Behaviour, Communication, Research

86 – Adoption of conservation practices by rural landholders: implications for research and extension

A multi-disciplinary team has published a review of past research on adoption of conservation practices by rural landholders. Here is an edited extract summarising implications of the review for researchers and extension agents.

We provide the following suggestions for biophysical scientists to help them achieve greater adoption by landholders of conservation practices being researched (based on Marsh, 1998).

(i) Be conscious of the type of practices that landholders adopt more readily – those with high relative advantage and high trialability. Appreciate that landholders have legitimate reasons for non-adoption. If the community has a wish to reduce a particular form of environmental degradation originating from rural properties, but the available practices for reducing the degradation conflict with goals of landholders (e.g. salinity treatments highly unprofitable to farmers), one sound response for scientists is to consider the viability of developing new technologies or practices that achieve both community and landholder goals.

(ii) Encourage a participatory process. Working with landholders forces researchers and extension workers to recognise that their own goals may be different to landholders’ goals, and reduces the risk of them making incorrect or over-simplified assumptions about what landholders’ goals really are. In a participatory project, the research/extension can be adapted in response to this improved understanding. Such interaction also increases landholders’ knowledge of the research and their ownership of, and faith in, the results. It may help landholders to understand and appreciate the goals of researchers. Participation also helps to develop better programs and recommendations by making better use of local knowledge so that recommendations are more often corroborated by subsequent experience, and in this way promotes landholders’ trust in R&D and extension over the longer term.

(iii) Look constructively at what landholders are doing already. Work with them where possible rather than against them (or at least acknowledge the difficulty of getting them to stop believing that what they are already doing is appropriate). This suggestion acknowledges the importance of local knowledge in landholders’ decision making, and the importance of respecting their personal goals and perceptions. We suggest that scientific and local knowledge can be highly complementary.

(iv) Adoption of conservation practices by landholders is not solely a biophysical issue, it is also an economic, social and psychological issue, so biophysical researchers can benefit from working closely with economists, sociologists and psychologists. Social scientists should be involved in projects from an early stage, including in problem definition and project design, so that their advice can influence the direction of the research, rather than being limited to analyzing the results (e.g. attempting to explain landholders’ responses or lack of response).

Attending to these suggestions would help to enhance trust and credibility in the relationship between researchers and landholders. This is crucial if researchers are to influence the adoption process.

Given the importance of trialability for adoption of an innovation, it may be useful for researchers and extension agents to consider ways in which landholder learning from trials can be enhanced. One possibility suggested is to provide information about the trial performance of familiar reference land uses or practices that are as similar to the innovation as possible, in conjunction with information about the performance of the innovation. It may be feasible to facilitate physical observation, or at least present results of physical measurements, of important processes that are not readily visible (e.g. groundwater processes). Perhaps it is possible to provide rules of thumb about final yields based on the early growth rates of plants that have long lags before harvest (e.g. woody perennials). Similarly, where a novel land-use requires large-scale adoption to achieve environmental benefits, ways to predict those benefits based on performance in small-scale trials may be helpful.

A criticism of traditional extension is that it viewed the extension process primarily as a matter of communication. Lack of adoption was blamed on a failure of the extension communication process. The solution was to better target extension and to improve the methods of information delivery. The assumption was that farmers were information deprived and relatively passive recipients of knowledge. In reality, farmers have excessive information (e.g. from consultants, banks, accountants, agronomists, agribusiness firms, other landholders), some of which is conflicting, and they are almost never passive recipients. Recognising its place within this complex web of information sources, extension needs to be more focused on credibility, reliability, legitimacy, and the decision-making process. Features of current conservation-related extension that mitigate against the development of credibility include: short-term funding, rapid turnover of staff, the youthfulness and inexperience of many staff, and the lack of technical farming expertise of many staff.

Expectations for extension. Even with the most expert and persuasive extension, landholders are not likely to change their management unless they can be convinced that the proposed changes are consistent with their goals. Therefore, expectations about the extent of change that is likely to result from extension need to be realistic. Large changes made by large numbers of landholders are not likely to be attributable to extension in most cases. For one thing, landholders and their lands are highly heterogeneous. Any given practice only advances the goals of some landholders, and often only on some of their land.

