Iowa’s groundbreaking effort to help farmers take on the challenge of improving water quality has always been about more than what’s happening on the ground. The goal of the water quality initiative, officially called the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, has also been about shifting farmers’ attitudes and mindsets.

The state agencies behind the 5-year-old initiative, as well as researchers at Iowa State University (ISU), who developed its scientific base, are convinced long-term gains can be achieved only if farmers build their knowledge base about conservation practices and adopt those changes on their farms.

From everything I’m seeing these days, that effort appears to be right on track.

There’s been strong attendance at fields days and other events designed to provide in­formation on improving soil health and provide water quality benefits. An ISU survey showed that nearly 80 percent of Iowa farmers considered themselves somewhat knowledgeable to very knowledgeable about the state’s water quality efforts. And farmers are visiting with neighbors and friends, discussing what works in their area.

The change in farmers’ mindset is leading to changes on the ground, as more are planting cover crops, shifting to reduced tillage or installing edge-of-field water quality structures. It’s also impressive that farmers are investing millions of dollars in conservation projects during a tough farm economy.

But then, maybe Iowa farmers’ embrace of conservation and water quality isn’t so surprising. As Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig put it recently, it’s all about progress. “We have seen over and over again that Iowa farmers are progressive, always looking for ways to improve,” he said. “It’s no different in conservation and water quality.”