Thursday, September 22, 2011

U of I research incorporates farmer perspectives on water quality

U of I research incorporates farmer perspectives on water quality

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Recently, I spoke about the technical aspect of a current U of I research project designed to address nitrate loss from farming in the Salt Fork River watershed.

This week, a report on the other main component of that project. It focuses on farm landowners and operators, especially their perceptions about water quality and their thinking on issues that might affect willingness to adopt new water management techniques. This part of the effort is led by U of I professor Courtney Flint, with important collaboration from George Czapar at the Illinois State Water Survey and others at the Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Flint is a sociologist whose research focuses on rural community and regional responses to environmental disturbance or change. When we spoke, she emphasized that the development of new technology is only one step toward the goal of reducing nitrate loss, and she referred me to a favorite quote to explain what motivates her work: “All the good intentions of science and technology are meaningless unless the farmer actually uses the practices.”

Flint and her colleagues employed two instruments to document the perspectives of farmers in the Upper Salt Fork Watershed during spring and summer of 2010. They sat down for personal interviews with 40 farm operators and landowners, and they conducted a broader survey by mail.

The researchers found that most respondents felt that local water quality, which they generally associated with drinking water, is good. They were more concerned about getting water off of fields quickly than what water might be carrying as it runs off. Among the relatively small percentage of respondents who had concerns about surface water quality, most ranked sediment and municipal discharge above fertilizers as sources of problems.

The great majority of respondents reported they already employ conservation measures to reduce soil erosion and protect water quality. Topping the list of these measures were reduced or no-till planting, which together are employed by a whopping 87 percent. More than half said they have established grassed waterways to filter water that runs off the top of their fields, and many have also planted filter strips as a buffer between fields and streams. Farmers who responded also report managing nutrient applications with an eye toward preventing loss.

What factors influenced decisions about actions that might improve water quality? You might expect “bottom line” to top the list, but it actually ranked below concern with improving the farm—for its own sake, for the benefit of future generations and for the sake of good relations with neighbors. About three-fourths of those responding also cited concern for the quality of water downstream and promoting conservation of natural resources as factors in water quality management decisions.

Flint found that farmers would be most likely to modify their practices to improve water quality if they learned those practices would increase the productivity and effectiveness of their operations. They were concerned about the costs of making changes, and the possibility that changes would limit their flexibility to adapt to new conditions in the field.

Flint and her colleagues anticipate that exposure to field demonstrations of mechanisms for reducing nitrate loss (such as the one described in last week’s column) will increase the willingness of farmers to adopt them. To test that hypothesis, they will repeat their interviews and surveys late next year.