Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

When Farmers Adopt New Technology

November 4, 1996

In the late 30s and early 40s researchers studied how farmers adopted technology with the introduction of hybrid seed corn. It took 13 years for the adoption of hybrid seeds to be complete. The model of adoption and diffusion of technology which developed has become a classic on innovation spread, both in and out of agriculture.

Technology encompasses an idea. Ideas enter a community. The ideas move from one person to another. Peter Korshing, a rural sociologist at Iowa State University, shared the following model of how farmers react to innovations.

1. Innovators - 2.5 percent They are the radicals, the oddballs. They have abundant curiosity and sometimes little sense. They are not well respected in the community and are just as apt to fail as to succeed.

2. Early adopters -13.5 percent. The early adopters are respected and are the opinion makers in the community. When farmers in this category introduce a technology, it becomes an acceptable farming practice. They set the curve for others to follow.

Early adopters are open seekers of information. They generally apply innovations in all areas of their operation. They have connections with the university or businesses who are doing basic research and development. Early adopters have their own network - generally with farmers who live outside their local community.

Early adopters are usually well off and can afford to take risks. For farmers to be an early adopter, they have to have a minimum level of resources. They also capture windfall profits by capitalizing on innovations while later adopters have to adopt the same technology defensively to stay in the game.

Industry and advertisers recognize this group and pitch new products and upscale advertising to them. Early adopters show which technologies pay off. Others with a more conservative bent look to them and follow suit.

Innovators run in families. Children of entrepreneurs become entrepreneurs themselves. Families with histories of early adoption continue to be the trend setters in the next generation because of the family tradition of innovation.

3. Early majority - 34 percent. This group is composed of salt-of-the-earth, solid, conservative farmers who are more deliberate and wait until they know that the ideas do indeed work. They keep their eye on the early adopters and learn from them. Local opinion and experience convince them of the value of the innovations.

4. Late majority - 34 percent. These farmers are very deliberate and skeptical. Their resources are generally more limited. When they adopt, it is because they have no choice.

5. Laggards - 16 percent. Laggards is an unfortunate term for the last adopters or those who may never adopt the new technology. Their personal values are strong or the technologies are not relevant to their goals. Family values about land stewardship drive some of these farmers.

They do not follow trends in conventional mainstream agriculture. Public opinion doesn't bother them. This group includes those who deliberately stay small for lifestyle concerns.

Where do farmers get information? The traditional sources of information have been the local extension agent, local dealers, the local agriculture college and other farmers. Most information is learned through personal contact.

With technology changing so fast, some farmers go closer to the source - sometimes through impersonal secondary sources. Mass media caters to this group who seeks direct information by developing specialty niche magazines and newsletters. Early adopters definitely search for information about breakthrough innovations outside of their local community.

Conservation and safety. Innovations in the conservation of soil and water also follow the adoption model. Contrary to the stereotype; large scale, successful commercial farmers - the early adopters - also introduce innovations in conservation practices. Remember, they innovate in all areas.

Preventive innovations such as farm safety have a longer cycle of adoption. The problem is that innovations in this area have little immediate payback. Some farmers gamble that accidents are low probability events which may not happen anyway.

Other factors. Korsching also identifies additional factors that determine how fast a new technology takes hold:

1. Visibility of results.

2. Immediate consequence and payoff.

3. Complexity - the more complex the technology, the longer the adoption curve.

4. Introduction of the new technology on a trial basis.

5. Incentives by the manufacturer. Companies and dealers may offer discounts or products at cost to give early adopters "hands on" experience.

6. Some technologies are politically driven - such as the pork industry's great need for technologies that eliminate offensive odors. The technological need is so great that resources and attention are very focused. Any innovation is likely to be ballyhooed and adopted quickly.

7. Depending on the innovation, each idea will have its own time line and curve for moving through a cycle of adoption. Today, farmers are adapting computers and telecommunication technology to the farm.