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Farmers work to mitigate contamination

Farmers work to mitigate contamination

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison recently produced a report about farmer attitudes toward nitrate contamination of ground water and the agricultural practices required to address that type of contamination. The report summarizes the results of a survey taken by farmers in Wisconsin’s Pepin County, was one of 25 projects initiated through UniverCity Year Pepin County. That's a three-year partnership launched in 2018 between UW-Madison and Pepin County to support economic development, education and environmental sustainability in the county.

Report co-author Bret Shaw, associate professor in the UW-Department of Life Sciences Communication and an environmental-communication specialist with the UW-Division of Extension, said, “While nitrogen is needed and used on cropland to support agriculture, the issue of nitrate contamination of groundwater and associated health impacts is a growing concern in Wisconsin. We hope this report provides insights for working with farmers to encourage more of them to adopt practices that keep groundwater clean for future generations.”

There were various results and recommendations from the report.

  • Farmers were most likely to use cover crops and split application of nitrogen to mitigate the effects of nitrogen fertilizer on ground water.
  • When asked what was important when deciding whether to adopt a new agricultural practice, rated most important were improving water and soil quality, decreasing erosion, suppressing weeds, reducing compaction and reducing nutrient loss.
  • Respondents rated their satisfaction with existing financial incentives and technical support for nitrate-reducing practices, and most respondents reported neutral or positive satisfaction, especially with technical support. Attitudes toward financial incentives were more negative or neutral.
  • The survey asked farmers to identify health impacts associated with nitrates from a list of potential known risks. Most farmers did not know that nitrates can contribute to blue baby syndrome, birth defects, colon cancer or thyroid disease.
  • Most farmers were concerned about the impact of nitrates on human health. However comparatively lesser concern for their own health suggests some optimism bias -- the belief that negative events are less likely to happen to oneself.
  • When it comes to who farmers trust to advise them on practices to adopt agricultural practices that reduce nitrate contamination of groundwater, most farmers value the opinions of farm advisers such as crop advisers as well as agronomists and agencies.
  • Most farmers trust that other farmers are doing their part to address nitrate-contamination issues. Trust among peers provides a good foundation for future farmer-led efforts.

Report co-author Theresa Vander Woude, a graduate student in the UW-Department of Life Sciences Communication and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, said, “Nutrients are farmers’ livelihoods, so hearing how they think about nitrogen issues and who they trust to advise them is essential for successful community discussions about these issues.”

The survey was developed by Shaw and Vander Woude. In December 2020 the Pepin County Land Conservation and Planning Department mailed the survey to 91 farm operations in Pepin County identified by public records, followed by a postcard and reminder mailing. The report reflects 61 returned questionnaires and a 67 percent overall response rate. The survey project was funded by the UW-Madison Office of Sustainability. Visit for more information.

Nicole Miller is a news manager for the University of Wisconsin-College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

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