ST. LOUIS — Scientists and academia gathered here to examine and share agricultural practices regarding water resources, but the American farmer never was far from the discussion.

A focus on nutrient management and water quality ultimately must go back to the job farmers have done over the years, according to Karl Williard, who chaired the specialty conference of the American Water Resources Association.

Farmers don’t always get the recognition they deserve for taking care of the land, according to Williard, a professor of forest hydrology at Southern Illinois University’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

He agrees that modern agricultural practices are more environmentally sustainable than those of decades ago.

“I don’t think we say that message loud and clear enough,” he said. “You’re starting to hear that at meetings like this, but we need to do a better job of communicating with the public the good things that producers all over the country are doing in terms of implementing practices and taking care of their land. They are the original stewards of their land. It’s a good thing to hear that scientists recognize that.

“I grew up on a farm, so I understood that. My grandfather was a farmer, and my dad was a farmer. It’s near to my heart. I think sometimes they get a bad rap. Sometimes the general public doesn’t understand the land ethic our producers have. Their connection to the land is a lot stronger than that of the general public.”

While AWRA has annual conferences, this is only the second at-large meeting focused on a specific topic — agricultural hydrology and water quality. The first was held 10 years ago in Kansas City.

“I was fortunate enough to attend and participate in that,” Williard said. “There wasn’t a follow-up until now. They knew I was doing work in agriculture and water quality. They asked me to step up and lead it. We need to do this again.”

Those attending included a number of scientists working for federal agencies, but also those at non-governmental organizations such as the Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund. Industry also had a presence, as a Syngenta representative attended the conference.

Williard believes future meetings also should include representatives of farm commodity groups.

“If we do this again, I’d like to see a bigger emphasis on getting those folks to the table, too,” he said. “We need to get everybody involved in agriculture to the table, so that we can hear, as scientists, in terms of how are these practices are working and so that we can get more of that information to the policymakers.”

Increasing demand for food and related resources demand attention to sustainable methods of farming, AWRA members believe. Williard said the environmental community and agriculture share the same goals.

“We have a growing world population. We need to grow more food, but we need to do it in a sustainable way,” he said. “We also need to do it with as minimal impact on the environment as we can. We know there is going to be some impact on the environment, but we want to minimize that. The whole agriculture community wants to minimize that.

“The good things I heard this week is that a lot of people are focused on that. We realize we’re going to need to increase our food production. We as a scientific community and policy community want to help agriculture. We need to learn how we can do that in a sustainable way.”