Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of visiting with several of Iowa’s conservation pioneers, and I’ve often heard a common story.

These trailblazers are proud of leading the way by adopting conservation practices to save soil and improve water quality, such as no-till, buffer strips and terracing. And they truly believe in the goal of reducing nutrient and soil loss.

Yet they remember the feeling of worrying what their neighbors would say when a field wasn’t tilled black or a strip of grass was growing along a stream. They feared that making changes could make them a target of coffee shop chatter.

However, that attitude appears to be changing, according to a veteran Iowa conservation official. As more and more Iowa farmers take on the challenge of improving water quality and reducing soil loss, conservation adoption appears to be raising curiosity instead of eyebrows, Jeff Tisl, a regional water resources coordinator for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, noted at a water quality meeting.

Changing attitudes

Today, Tisl said, it’s a lot more likely that neighbors are extremely curious than condescending when they see a new conservation practice, like cover crops or conservation tillage. "The neighbors want to see if that’s something that would work on their own farm," he said.

Some of that curiosity about conservation is driven by business concerns, Tisl and other Iowa ag leaders said at the conference about the Iowa Water Quality Initiative. As evidence emerges that some conservation practices can help a farmer’s bottom line, neighbors want to make sure they are keeping up.

A lot of that curiosity is also driven by the fact that more and more Iowa farmers are eager to step up to do their part to improve water quality and save soil, the conference presenters said. Surveys by Iowa State University, the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation and others consistently show that farmers are aware of the state’s science-based water quality initiative, believe in it, and are adopting conservation practices that fit with their farms.

Like most things in agriculture, conservation practices are something farmers want to see first-hand, on land like theirs, before they commit, the ag leaders said. But it’s increasingly clear that momentum is building, neighbor to neighbor, in every part of Iowa.