- G.K. Warriner and G.M. Moul, Department of Sociology, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ont.
Evaluation Summary (Tech. Transfer Report Summaries)
Associated SWEEP/LSP Research
View/Download Report [295 KB pdf]
Completed: June, 1989
adoption, conservation technology, social structure, survey, adoption
diffusion models, social networks, farmer attitudes
This report employs a multifaceted approach to examining the decision
framework of farmers in relation to the decision to adopt or not to adopt
conservation tillage. Responses from a representative cross-section of 259
farms surveyed in 1988 in the SWEEP project area are compared to those from
a second, nonprobability sample of 55 known conservation tillage adopters
for the purpose of examining the relative importance of various on-site,
economic, sociodemographic, attitudinal and social network influences leading
to the adoption of soil conservation practices.
A distinguishing aspect of this research is the focus of the examination
on the farmer's social frame of reference constituted of family, friends
and acquaintances to whom he may turn for information or guidance concerning
the choice of cropping technology. In this regard we examine both the membership
of this network and its structure. The membership of the network, ranging
from spouse, through other family, friends, neighbors, and farm advisors
constitute important sources of information on farming to which the operator
may turn. In addition, the structure, or form, of this network facilitates
or impedes the receipt of information concerning innovative farming practice.
Thus the research goals are: (1) to provide evidence of the influence
of the structural characteristics of the farmer's communication network
in enabling the diffusion of innovation of conservation tillage; (2) to
assess information concerning what actors typically constitute the reference
group of farmers with regard to decisions on tillage and other farm practices;
(3) to assess the relative influence of social, economic, site and cognitive
factors in leading to the adoption of new cropping technologies; (4) to
compare known adopters with the general cash crop farming public of south-western
Ontario on farm and operator characteristics; and (5) to estimate the relative
rates of adoption of conservation tillage and other conservation practices
among rowcrop farmers during the 1987 growing season.
Funding for this research was provided by a grant from the
Socio-Economic Evaluation subprogram of the Soil
and Water Environmental Enhancement Program (SWEEP). SWEEP is a $30 million
jointly funded federal-provincial program intended to reduce phosphorous
loadings from non-point cropland soil erosion to Lake Erie by 200 tonnes
annually by 1990. The Socio-Economic Analysis subprogram funds projects
to evaluate the impact of SWEEP programs and to investigate the conditions
under which farmers may choose to adopt conservation forms of farming.
A two stage sampling plan was employed to select farms from the SWEEP
project area for participation in a comprehensive survey of rowcrop farming
practices. At the first stage a probability sample of cash crop farm operations
was selected using conventional proportionate stratified, random sampling
procedures. A random sample of 497 farms stratified by farm size and county
location was drawn from the population of grain corn operations in the twelve
counties of the SWEEP project area. Then, on the assumption that such a
sample would provide too few farms on which conservation tillage was actually
practiced, a second, smaller sample was selected made up of 85 farmers previously
identified as using conservation tillage.
The 582 sampled farms were surveyed by mail using a survey instrument
comprising more than 200 questions for which information on the following
topics was requested: (1) farm characteristics, (2) household composition,
(3) soil and erodibility conditions, (4) farming practices, (5) attitudes,
values and beliefs, and (6) personal network. With three follow-up mailings
to encourage participation, 350 questionnaire from the 582 originally mailed
were returned, for an overall response rate of 60.2 percent. Following exclusions
for ineligible and uncodeable responses, the analysis group constituted
314 farms -- 259 farms from the probability sample and 55 from the conserver
A sampling objective was to select farms which were mainly row crop
operations. Nearly 93 percent of the farms in the probability sample report
producing corn, and 74.4 percent produce soybeans. There were no statistically
significant differences between farms in the probability sample and the
conserver group with respect to the type of products being farmed. However,
the farms of the conserver sample are substantially larger than those
in the probability sample, averaging 609 acres versus 339 in the probability
The conserver sample farms were also somewhat more likely to be operated
with another family member, not their spouse, or for the legal status
of the farm to be a corporation, while self-owned, or ownership with spouse
was more common in the probability sample. Most farmers, however, share
ownership with at least one other. Few respondents to this survey, only
3.8 percent, reported renting or leasing their farm.
Once the difference in size of farms between conservers and the probability
sample is taken into account there is no difference between farms in the
two samples in terms of farm assets. However, the conserver farms had
significantly more debts, even in consideration of the larger average
sizes of these farms. The average debt to asset ratio across all farms
in this survey is 34 percent, somewhat in excess of the thirty percent
often seen as an acceptable debt to asset balance. Further, the conserver
group had significantly lower returns on investment from their farming
operations in 1987 in comparison to the farms of the probability sample.
On balance the data on the financial aspects of the farm provide little
support for a hypothesis that some farmers are conserving because they
are financially better off.
There were no differences between the farms of the conserver group
and the probability sample in terms of number of people in the household,
or the age the operator began farming, years of experience, how long the
farm has been in the family, or the importance of off-farm income to the
operation of the farm. Operators in the conserver group had more years
of schooling, 13.3 years on average, versus 11.7 years among operators
in the probability sample. Those in the conserver sample were younger,
although the difference is not statistically significant.
