Iowa farmers pursue actions in response to changing weather

By J. Gordon Arbuckle Jr. and Suraj Upadhaya–Iowa State University Extension and Outreach

Recent research indicates Iowa farmers have adopted a number of practices, such as prairie strips, in response to changing weather conditions.

AMES, Iowa – A new study from researchers at Iowa State University and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, published in Frontiers in Climate, examines how farmers are responding to the increasing threats that weather extremes and related harms such as pests and disease represent.

“There are a lot of potential actions that farmers can take in response to changes in climate,” said lead author and post-doctoral researcher Suraj Upadhaya: “Many changes can be adaptive, making agriculture more resilient. Others are maladaptive, however, in that they may be helpful in the short-term but harmful over the long-term.”

Farmers surveyed

The researchers analyzed data from the 2020 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll. The survey asked farmers whether their use of a range of different kinds of adaptive or potentially maladaptive actions had changed over the previous 10 years. Nearly all farmers reported change in at least one of the practices. 

The study examined changes in five major adaptive management practices. About 42% of farmers reported increases in no-till farming, and 27% reported greater use of cover crops, both annual management practices that protect the soil from extreme rains and help build soil organic matter. About 32% of farmers reported that they had increased their use of more permanent in-field erosion control practices such as terraces and grassed waterways, and 22% had increased edge-of-field practices to filter sediment and nutrients. 

On the maladaptive side, the study considered three practices. Increases in installation or renovation of agricultural drainage, reported by 46% of farmers, can protect crop yields by quickly moving excess water out of the field. However, drainage can lead to loss of nutrients into waterways and damage water quality downstream. 36% of farmers reported increased use of pesticides, which can lead to pesticide resistance and toxicity in the environment. 

“Overall, Iowa farmers appear to be taking substantial steps in the right direction,” said co-author J. Arbuckle, professor and extension sociologist at Iowa State University. “That said, to cope with impacts from the increases in extreme weather we’re seeing, we’re going to need more farmers to take adaptive action, and we need to help farmers address issues without increasing maladaptive behaviors such as pesticide use.”

Predictors of change

The study also examined whether selected factors were associated with changes in adaptive and maladaptive behaviors. The most consistent predictors of increases in adaptation practices were having accessed cost-share or technical assistance from a conservation organization and having positive attitudes toward climate change adaptation in general. Both of these variables were also related to decreases in the maladaptive practice tillage. However, they were also predictors of increases in drainage.

Another finding with policy implications was related to crop insurance. Results indicated that farmers who had greater confidence in the crop insurance program’s capacity to protect their farm operation were significantly less likely to have increased use of cover crops and substantially more likely to have increased use of pesticides.