with the term sustainable agriculture. 

Farmers also were asked what sustainable agriculture meant to them.  Almost a third gave no answer to the question and another 16 percent said they did not know.  Land preservation was the most frequently given answer, listed by 15 percent.  Reduced inputs was the next most frequent response of the farmers.

Importance of adopting sustainable methods

Survey respondents were asked how important it is for Iowa to adopt more sustainable methods. Sixty-two percent said that it was very important for Iowa to practice more sustainable farming methods.  Over a third said that it was somewhat important and four percent of the respondents said that it was not important.

Younger farmers, with less education and farming more acres tended to be the ones not seeing an importance in adapting more sustainable methods. This group also identified farming as their principal occupation and had a higher sales volume than other respondents.

When asked to identify benefits of sustainable farming practices, respondents selected benefits pertaining to environment and safety issues as their top 3 choices. Less chemicals in the environment was the most identified benefit; profitability was fourth.  Respondents were able to choose more than one benefit from the list shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Benefits of adopting sustainable farming practices

Benefit  Percent of farmers
Less chemicals in the environment 84%
Healthier lifestyle 80
More wholesome food 78
More profits 74
Better working conditions 70
More local foods 67
More farmers on the land 62
None 1
Other 1

Most serious environmental issue

Respondents were asked to express their opinion to the question "In your opinion, what is the single, most important environmental issue facing Iowa today?"

Water pollution was identified by almost a third of the respondents as the single most important environmental issue.  Pollution in general was identified by another 7 percent of the respondents, and air pollution was mentioned as a major concern by 1 percent.

The single biggest environmental issue, cited by 21 percent, was large hog units. Ten percent of the respondents cited agricultural chemicals, 9 percent manure, and the remaining 9 percent considered erosion to be the single largest environmental issue facing Iowa today.

Change in sustainability since the 1980s

The changes in the sustainability of Iowa agriculture since the 1980s appear to be a cloudy issue in the minds of those surveyed.  Almost half of the respondents felt that Iowa agriculture was more sustainable than it was in the last decade, whereas almost a third felt that it was less sustainable. A third of the respondents either did not or could not give reasons to explain why they felt as they did.

Of the farmers who said Iowa agriculture was more sustainable, 26 percent attributed this to an increase in no-till farming and 17 percent identified reduced erosion as the reason.  Better farming practices in general were cited by 10 percent of those who felt Iowa agriculture was more sustainable.  The only other reason cited by more than 10 percent of those who felt sustainability had increased was better education.

For those who felt Iowa agriculture was less sustainable today than in the 1980s, a decline in profits was the reason most frequently cited, by 18 percent; an increased farm size was cited by 16 percent.  The third most given reason for feeling Iowa agriculture was less sustainable was an increase in chemical use, cited by 11 percent.


Even with the early analysis of this data, some interesting facts emerge that speak to both the Leopold Center and proponents of sustainable agriculture in general. 

Pollution, especially water pollution, continues to be a major concern for Iowa farmers.  New methods or more familiarity with existing methods to prevent pollution need to be developed and presented to the farmers. There also needs to be easily identifiable incentives for adoption of pollution control practices.  Some practices have been identified such as taking fertilizer credit for manure, but there does not seem to be a significant change in farmer behavior with respect to taking this credit. 

However, almost half the respondents either didn't respond when asked what sustainable agriculture meant to them or said they didn't know.  Only a handful of the respondents named more than one of the three vital components (as listed at the beginning of this article) in their definition.  The environmental aspects were most frequently mentioned.  Only 6 percent of the respondents identified profitability as part of sustainable agriculture.

This survey suggests information regarding sustainable agriculture and related practices has not reached Iowa farm operators. While all farmers will never wholly embrace sustainable agriculture, giving farmers more information and helping them appreciate sustainable agriculture will provide groundwork for sustainable agriculture to emerge for all Iowans. 

The current financial situation in Iowa agriculture and the debacle in the hog industry have made this an opportune time to get people thinking about options and alternatives beyond conventional agriculture.

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