Study: Most Farmers Willing to Take More Steps to Improve Water Quality

Oct. 3, 2014
This story was originally published by the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences on September 30, 2014
 
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Most farmers in the Maumee River watershed that drains into Lake Erie are willing to take at least one additional action to reduce nutrient loss on their farm if they feel like the action will both benefit their farms as well as water quality.
 
That’s according to new research from Robyn Wilson, associate professor of risk analysis and decision science in Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.
 
Most farmers, she said, are willing to adopt a new conservation practice if they believe that nutrient loss from their fields will have a negative financial impact on their crop production and if they believe that if they put best management practices in place on their farms, the techniques will work.
 
“If you want to motivate farmers to take actions on their farms to lessen nutrient loss, you should be talking about how not taking action can impact their farm profits as well as how it will impact local water quality,” Wilson said. “Despite some stereotypes of farmers that they just care about profits and don’t care about water quality, farmers are generally concerned about nutrient loss and the impacts of that on water quality locally and regionally.”
 
Her findings are from recent Ohio State surveys of Maumee watershed farmers as well as from a study that looked at whether farmers had adopted state-recommended 4R Nutrient Management strategies, which offer guidelines to using the right fertilizer source, at the right rate, at the right time, with the right placement.
 
Through her research, Wilson is interested in learning the values, attitudes and beliefs of people who contribute to and are most impacted by environmental issues. The Western Basin of Lake Erie has experienced large algal blooms in recent years that threaten the economy of the region. These blooms are attributed to nutrient runoff from farm fields, among a number of other factors, and are an issue of increasing significance.
 
Most farmers agree that agriculture contributes to nutrient-related water quality issues, and most are willing to take additional action to help solve the problem by reducing dissolved reactive phosphorus loading into Lake Erie tributaries, Wilson said. Some of these nutrient management practices include soil testing and avoiding nutrient application on frozen ground, to maximize nutrient efficiency while minimizing excess nutrient runoff from fields.
 
“The majority of farmers have very positive attitudes toward taking action, agreeing that taking at least one additional action to reduce nutrient loss on their farm would be fair, beneficial and valuable,” Wilson said. “But farmers also want to feel like their actions will make a difference in the bigger picture regarding water quality.
 
“It is great to get the farmer perspective on these issues in Ohio, as I think there are a lot of assumptions about what farmers are thinking and what they are doing in relation to nutrient management.”
 
Wilson did find, however, a small minority of farmers who may need economic incentives to propel them to take additional actions to lessen nutrient losses off their land. These farmers tend to be older, less educated and more resistant to change, and also tend to operate farms farther away from Lake Erie, she said.
 
“In talking with these farmers, the focus needs to be on how nutrient loss negatively impacts profits on their farm, how it negatively impacts water quality locally and regionally, and how nutrient loss occurring on their farm and not taking action to lessen the losses can negatively impact soil health, increase production costs and result in yield loss,” Wilson said.
 
Researchers can help by offering a tailored classification system that offers growers more farm-specific information as to what nutrient management techniques work best for their individual farm, she said.
 
“Farmers are told that the 4Rs will reduce nutrient loss and harmful algal blooms, and that’s great, but what farmers really need to know is what they should be doing specific to their farm in order to get the best bang for their buck,” Wilson said. “Researchers need to develop a specific classification system that offers more targeted practices.”
 
Written by: Tracy Turner (turner.490@osu.edu)
Source: Robyn Wilson (wilson.1376@osu.edu)