It is likely that the main contributions of extension will be through raising awareness and, to some extent, changing perceptions of the relevance and performance of an innovation. It is much more difficult (and sometimes ethically contentious) to change the goals of people. It seems that the Landcare movement in Australia has increased the emphasis given to conservation goals by landholders, but the extent of increase has been modest for most landholders.

Extension is unlikely to persuade landholders to make greater use of a practice with which they already have personal experience, unless the extension provides new information about a change that increases the attractiveness of the innovation (e.g. new information about how to better implement the innovation, or about new incentive payments to encourage adoption).

Another important issue for extension (as for science) is that it does not have automatic legitimacy and credibility – these have to be earned. The key determinant of an adviser’s credibility to a farmer is trust. Trust is, in turn, strongly related to the extent a farmer believed an adviser understands and respects the goals of the farmer. Trust determines the nature of the role that an adviser may play in the social aspects of the decision-making process of the landholder. Without trust, an adviser may only expect to participate as a provider of information that will be later evaluated within a closer circle of trusted contacts.

The conduct of extension. Any sound extension campaign needs to use multiple methods. Multiple extension channels, repetition, multiple deliverers of the message, and harnessing of peer pressure are among the standard tools of effective extension agents. Reliance on any particular method (e.g. print articles, verbal presentations, group extension, advertisements) will fall short of the potential impact on adoption from a diverse portfolio of extension approaches and channels. One advantage of using multiple approaches is that it increases the chances of reaching more of the relevant groups of landholders. Secondly, different landholders have different learning styles and prefer to receive information in different ways, or through different channels. Thirdly, repetition can help to reinforce a message and build confidence, especially if it comes through different channels and from different sources.

A notable trend in extension practice in Australia over the last 15 years has been the substantial decline in public funding for traditional one-on-one extension and a rise in group-based extension. Group-based extension is, of course, an important part of the extension system, but like any extension approach it has its limitations. In the 1990s, group-based extension processes came to be relied on in the National Landcare Program, partly in response to perceptions about their ability to harness peer pressure to address what were often perceived (incorrectly in some cases) to be environmental problems requiring collective action by landholders for their effective resolution. Group-extension processes grew in favour among extension theorists in response to an increased emphasis on adult learning principles and participation by stakeholders. They were embraced by state agriculture agencies, in significant part, for budgetary reasons.

While group-extension approaches are undoubtedly useful, the swing from individuals to groups may have gone too far. For example, the introverted personality profiles of graziers described in the work of Shrapnel and Davie (2001) indicate the continued importance of one-on-one extension. Noting the importance of credibility in effective extension, Vanclay (2004, p. 221) observed that, “Credibility is developed over time through the provision of credible, practical, useful answers that assist farmers in [their] day-to-day operations. Group facilitators who never provide on-farm advice rarely develop credibility and their ideas are easily dismissed.”

A history of valuable advice relevant to a landholder’s goals is probably the single most important source of credibility, but it can be enhanced to some extent by a wide range of factors, including: (i) authority and technical expertise of the extension agent; (ii) perceived similarity of the extension agent to their audience; (iii) local profile of the extension agent (e.g. local residence); (iv) communication skills of the extension agent; (v) personal relationships between the extension agent and landholders; and (vi) extension-agent acknowledgement of/empathy with the circumstances and problems of landholders.

Adviser credibility and trust is a valuable commodity, but it is only earned slowly. Adviser credibility and trust can be easily lost by the support of an innovation or practice clearly unsuited to local circumstances, or through the evangelical promotion of a practice that is clearly in conflict with the goals of landowners. In the past two decades, the role of government extension agents in many states has changed away from that of supporting landholders in making good decisions to achieve their own goals, towards encouraging landholders to make decisions that achieve outcomes for the public good. In many situations, this has the potential to reshape the social contract between adviser and landholder, creating a far more complex social interaction that may be less comfortable for both. The importance of this changed social relationship is not recognised by the relevant public agencies, which publicise their programs using the rhetoric of community development, yet place clear requirements for technology transfer outcomes upon their agents.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further Reading

Marsh SP (1998) ‘What can agricultural researchers do to encourage the adoption of sustainable farming systems?’ SEA Working Paper 98/05, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Western Australia.

Shrapnel M, Davie J (2001) The influence of personality in determining farmer responsiveness to risk. Journal of Agricultural Education and Extension 7, 167-178.

Vanclay F (2004) Social principles for agricultural extension to assist in the promotion of natural resource management. Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 44, 213-222.


This discussion is an edited extract from:

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.

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