For nearly five years now, Iowa has been operating under the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. That has a goal of reducing non-point source pollution, particularly on farms, in nitrogen by 41 percent and phosphorus by 29 percent.
Since the strategy began, there has been a 25 percent increase in no-till and nitrogen stabilizer use and a 20 percent increase in the use of cover crops according to Iowa State University.
A key aspect of the strategy is that the reductions are voluntary. But who exactly is getting involved depends a lot on how active they are in social networks, like associations, or if they're considered a community leader. That's according to a study from the Iowa Water Center and Iowa State University.
With data from the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll, which is managed through Iowa State University Extension & Outreach, the study looks at the connections between implementing diverse nutrient management practices and social ties of farmers.
Hanna Bates with the Iowa Water Center says, "Research indicates that conservation practice adoption's not related to discreet choices, 'Yes, I'm fully adopting conservation practices,' or 'No, I'm not going to do it.' Farmers talk about it, they trial it and they ultimately try. So really these practices become a community of practice."
That can influence what farmers do, Bates says they are more likely to adopt practices if they have face-to-face interactions, which is helped if they're also involved in an agriculture organization or association that is trying to promote conservation.
Farmers who view themselves as leaders or role-models also tend to have diverse nutrient reduction practices.
Bates says that gives validation to the groups that work to put together field days or workshops, "You have organizations that either have a peer-to-peer network for sharing trial information or you have groups that have research that they have ongoing conservation practices. So, it's kind of a validation, a thumbs up to keep doing what you're doing. In that sense. And also, it's kind of presenting them with an issue of recruitment, because those who are involved are doing something, but what about the people who aren't involved."
The research concludes that farmers who are most in need of engagement on nutrient management are also more difficult to reach.
The strong positive correlation it found suggests that focusing on opinion leadership in future research could better explain variation of conservation practices.