A Descriptive Report of Beliefs, Attitudes and Best Management Practices in the Maumee Watershed of the Western Lake Erie Basin

Prokup, A., Wilson, R., Zubko, C., Heeren, A, and Roe, B. 2017

Harmful algal blooms and eutrophication are threatening Lake Erie, a vital ecological and economic resource in the Great Lakes region. Phosphorus lost through agricultural run-off from the Maumee River Watershed appears to be the greatest contributor to the current problem. To better understand farmers’ perspectives in this region, particularly current nutrient management practices and barriers to implementation of recommended practices, researchers from The Ohio State University’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences conducted a survey of farmers in the Western Lake Erie Basin during the winter of 2016.

The majority of farmers (~80%) had great concern for the ecological health of Lake Erie and how they can minimize their farm’s impact on the lake. Similarly, a majority of farmers show a willingness to adopt recommended practices, but there is a small percentage that is currently unwilling to adopt many recommended practices. Although this could reduce the likelihood of positive change in Lake Erie, there is no evidence that these operations are proportionally more responsible for the nutrient loss issues, or that changes in their behavior are key to improving water quality. In fact, around 60 to 90% are willing to consider adopting new practices, and in many cases this potential level of adoption may be enough to achieve the recommended phosphorus reductions for Lake Erie.

Although the current farming population is largely motivated to adopt new practices, there are several significant barriers associated with recently recommended practices. In regards to cover crops, approximately 25 to 40% of respondents were concerned about fall planting windows, interference with spring planting, and/or the short-term costs. Over half of respondents viewed the cost of specialized equipment for subsurface fertilizer placement as too great and that injecting nutrients ran counter to a no-till approach. One-third of respondents also viewed alternatives to broadcasting as taking too much time.

Those willing to adopt recommended practices tend to be more informed about nutrient stewardship from a variety of both private and public sector sources and more concerned about future regulation. Perhaps due to less exposure to nutrient stewardship information, farmers less willing to adopt tended to have lower awareness of 4R principles, concern for environmental issues and nutrient loss, and awareness of state regulatory requirements. For those practices that involve significant financial investments and new technologies there does seem to be a positive effect of farm size and/or income. Applicator training and working with a consultant is often positively associated with adoption. Generally speaking, a belief in the effectiveness of a recommended practice is one of the strongest correlates of adoption. As a result, the best target audience moving forward are individuals who indicate a willingness to change their practices, and tend to be less constrained by potential barriers while sharing some of the same motivations as those who have already adopted these practices. Engaging these individuals in outreach focused on how to implement practices effectively is likely to result in the necessary increases in adoption over time. However, it will be critical that this outreach comes from those sources that are trusted (e.g., crop consultants, Extension personnel), involves some degree of peer to peer learning, and that the opportunities to learn be as personalized and hands-on as possible.

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