125 – Adoption of conservation practices – paper tops the charts

When I was young I dreamed of topping the charts, like The Beatles. Now I’ve finally achieved it, though not quite in the way that I intended back then.

Last month one of my papers reached the top of the chart published here by the Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture, showing the most downloaded papers since they began keeping records in 2000. The paper is called “Understanding and promoting adoption of conservation practices by rural landholders”, co-authored with Graham Marshall (University of New England), Neil Barr (Department of Primary Industries Victoria), Allan Curtis (Charles Sturt University), Frank Vanclay (University of Tasmania) and Roger Wilkinson (Department of Primary Industries Victoria).

There have been about 1300 papers published by that journal since 2000, and older papers are included on the web site too, so there is plenty of competition for top spot. We moved steadily up the chart after publication in October 2006 and reached number 2 after about 10 months, but then it took another 9 months to overtake the top paper.

I’m really pleased that this paper has had some attention. For one thing, it is a great example of cross disciplinary collaboration. It was an enjoyable challenge to produce a paper that successfully combines the disciplines of the authors (economics, rural sociology and social psychology). We each had our own perspectives, of course, but we actually agreed about a lot – more than one might have expected given some of the cross disciplinary sniping that one can find in the literature.

Another reason I am pleased about the attention is that I think the paper has some really important messages. Here are a few snippets:

“Depending on their personal and family circumstances, the issues about which landholders are most concerned at a particular time may not relate to conservation, or any aspect of land management.”

“People who adopt one innovation early are not necessarily early adopters of all innovations.”

“… the relative advantage that drives adoption may not necessarily relate to the environment. Indeed, environmental benefits can often be most readily achieved by developing conservation practices that provide a commercial advantage to farmers.”

“… 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).”

“If a practice is not adopted in the long term, it is because landholders are not convinced that it advances their goals sufficiently to outweigh its costs. A consequence of this is that we should avoid putting the main burden for promoting adoption onto communication, education and persuasion activities. This strategy is unfortunately common, but is destined to fail if the innovations being promoted are not sufficiently attractive to the target audience. The innovations need to be ‘adoptable’. If they are not, then communication and education activities will simply confirm a landholder’s decision not to adopt, as well as degrade the social standing of the field agents of the organisation. Extension providers should invest time and resources in attempting to ascertain whether an innovation is adoptable before proceeding with extension to promote its uptake.”

I’ve suggested to my co-authors that we should do something to celebrate our number 1 hit. Perhaps we could further emulate The Beatles who had a big all-night party in Paris when “I Want to Hold Your Hand” became their first US number 1.

Like the Beatles, we might also go on tour (a very, very short one), running a national workshop in which we each present our slant on the adoption issue. It’s an idea we’re contemplating, anyway.

It would be appropriate at this stage to acknowledge the role of the CRC for Plant-Based Management of Dryland Salinity in fostering the paper. Back in 2000, most of the eventual authorship team attended a meeting to discuss what adoption-related work we should do for the CRC. We agreed on the idea of doing this paper, and after a fairly long gestation period and a slight growth in the authorship team, we eventually delivered.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further Reading

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: (or non-subscribers can buy a copy on-line for A$25). Otherwise, email to ask for a copy.