227 – ‘Disadoption’ after a project ends

There are various programs and projects around the world that aim to encourage farmers to adopt a new practice of one sort or another. It’s not uncommon to observe farmers participating in such projects, but then reverting to their old practices once the project ends. What are the implications of this?

If a program has a limited life, it is usually most realistic to assume that funding for projects will be temporary. Examples include Australia’s national natural resource management programs (Caring for our Country, the Natural Heritage Trust, and the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality) which provided one-off funding for projects, usually three years or less. Assuming that we want benefits from these programs to be enduring (which we surely do), we would seek to avoid the sort of scenario I outlined above, where farmers abandon the new practices once the flow of program money ends.

This implies that these programs should be careful in targeting their resources to promotion of practices that that are expected to provide positive net benefits to the target farmers. That is, they are practices that, once the farmers learn about them, will be attractive enough to be continued without ongoing support.

This sort of thinking seems to me to have been completely absent from the above programs, and from many other temporary programs around the world. For example, last week I attended an interesting workshop on Conservation Agriculture in Africa and South Asia, and there seem to have been many examples in that space of temporary ‘adoption’ that was abandoned once projects ended.

Once this has occurred, the logical response is to cease any further efforts to promote the activity, unless you have strong reasons to expect that the circumstances have changed significantly. Examples of relevant changes could include: a new version of the practice has been developed that will perform better for these farmers, a policy barrier to its adoption has been removed, or commodity prices have changed in a way that makes the practice more attractive.This sort of ‘disadoption’ actually gives us powerful insights into the practice that was being promoted. The farmers have tried out the practice in their own context, and decided to stop doing it, so they are making a relatively well-informed judgement that the practice does not suit them. This is clearer and more powerful than simply observing that a practice has never been adopted in an area. If it has never been tried out, you probably can’t be sure that it wouldn’t work if it was tried. But if it has been tried and then abandoned, you can be relatively sure about it.

Unfortunately, this sort of common-sense response often doesn’t occur. In the national salinity program we found cases where farmers had been paid repeatedly to ‘adopt’ perennial pasture, but had ‘disadopted’ it each time. In Africa, relatively untargeted promotion of Conservation Agriculture has persisted despite it being well known that ‘adoption’ often evaporates once programs end.

A key understanding is that participation in these sorts of programs does not actually constitute adoption. From the farmer’s perspective, it’s really a case of farmers trialing the practice to see if it works sufficiently well for them. (That’s why I’ve put ‘adoption’ in quotes above.) The benefit of the program is that it allows farmers to make better-informed decisions about adoption, whether or not those decisions are to adopt the practice.

The other implication is that funding that would have been spent on promoting non-adoptable practices should be diverted to other uses. That could include promoting those practices to farmers who have been carefully assessed as being  likely to adopt after trialing, or focusing on ways to improve the attractiveness of the practices, instead of promoting them in their current form.

Further reading

Pannell, D.J. and Roberts, A.M. (2010). The National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality: A retrospective assessment, Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics54(4): 437-456. Journal web site here ♦ IDEAS page for this paper

Pannell, D.J., Marshall, G.R., Barr, N., Curtis, A., Vanclay, F. and Wilkinson, R. (2006). Understanding and promoting adoption of conservation practices by rural landholders. Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 46(11): 1407-1424.

If you or your organisation subscribes to the Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture you can access the paper at:http://www.publish.csiro.au/nid/72/paper/EA05037.htm (or non-subscribers can buy a copy on-line for A$25). Otherwise, email David.Pannell@uwa.edu.au to ask for a copy.

Also see http://www.ruralpracticechange.org/

5 Comments

  • trigger
    23 October, 2012 - 6:18 am | link

    Farmers generally like to trial things from year to year. They are usually willing to risk a small investment (financial outlay or lost production) in order to learn something new, and maybe find something which works better.

    If a program requires a longer committment (e.g. The Carbon Farming Initiative), the risks are higher as there is less flexibility and ongoing learning, and higher opportunity cost. Farmers therefore require a higher financial return to participate.

    In short, I dont think the answer is to design farm NRM programs which require longer committment. I think programs should be disigned to appeal to farmers desire to experiment and therefore maximising participation and co-investment.

    • 23 October, 2012 - 11:26 am | link

      I agree that the longer the commitment you ask people to make in a program, the more they are going to require from the program to be willing to commit. Whether it’s worth a program paying more needs a case-by-case assessment, but obviously the more you have to pay, the less likely it is to be worthwhile.
      I was focused on cases where the program is temporary and relatively short-term. There often seems to be an assumption in such programs that if they can just get farmers to take up the new practice, they will then maintain use of it in the long term. The point is, this is very naive, and will be wrong if the practice does not generate sufficient benefits for the landholder.
      Farmers’ desire to experiment can be a powerful force, but it is not necessarily enough. You need the practice to be basically near enough to being adoptable so that further adaptation by farmers to optimise it can get it over the line. If the practice is not good enough, you probably need research to develop a better one.

  • 23 October, 2012 - 8:51 am | link

    Great post thank you. I totally agree with you. However, I think we should go beyond by questioning how we build new governance institutions and stimulate new cultural practices that will help the long-term adoption of the new recommendations. In fact the problem is frequently less technical than institutional and ethnological. We should always ask 1) whether the cultural system, the current property right bundles, the “rules in use” and socio-economic structure, all have the ontological flexibility to absorb the new recommended practice on the long-term; and then if yes 2) what are the institutional levers that we can play with to stimulate landowners to transform their cultural practices in order to maximize the environmental output. For instance, the question would be less giving money to freeze land (as you recalled), but more building new incentives to build new common perennial pasture lands shared by different landowners. In this case, these new commons may allow reducing the individual costs by sharing the costs of maintenance and monitoring, and may allow each land-owner to focus more time and money on other more productive activities. Does this new arrangement can provide Win-Win-Win solution by building simultaneously ecological, economical and social resilience? This is in my opinion the real sustainability and the real question, ecologists should now ask, especially for the one who work on applied ecological sciences and ecological modelling. Rather than only trying to find optimal technical guidelines that can maximize an ecological output (that may or may not be used on the long run), applied ecologists should in parallel work with social scientists and humanities to predict the optimal institutional/cultural arrangement that will maximize the adoption of the new optimal practice or others, maybe a bit less optimal in term of ecological output but more sustainable socially and economically.

    • 23 October, 2012 - 11:37 am | link

      In developing countries, it can often be the case that a particular practice is not viable because of institutional factors. There may be a lack of infrastructure, or lack of markets, or lack of access to credit at a reasonable interest cost, or various policies that have the effect of penalising agriculture in favour of urban people. Addressing these institutional barriers can indeed be the most effective strategy to promote innovation. It’s not necessarily sufficient, but it may be.
      If there are no such barriers, the institutional question moves from removing barriers to potentially providing encouragement. If the practice is win-win (after removing barriers and after adaptation by farmers), you probably only need extension (education, training, information provision, etc.) to get it adopted. If it is not attractive to the landholder, the question is whether there are sufficient public benefits to justify payments (or potentially regulation, though that’s unlikely to stick in a developing country). It shouldn’t necessarily be assumed that there are, but it’s worth considering. A lot of times payments are offered without adequately considering whether they are justified by the public benefits.
      I strongly agree that attempts by ecologists to be purist about ecological benefits are likely to be counter-productive. A pragmatic approach that factors in human behaviour is much more sensible.

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