There are some differences between the probability and conserver group
with respect to what are the future plans for the farm. Over seventy-two
percent of the operators in the conserver group predict that the farm
will remain in the family and be farmed, while 56.6 percent of the probability
sample claim this, with the remainder believing the farm will be leased
The survey asked respondents about soil conditions on their farms and
the existence of various types of erosion. Problems of water erosion and
other soil problems are far more likely to be reported on the farms of
the conserver group than the probability sample. Compared to farmers in
the probability sample, operators in the conserver sample more often report
their farms to have finer soil types, steeper and longer slopes, more
soil erosion potential, more severe damage from erosion, and greater likelihood
of both poor soil structure and soil compaction.
The operators in the conserver group were also more likely to admit
their own farming practices to be contributing to soil erosion. In general,
the conserver group had a greater tendency to recognize the potential
for erosion, while ascribing personal responsibility for its existence.
Only on-site inspection (not conducted) can ascertain whether the differences
in the erosion levels of the conserver and the probability samples are
actual or are simply perceived. However, it is likely that the farmers
in the probability sample do not practice conservation as frequently as
those in the conserver group because they are less able to recognize when
it is needed.
The survey also examined the tillage and cropping practices used by
operators in 1987 for evidence of conservation forms of farming. On this
evidence there is some basis for optimism concerning the potential for
soil conservation in Ontario. Although 86.5 percent of the farmers in
the probability sample reported using the conventional moldboard plough
in the fall, a surprising proportion, 47.6 percent, also reported using
reduced tillage on some or all of their fields. Almost one-third of cropland
for harvest for this sample, 31.3 percent, was affected by these methods.
For the conserver sample, more than one-half, 51.9 percent, used conventional
tillage on part of their farm in 1987, while 59.3 percent used reduced
till, 22.2 percent used ridge till, 27.8 percent practiced no till, and
31.5 percent used modified no till.
With the two samples combined, 44.6 percent of respondents reported
using only conventional tillage in 1987. A further 36.3 percent used some
combination of conservation tillage and conventional tillage, and 19.1
percent used only conservation tillage during 1987. Among farmers in the
probability sample, 51.4 percent used only conventional tillage, while
35.7 percent combined conventional tillage with conservation tillage,
and 12.9 percent used only conservation tillage.
Overall, nearly one-half of the farms in the probability sample, 48.6
percent, reported using some type of conservation tillage on their farms
in 1987, and about one in eight farmers reported using only conservation
tillage. In addition, 52.2 percent of these farmers reported leaving significant
crop residue following planting in 1987 (versus 83.6 percent in the conserver
group), with 37.8 percent of the cropland in harvest for that year being
Environmental attitudes can be important pre-determinants to conservation
behaviour. While in the soil conservation field most interest has been
paid to factors involving the financial incentives for conservation, there
is significant doubt that conservation will ever be seen by the majority
of farmers to be financially attractive. Hence attempts to make conservation
financially viable through government programs involving subsidies may
be misdirected. While such programs may encourage farmers to adopt conservation,
they also imply that the sole basis for deciding to practice conservation
rests on its financial merits, while at the same time suggesting the government
will accept responsibility for ensuring conservation is financially worthwhile.
What this ignores is an approach to conservation which involves an individual's
long-term willingness to prevent soil loss through conservation which
is based on an ethical and moral commitment to the land, and which is
practiced in spite of the extra effort and financial sacrifices which
may be involved.
The survey found evidence that factors involving beliefs about soil
loss, and attitudes about conservation and land stewardship were important
to the farmer's decision to practice or not to practice conservation.
There were statistically significant differences between the conserver
and probability samples on a number of such beliefs, as well as the intention
to practice conservation. Thus, on average, the conserver group was more
likely to believe in the existence of soil loss problems in Ontario, while
denying that farmland is mainly an economic commodity, or that the government,
or other farmers, should be mainly responsible for solutions to soil loss
problems. Farmers in the conserver group also saw themselves as being
innovative with regard to new farming practices, in addition to believing
that the overall benefits of conservation would, in the long run, outweigh
its shortcomings, while stating they held a moral obligation to protect
the land, and being committed to soil conservation through the intention
to practice it.
The analysis also showed a relationship between these attitudinal and
belief dimensions and the farming practices of operators. The majority
of the attitudinal and belief factors were related to the intention to
practice conservation, in addition to predicting the likelihood of having
used conservation tillage in 1987. Further, farmers who felt that conservation
tillage was a bad idea from an economic perspective, were those who were
least likely to try conservation tillage, while those who believe in its
long-term benefits and need were those who were most likely to practice
it, or want to. It is also the case that the geographical conditions of
the farm with respect to soil and slope conditions, and the perceived
evidence of soil loss on the farm, were positively related to the practice
of conservation. This points to a need for the development of programs
to help farmers recognize the existence of soil erosion on their own farms.
