Oregon survey shows ag support, concern with pesticides

Oregon Department of Agriculture,

Oregonians generally support agriculture’s use of water but aren’t as approving of pesticide use. Those are two key findings of a new public opinion survey focusing on important issues facing Oregon farmers and ranchers. Information from the survey is expected to lead to a public campaign to help Oregonians improve their understanding of agricultural activities.

“I believe the public supports agriculture overall, but there are some specific hot issues the industry needs to address through outreach and education,” says Katy Coba, director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture. “A public campaign may not change everyone’s mind on certain aspects of agriculture such as pesticide use, but it might bridge the gap of understanding a bit between urban and rural interests in our state. At least we now have a better idea of what messages need to be developed.”

In 2008, a similar survey gauged Oregonians’ opinions of production agriculture on a wider scale. That led to a focused followup survey conducted this spring on two areas of concern and opportunity- water and pesticides. The latest snapshot is the result of a statewide telephone survey of 500 Oregonians completed on behalf of the Agri-Business Council of Oregon with the financial support of numerous agriculture organizations. The firm of Conkling, Fiskum & McCormick conducted the survey.

Among the key findings of the survey:

Regulations for agriculture – A large number of respondents are unsure or unaware of government regulations for agriculture. The survey shows 53 percent believe regulations are about right or too strong, but a third aren’t sure. Stronger regulations are wanted for food processing- not surprising considering recent high profile food safety issues. Drilling down to specific government regulations, the highest percentage of respondents (42 percent) believe regulations protecting drinking water quality and protecting streams and rivers aren’t strong enough.

Agricultural practices – The survey shows Oregonians give highest ratings for irrigation and soil conservation. Oregonians are not as impressed with agriculture’s use of pesticides and fertilizers. Using a rating scale for specific practices, 40 percent rate agriculture’s use of water from rivers and streams for irrigation as good or excellent (22 percent rate it average, 26 percent fair or poor) with 38 percent giving the same good/excellent rating for soil conservation (19 percent average, 22 percent fair/poor). On the flip side, only 25 percent rated agriculture’s use of pesticides as good or excellent while 32 percent rated it fair or poor. Fertilizer use also had only a 23 percent good/excellent rating with a 31 percent fair/poor rating. A large share (38 percent) are not sure how well agriculture is doing with manure management for livestock suggesting they don’t know much about animal waste practices.

Specific concerns about pesticides and fertilizers – The survey reveals Oregonians are troubled by the impact of agricultural use of pesticides and fertilizers on water quality and human health with 77 percent saying they are either very or somewhat concerned. Respondents were also very or somewhat concerned about the impact of pesticides and fertilizers on food safety (74 percent), wildlife habitat (71 percent), air quality (68 percent), and soil conservation (60 percent). The survey even provides insightful demographic information for this question- women and Portland metro area residents are consistently more concerned than other groups.

Agriculture and water – Water quality concerns emerged as part of the survey. Once again, pesticides comes to the forefront with livestock impacts also playing a role. At least half of all groups say agriculture has a major or moderate impact on rivers and streams, and 75 percent say agriculture’s use of pesticides and fertilizers have a major or moderate impact. More than half say livestock have a similar level of impact on water quality. On the positive side, respondents strongly support irrigation and agriculture’s ability to access water in order to grow crops and raise livestock. A great majority (81 percent) favor farmers and ranchers storing water for production needs. More than 54 percent favor using state funds to help farmers pay for the storage of water. The survey results are timely as the Oregon Legislature considers water quantity and storage issues this session.

The survey tested several messages designed to improve public opinion about agriculture. While all statements moved the needle a bit, information about environmental practices employed by agriculture seemed to be more effective than information about agriculture’s careful use of pesticides and fertilizers. Equating chemical use to affordable food was the least effective message. One specific question asked if farmers could still feed the world using only organic practices. Surprisingly 44 percent believe that is possible, suggesting a disconnect between the general public and agriculture’s need for crop protection tools such as pesticides.

The next step is to develop key messages to be used in a public outreach and eduction campaign for Oregon agriculture. The survey results are a good start.

“If we are going to develop a campaign to engage urban Oregonians on these key issues, we need to better understand what they really think about water quality, quantity, and pesticide applications,” says Geoff Horning, executive director of the Agri-Business Council. “There is no indication that the public is digging in its heels on certain issues. There is a good opportunity to change perceptions and public opinion.”

The Agri-Business Council is launching a fundraising effort for the Keeping Ag Viable initiative, which is preparing a campaign to engage urban Oregonians about the importance of water quality and quantity, and pesticide application as important tools for production agriculture to remain a sustainable industry. A summer golf tournament and the popular Denim & Diamonds Dinner event in the fall are major components to the fundraising.

With strong messages and consistent information, Oregon agriculture may gain even more support.

For more information, contact Geoff Horning at (503) 241-1487.

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