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If you think farmers define sustainable agriculture in the same way, or even have a definition for sustainable production at all, think again. Farmer survey results, released last year by the Leopold Center at Iowa State University (ISU), found that farmers don't necessarily sing from the same piece of music when talking about sustainability.

"The survey results suggest we need to do a better job of defining sustainable agriculture and its relevance to the farming community," says Mike Duffy, ISU agricultural economics professor. The Leopold Center conducted the survey to obtain information that will help guide their programming for the next few years.

"You can't stereotype farmers involved with sustainable agriculture," Duffy says. "But we can say that, right now, we are preaching to the choir and need to get more into mainstream agriculture."

As part of the Iowa random, sample telephone survey, farmers were asked about familiarity with the term sustainable agriculture. About 12 percent said they were very familiar with the term and 48 percent were somewhat familiar.

But when asked what sustainable agriculture meant, one-third of respondents did not have an answer and another 16 percent did not know what it meant to them. Of those who offered a definition, land preservation was the most frequent answer followed by reduced inputs. Only six percent listed profitability as a component.

"Profitability, protecting the environment and support of rural communities are three traditionally accepted components of sustainable agriculture, but only a handful of respondents were aware of more than one aspect to the definition of sustainable agriculture," says Duffy. "The environmental aspects were most frequently mentioned."

Other survey responses reflect the ambiguity of farmers' understanding of sustainability. For example, farmers were asked how they perceived the change in sustainability of Iowa agriculture since the 1980s. Almost half felt it was more sustainable and one-third said it was less sustainable. About one-third of the group that said it was less sustainable said they did not know why they felt that way or had no answer.

"Twenty-six percent of farmers who said Iowa agriculture was more sustainable cited increased no-till farming and another 17 percent identified reduced erosion as the reason," Duffy says. "Improved farming practices were cited by 10 percent of those who felt Iowa agriculture was more sustainable and another 10 percent felt better education was responsible for increased sustainability."

Among farmers who felt Iowa agriculture was less sustainable today than in the 1980s cited lower profits, bigger farms and increased use of chemicals as reasons why. But Duffy observes that some farmers who felt Iowa agriculture was more sustainable and some who felt it was less sustainable gave the same reasons for their opinions.

"Profitability, diversity and government programs were factors noted by both groups," he says. "In addition, more chemical use was cited by 11 percent of those who felt Iowa agriculture was less sustainable. Less chemical use was cited by seven percent who felt it was more sustainable."

Despite such mixed results, Duffy concludes that issues farmers identified as challenges are the same issues proponents of sustainable agriculture typically identify. Subsequently, he suggests that agrimarketers take the survey results and use them as a platform to present information that will educate mainstream farmers about the concept.

"We need to do a better job of getting the word out so that people can understand and accept agricultural sustainability," says Duffy. He adds that the current financial situation of producers has created an opportune moment to motivate farmers to consider options and alternatives to conventional farming practices.

"It is unrealistic to think that all farmers will someday embrace sustainable agriculture, but the more we encourage people to think about it and the more we can help them appreciate what it means, the more likely we will move toward truly sustainable agriculture," he says. AM


Barb Baylor Anderson is a freelance writer from Edwardsville, Ill., who covers a wide variety of ag issues.

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