Iowa State University Study Examines Farmer Use of Conservation Loan Programs

AMES, Iowa – Iowa is one of the most productive agricultural states in the U.S., but it also faces water quality challenges related to crop and livestock production practices. A number of conservation programs are in place to help farmers and landowners improve conservation practices; however, demand for the programs often outweighs the funds available. To help address this issue, Iowa introduced Clean Water State Revolving Fund nonpoint source pollution programs within the state in 2005. To see if the programs were making a difference, state CWSRF staff contacted Iowa State University Extension and Outreach to help conduct an evaluation.

Results from an ISU Extension and Outreach-led evaluation of the CWSRF’s Local Water Protection Program were published in the February 2013 issue of the Journal of the American Water Resources Association. Extension sociologist J. Gordon Arbuckle Jr. led the research team.

Congress established the CWSRF in 1987 to help communities fund infrastructure and other water-quality improvement projects. In 1992, some states' CWSRF programs began providing loans for agricultural pollution projects. These programs use federal money to provide subsidized loans to help farmers and landowners fund conservation practices that improve water quality. In 2004 the Iowa CWSRF established the Local Water Protection Program and the Livestock Water Quality program. The programs are jointly administered by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the Iowa Finance Authority and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

The CWSRF nonpoint source loan programs were designed to increase the scope, scale and rate of best management practices adoption on Iowa's agricultural land by relieving capital constraints and decreasing the financial burden associated with adopting the practices. While the programs gained traction in their first years, by 2007 they had not attained desired levels of participation and Iowa CWSRF staff wanted to find out why. They also wanted to know if the programs were helping participants to increase investments in conservation practices.

In 2008, Arbuckle began working with IDNR and IDALS staff to evaluate the programs. The research team surveyed farmers and landowners and conducted focus groups with agency field staff.

“We learned that farmers who had taken loans viewed them as effective and user-friendly. Nearly all loan recipients believed that the loans had helped them to accomplish their conservation goals more rapidly then they would have otherwise. More than 90 percent agreed that they would recommend the programs to others and would take a loan again if needed,” Arbuckle said. "Our focus groups with agency field staff found that many of the staff who were not promoting the programs simply were not familiar enough with them to feel comfortable using them.

The article published in the Journal of the American Water Resources Association focuses on the LWPP.

The LWPP loans are not a replacement for cost-share funding of on-farm conservation projects, but rather, the loans leverage the cost-share and allow farmers to expand their conservation projects and complete them in a more timely manner, Arbuckle said. Based on results from the survey, farmers typically supplement their cost-shares with these loans. The loan program aids farmers in making larger investments in conservation.

“One of our main findings was that landowners who used the program thought it was very effective,” Arbuckle said. “The program helped the participants implement more conservation practices more quickly than they could have without the loans.”

Iowa State University Extension and Outreach provides many resources for farmers and landowners. For more information, visit


[PHOTO] J. Gordon Arbuckle Jr.