4 – Farmers adopting new practices

It was very windy in Albany one day last week. We went out for a walk and got sand blasted skin and dust in the eyes. It reminded me of dust storms I saw in the wheatbelt in the early 1980s. Dust storms are much less common in the wheatbelt now, largely thanks to widespread adoption of reduced tillage practices. Compared to most practices intended to reduce the degradation of farmland, the level of adoption of reduced tillage in Western Australia has been remarkable.

This has occurred despite conflicting with some of the simple “rules” about what makes a practice adoptable. According to one list that is often trotted out, adoption ought to be inhibited if an innovation is more complex, if the observability of its results is poor or delayed, if there are any difficulties in trialing the innovation or if it is incompatible with existing practices. Arguably, reduced tillage is a rather complex technology with major flow-on effects for the farming system, with poor immediate observability of production benefits (so that a short-term trial is not fully informative), with relatively poor observability across farm boundaries, and, in some ways, with incompatibilities with what used to be traditional farming practices and machinery.

Nevertheless, it is now standard farming practice, because most farmers believe that it has advantages that clearly outweigh these problems. The advantages are apparent and large enough to overcome the sort of “barriers” that might have been expected to hold it back.

Clearly the concept of “barriers to adoption” is far too simple. It actually doesn’t work like that. A negative characteristic of an innovation does not act as an absolute barrier to its adoption. Rather, farmers will weigh up the negatives and positives and make an overall decision.

I regularly emphasise the importance of the long-term profitability of an innovation as a strong influence on its adoption. Increasing profitability isn’t the only driver of adoption in agriculture, but it is certainly an important one. It may be the main one over which we can have any influence. “Profitability” in this context means net profits in the long term, and it encompasses aspects like complexity and compatibility, since these affect the benefits and costs of the innovation.

I am not saying that farmers need to be making a profit over their whole farm to adopt conservation practices – the old “you can’t be green if you are in the red” argument. I think that’s oversold, and misses the main point. Having resources available doesn’t hurt, of course, but the key thing is the profit advantage of the innovation. I believe that if this is high enough, even resource-stretched people will try to find a way to adopt it.

A frustrating but frequent spectacle is people involved in natural resource management or the environment bemoaning the lack of adoption of farming practices they would like to see adopted, and saying that we need to better understand adoption. Sometimes it can be helpful to better understand the adoption of specific practices, but the influences on adoption in general have been studied intensely and are very well understood. Researchers on the topic have included sociologists, psychologists, economists, extension specialists, market researchers, and health researchers. Although they all use different language to describe their results, the findings from well-conducted studies are broadly consistent.

So, rather than more research into adoption, we mainly need to apply what is already well known in the adoption literature(s).

One implication is that if a practice is not adopted in the long term, it is because the farmers are not convinced that its benefits sufficiently outweigh its costs.

A consequence of this is that we should avoid putting the main burden for adoption onto communication, education and persuasion activities. This is all too common, but is destined to fail if the innovations they are pushing are not sufficiently attractive to the target audience. The innovations need to be “adoptable”. If they are not, the communication and education activities will simple confirm a farmer’s decision not to adopt.

The real challenge is to find or develop innovations that are not only sustainable, but also economically competitive with the practices they are supposed to replace. If they don’t already exist, we should look at developing them. If they can’t be developed, there is no point in falling back onto communication. Promoting dud technologies will only lead to frustration all around.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia