Can low prices and sustainable agriculture exist at the same time? That depends on whose definition you're using, according to an Iowa State University (ISU) telephone poll of farmers.

"Profitability, protecting the environment and support of rural communities are the three traditionally accepted components of sustainable agriculture," says ISU ag economist Mike Duffy. "But in the survey, only a handful of respondents were aware of more than one aspect of that definition. The environmental aspects were the most frequently mentioned in the meaning of sustainable agriculture, and only 6% of the respondents identified profitability as a component."

That concerns Duffy. "We don't want people to have the perception that sustainable agriculture is made up of a bunch of bunny huggers. Real farmers use sustainable ag, too," he says. "We have to do a better job of getting sustainable ag more widely known."

In the study, 12% of the farmers said they were very familiar with the term "sustainable ag," 48% said they were somewhat familiar, and the remaining 40% said they weren't familiar with the term.

Those responses may reflect the type of farmers included in the telephone survey, says Duffy.

"The survey included part-time and occasional farmers who may not have much interest in sustainable agriculture," he says. "Farming isn't their primary focus and they've got other issues they're more concerned about."

Farmers who described themselves as very familiar with sustainable ag tended to be younger, better educated and farmed more acres than those who were less familiar with the term.

There was little agreement among the farmers about the sustainability of farming in Iowa. Less than half, 46%, said they thought that Iowa ag was more sustainable now than in the 1980s. But a third, 31%, said it was less sustainable.

"Twenty-six percent of the farmers who said Iowa ag was more sustainable cited the increase in no-till farming, and another 17% identified reduced erosion," says Duffy. "Improved farming practices in general were cited by 10% of those who felt Iowa ag was more sustainable. Better education was responsible for increased sustainability, according to another 10%."

Among the naysayers, lower profit was the most frequent reason cited (18%), followed by bigger farms (16%) and increased use of chemicals (11%), according to Duffy.

"It's interesting to note that some of those who felt that Iowa ag was more sustainable and those who felt it was less sustainable gave the same reason for their opinions," says Duffy. "Profitability, diversity and government programs were factors noted by both groups. In addition, more chemical use was cited by 11% of those who felt Iowa ag was less sustainable and yet 7% of those who felt Iowa ag was more sustainable cited less chemical use."

Low crop prices may have affected farmers' responses, points out Duffy.

"I can make the argument either way. One side says low prices will drive farmers to look for a new, better, more profitable way to farm. The other side says they'll just hunker down, keep doing what they're doing and try to make it through," he says. "I think it's more likely that low prices will drive farmers to look for a different way of doing things. That should be beneficial for sustainable ag."

The survey also revealed that pollution remains a concern among Iowa farmers.

"One-third (31%) of the respondents identified water pollution as the single most important environmental issue facing Iowa. Pollution in general was the response of another 7% of respondents."

Other environmental issues cited by the farmers include large hog production units (21%), ag chemicals (10%), manure (9%) and erosion (9%).