Iowa State Survey Shows Farm Owners Make Small Increases in Conservation

Cover of land tenure report.
Land tenure report cover. Photo courtesy of CARD. 

A survey of Iowa landowners conducted by Iowa State University suggests that adoption of conservation practices has increased slightly since 2012, and that ongoing trends in land ownership and management are likely barriers to a number of conservation practices.

However, some of these same barriers may contribute to increased use of no-till management on cropland, researchers found.

The Iowa Farmland Ownership and Tenure Survey has been conducted by Iowa State for more than 70 years. The current survey uses a statistically representative sample of Iowa farm landowners that provides a long-term perspective on many aspects of Iowa land ownership, land tenure and characteristics of landowners, including age, gender and education. It included questions about conservation practices and use of services from cooperatives. Funders included the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and the CoBank Fund for Excellence in Cooperative Economics.

“We focused on conservation practices credited in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy as having good potential to reduce nutrient loss, and that are also more popular and familiar to landowners: no-till, cover crops, buffer strips and ponds or sediment basins,” said Wendong Zhang, assistant professor of economics, a co-author of the study, along with Alejandro Plastina, assistant professor in economics, and Wendiam Sawadgo, economics graduate student.

“We know that land tenure affects conservation adoption,” said Zhang, “but not always as expected. For example, 82 percent of farmland was owned debt-free in 2017 — up from 78 percent in 2012 and 62 percent in 1982. But this did not seem to translate to more conservation.”

Gender did not appear to be a factor in conservation program participation or adoption.

“There is a perception that women are more likely to support conservation,” said Plastina, “but we found men had somewhat more land in government conservation programs.” 

Iowa farmland owners continue to grow older, said Zhang. Sixty percent of farmland is owned by people 65 years or older and 35 percent is owned by people 75 or older.

“Aging landowners are related to the increasing amount of land in larger tracts, shorter-term leases or cash rental arrangements, and land operated by farm management companies for out-of-state landowners, all of which tend to be associated with lower investment in conservation,” said Zhang.

“On the other hand,” he said, “older farmers participate more heavily in government conservation programs, including the Conservation Reserve Program.” The survey found that landowners 65 years old or older account for two-thirds of the acres in conservation programs.

Based on the survey, cover crops are being grown on approximately 4 percent of Iowa farmland. As with all conservation practices, adoption varied widely across the state, ranging from about 1 percent in the northwest crop reporting district to 12 percent in the southwest. The overall rate represents an increase from 2012 levels, based on estimates in the 2017 USDA National Ag Census. Survey respondents indicated their primary reasons for not growing cover crops were that it was the tenant’s decision, cover crops are too costly to terminate, they require too much labor and time, or the season is too short.

“It is encouraging that landowners indicated strong to moderate interest in increasing cover crop use over the next five years on nearly 60 percent of Iowa cropland,” said Zhang. “Also, about 20 percent expressed willingness to pay a portion of the costs to encourage tenants to plant cover crops.”

Survey respondents indicated that no-till management is used on 31 percent of Iowa cropland acres, up from USDA estimates of 27 percent in 2012.

“We find evidence that the conventional wisdom that adoption is lower on rented land only applies to the use of cover crops, buffer strips, and sediment basins, but not no-till,” said Zhang. “We found that cover crops are used on 4.8 percent of farmland operated by the landowner, but only 3.6 percent of rented-out farmland. In contrast, our results show the adoption rate of no-till is higher on leased-out land than on owner-operated land.”

No-till is also more popular with younger farmers. The survey found almost 70 percent of farmers 35 and younger used no-till, compared with 26 percent of farmers aged 65 to 80.

Researchers found that conservation buffers and ponds or sediment basins for erosion management are used on only about 3 percent and 2 percent of Iowa farm acreage, respectively, and few farmers had land in other types of conservation arrangements, such as easements or private conservation programs. Participation in the long-term Conservation Reserve Program increased to 7 percent from 6 percent in 2012 --  levels that do not directly indicate landowner interest, since federal policy limits acreage that can be enrolled.

“Overall, our survey suggests there is a need to find new incentives that can more effectively encourage Iowa landowners to increase stewardship-oriented practices,” said Plastina.

Researchers asked several questions to gain insights into policy options that could entice Iowa landowners to adopt conservation measures. Tax credits or deductions for implementing conservation practices were of greatest interest — 24 percent of landowners said this would make them very likely to enroll more land in conservation programs. About 11 percent would be more interested if land was excluded from property value for estate tax purposes. Others said they would consider it if tax-free cost-share assistance was available.

In other research supported by the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, Zhang and Plastina are studying the potential for other incentives that might encourage conservation, such as reverse auctions and monetizing improvements in soil health.

“We also need to continue researching ways to refine conservation practices to make them more compatible with farming operations and increase farmers’ perceptions that they can be successful and cost-effective,” said Plastina.

Since 1989, the Iowa Farmland Ownership and Tenure Survey has been conducted every five years, as mandated by the Iowa Code. The latest survey, by the ISU Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology in cooperation with the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development, was conducted via telephone interviews that took place between October 2017 and February 2018. The response rate was 68 percent.

In contrast to a number of studies that focus only on producers, this research provides a statistically representative examination of conservation practice adoption by both operator and non-operator landowners. Detailed analysis of the survey’s findings on conservation practices were shared with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago in late November and will be highlighted in an upcoming article in the “Journal of Soil and Water Conservation.”

The Center for Agricultural and Rural Development is a center within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State University. For 60 years, it has conducted innovative public policy and economic research on local, regional and global agricultural issues. Its key focus areas are biorenewables, resources and the environment, food and nutrition, agricultural risk management, science and technology, and trade and agriculture. 

The Iowa Nutrient Research Center was established by the Iowa Board of Regents in response to legislation passed by the Iowa Legislature in 2013. The center pursues science-based approaches to areas that include evaluating the performance of current and emerging nutrient management practices and providing recommendations on implementing the practices and developing new practices. Iowa State University leads the partnership that includes the University of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa. Since its inception, the center has supported more than 92 projects.