Media advisory: New report on farmer attitudes toward nitrate contamination of ground water

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison recently produced a report about farmers’ attitudes toward nitrate contamination of ground water and the agricultural practices required to address this type of contamination. The report, which 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, a three-year partnership launched in 2018 between UW–Madison and Pepin County to support economic development, education and environmental sustainability in the county.

“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,” says report co-author Bret Shaw, associate professor in the UW–Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication and environmental communication specialist with the UW–Madison Division of Extension. “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.”

Results and recommendations include:

  • 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, improving water and soil quality, decreasing erosion, suppressing weeds, reducing compaction, and reducing nutrient loss were rated most highly.
  • 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 towards 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 lower 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 advisors (such as crop advisors and agronomists) and agencies (e.g., USDA, Land and Conservation Department).
  • 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.

“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,” says report co-author Theresa Vander Woude, a graduate student in the UW–Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication and Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.

More findings and details are included in the final report, which is available at

About the survey: 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. This report reflects 61 returned questionnaires and a 67 percent overall response rate. The survey project was funded by the UW–Madison Office of Sustainability.

UniverCity Year Pepin County was a project of UW–Madison’s UniverCity Alliance program, which brings faculty, students and members of Wisconsin communities together to address local challenges through engagement, university research, and state-of-the-art problem-solving approaches. Launched with the Wisconsin Idea in mind, this program bridges university resources with community knowledge to improve sustainability, resilience, livability, and the general well-being of Wisconsin communities.

For more information, contact Bret Shaw at