Producers are the Best Ambassadors for Adoption of Climate-Smart Practices

By Tyler Harris, Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center, Oregon State University

Crops in rows with cover crops in between rows
A cayuse oat cover crop interseeded into a brassica field in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Cover crops are just one example of a climate-smart practice that can help growers adapt to unpredictable weather patterns. Photo: Andrew Donaldson, Soil Conservationist, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

With climate change, growers in the Pacific Northwest are facing a myriad of new challenges. These include a longer fire season and more frequent fires, warmer and drier summers, and increased drought potential in summer. A question that is becoming more pertinent every day for agronomists, rangeland managers, soil scientists, water quality specialists, and other service providers in agriculture is: How do we help producers adapt to climate change by adopting climate-smart practices? This is something a panel of agricultural professionals considered as part of a recent online climate resilience training hosted by the Oregon Climate and Agriculture Network (OrCAN).

The panel discussed climate-smart practices such as conservation tillage and cover cropping, practices that many producers already use for important roles like mitigating soil erosion and improving soil water infiltration, and which can also help adapt to a changing climate and unpredictable weather patterns. Agricultural producers already face inherent risk and thin margins, leaving little room for error when adopting new practices. So, how can service providers help foster this adoption?

According to panelists at the training, the best advocates for adoption are often other growers. Of course, it is not uncommon for farmers and ranchers to try something on a small scale before adopting it across their entire operation. These trials—and associated tribulations—are a big part of the adoption process. However, research, census data, and anecdotal evidence have all shown that many producers can learn from the experiences of a few. In other words, farmers and ranchers are more likely to try a new practice when they witness its success for themselves, especially when implemented by a trusted neighbor.

That was the case back in the 1930s and 1940s, when farmers in the Midwest first adopted hybrid seed corn. In a seminal study in Iowa, social scientists Bryce Ryan and Neal Gross (1943) found that farm operators typically experimented with hybrid seed corn on a small scale before planting it on their entire farm, even if they were late adopters. Meanwhile, early adopters served as a kind of “community laboratory” for the new seed corn, giving other farmers a chance to witness the resulting higher yields before trying it themselves (Ryan and Gross, 1943). In fact, neighbors were considered the most influential information source for growers deciding to try hybrid seed, followed by seed salesmen (Ryan and Gross, 1943).

Large machinery carefully moving through rows of cabbages
An interseeder is used to seed cayuse oats into a brassica field. When it comes to cover crops, producers often have questions regarding seeding and termination methods and timing. Early adopters can demonstrate the success of seeding and termination practices suited to a specific region, which can help foster adoption among other producers. Photo: Andrew Donaldson, Soil Conservationist, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

A more recent example is cover crop adoption. According to 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture data, the highest cover crop usage in Iowa took place in four counties in the southeast part of the state, where cover crops were planted on anywhere between 8.1% to 11.6% of the cultivated acres. For the state as a whole, cover crops were planted, on average, on less than 4% of all crop acres. Why the higher percentage for southeast Iowa? Peer-to-peer learning is likely a factor: there is a population of early cover crop adopters in these counties, some of whom have been using cover crops for 10+ years. These early adopters have served as a source of information on best management practices—like seeding and termination methods suited to their specific location—and have given other growers a chance to witness success with cover crops firsthand.

A study in the inland Northwest suggests a similar process might be at play in our region. Producers interviewed on cover crop adoption noted the drier climate, challenges integrating cover crops into their management system, a lack of knowledge on best practices specific to their region, and a lack of consistent results from short-term trials among hurdles to adoption (Lavoie et al., 2021). And not surprisingly, producers participating in these focus groups expressed a need to identify early innovators to learn from and share examples of success under specific growing conditions, as there are multiple climate types within the inland Northwest (Lavoie et al., 2021).

Cover crops are just one example, but more broadly, panelists in the online training session agreed that peer-to-peer learning is one of the most effective ways to foster adoption of climate-smart practices. Where possible, it is important to find early adopters and help them become advocates for change by helping to share the knowledge and experience they have gained. As research has shown, fellow producers tend to be a big influence when it comes to innovation adoption.

“In terms of behavior change, it’s really about finding and helping those early adopters become the real advocates,” said panelist Maud Powell, Oregon State University associate professor of practice and Extension small farms specialist at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center in Central Point, Oregon. “Because producers are going to trust other producers more than they’re going to trust ag professionals.”

References:

Lavoie, A.L., Dentzman, K., Wardropper, C.B., 2021. Using diffusion of innovations theory to understand agricultural producer perspectives on cover cropping in the inland Pacific Northwest, USA. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems. 36, 384-395. Online Access

Ryan, B., and Gross, N.C., 1943. The diffusion of hybrid seed corn in two Iowa communities. Rural Sociology. 8, 15-24. Accessed Nov. 28, 2022. Online Access