When someone is “good” at something, we usually talk about it in terms of output. 

A “good” quarterback will have a high passer rating. A “good” student will get a 4.0 grade point average.

Using this line of thinking, you might expect a “good” farmer is one who grows the most bushels. 

But Iowa farmers hold each other to much higher standards than that.

A recent Iowa State University Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll, surveying nearly 1,000 Iowa farmers, shows only 3% of respondents said having the highest yields was “very important” to what makes a good farmer. 

Instead, the top three responses were farmers who minimize nutrient runoff, minimize soil erosion and increase soil organic matter. 

Are yields and profits essential? Undoubtedly. To make money, you need something to sell. And without profits, the future of a family farm is in jeopardy—like any other business. However, farmers see the health of their land as essential to their legacy.

Farmers placing more emphasis on environmental stewardship than production-related characteristics isn’t surprising to me given Iowa farmers rank number one in the nation in seven different conservation practices. 

This doesn’t mean farmers are ready to call it a day. 

Year over year, farmers add more nitrate-reducing and soil loss-preventing conservation practices.

That’s how we’ve gone from less than 10,000 acres of cover crops planted in Iowa to more than three million acres in one decade

Data from the Iowa Nutrient Research and Education Council shows three-quarters of Iowa farmers use reduced tillage or no-till. This means conservation tillage is the norm in Iowa—not the exception. And between 1980 and 2021, farmers increased no-till acres by 7.5 million.

Research from the Iowa Best Management Practices Mapping Project shows since the 80s, grassed terraces have increased by 61% and water and sediment control basins have increased 204%. If all the miles of these soil-saving practices were placed side by side, it would circle the earth four times!

Between 2003 and 2021, practices that reduce nitrate loss, like woodchip bioreactors and water quality wetlands, grew from 2,500 to 149,000 treated acres. And thanks to public-private partnerships, more installation of these practices are on the horizon.

Farmers will continue to implement new research, innovation and technology to improve sustainability efforts. And they’ll bring each other along, too, learning from each other’s challenges and successes. Because “good” to farmers means working toward the greater “good”—for Iowa’s family farms, Iowa agriculture and Iowans who are proud to call our state home. 

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