The survey findings suggest that farmers are often committed to conservation,
but are inhibited from practicing it by being unable to recognize when
it occurs on their own farms.
The Social Network
The notion of the social network in the context of adoption of conservation
tillage adds a further dimension of understanding to the problem of how
the decision to adopt conservation tillage is made. The idea that the
social network may be important with respect to the farmer's decision
to adopt or to not adopt conservation tillage is straightforward. Since
before any change in farming practice can be expected the farmer must
first receive information about the practice, it is through the social
network that new information will be channelled.
Certain aspects of the network may facilitate more effective communication.
These include the farmer's location with a sphere of acquaintanceship,
as well as the size of the network and its density (proportion of reciprocal
ties). Dense networks provide greater opportunities for communication
transfer since there are more communication paths. On the other hand,
dense networks may also be more "closed", to the extent that their tightly
interlocking natures can prevent entry of innovative ideas. Finally, when
dealing with innovative, or risky, new farming technology, there is likelihood
that individuals with whom the farmer has a "weak" link will serve as
a better source of information than with those with whom the link is "strong".
This latter idea centers on the understanding that each farmer's network
may be differentiated according to both (1) degree of homophily (similarity)
between members of the network, and (2) level of attraction (strength
of tie) between members. Thus homophily and close attraction facilitate
effective communication, while also acting to prevent new ideas from entering
the system. Alternatively, heterogeneity within networks, and weak ties,
give the system openness, enabling communications on farming innovations
to flow freely.
Responses to the survey suggest the majority of farmers feel their
friends and neighbors want them to practice conservation, and there are
apparently few internal divisions within households to prevent this. In
these respects both the conserver and probability samples are very similar.
These factors, in addition, are related, weakly, to the farmer's intention
to practice or not to practice conservation.
On the factors relating to the sources of information seen as important
with respect to deciding on farming practices, there are no differences
between the responses of the conserver and probability samples. The most
important source of information is the farmer's own personal experience,
followed by neighbors, the farm media, government and educational agricultural
specialists, representatives of commercial firms, farm organizations,
family members and one's spouse.
With respect to the personal network, the average size of the networks
of the conserver sample is significantly larger than those of the probability
sample. This is consistent with network theory generally which argues
that larger networks provide more sources of information, and more channels
along which it can be communicated, therefore facilitating the diffusion
of innovation. Respondents in the conserver sample also had known members
in the network for a shorter period of time, but there were no significant
differences between the two samples concerning the frequency of interaction
between network members, or their occupations. The majority, 64 percent,
of network members are active farmers, followed by representatives of
commercial or financial agencies, and government agricultural specialists.
A relatively high percentage of the network members in both samples, over
40 percent, are people who either practice conservation or who belong
to a farm organization which supports it.
The size of the network is also positively associated with the likelihood
of having used conservation tillage in 1987, as well as with the intention
to practice conservation and with the perception that soil erosion is
a problem on the farm. Larger networks are also positively associated
with younger and better educated farm operators, who have more debts,
less returns on investment, and smaller farms. The density of the network
is inversely related to membership in the conserver sample (nonsignificant),
as well as with conservation tillage in 1987, and with intention to practice
conservation, and the perception that soil erosion exists on the farm.
Thus it seems that larger networks encourage conservation, while those
which are dense inhibit it, either by being more "closed" and preventing
the entry of information, or by being comprised mainly of homophilous
relations acting to resist ideas on novel farming techniques.
Closer inspection of the individual networks of farmers reveals that
in terms of whom the farmer turns to most often, and mentions as most
important, when seeking information on farming matters, it is likely to
be another farmer. However, if the network contains a known conserver,
or someone who is a member of an association which promotes conservation,
then this person is likely to be referred to. On the other hand, when
it comes to deciding something on the farm, the network, or reference
group to whom the operator turns, is very likely to be comprised mainly
of family, kin and other farmers, all individuals with whom the farmer,
on grounds of obvious similarity, is strongly connected. Thus if the issue
is whether to adopt a new and innovative farming practice, such as conservation
tillage, networks comprised of member similarity and strong ties tend,
on the whole, to counteract the chances of adoption.
Conclusions and Recommendations
On the basis of these findings, the following conclusions are warranted:
The decision to adopt conservation tillage is multi-faceted. Across
the range of dimensions investigated it is almost always the case that
one or several factors stand out to distinguish members of the probability
sample from the conserver group, or to identify conservers. Some of these
--education, age, farm size -- are already widely known from the forty
year research tradition on diffusion of innovation. Other factors, particular
those relating to attitudes, social normative beliefs, and network factors,
are much less often recognized. However their relationships with adoption
were, in several cases, larger than the more commonly cited predictors
of conservation practices. Thus, farmers make up their minds to practice
conservation, or not to practice it, based on many things, suggesting
the need for the complexity of this decision framework to be taken into
account in the development of agricultural programs.
Conservation adoption is unpredictable. In spite of a number of significant
associations across several dimensions, the correlations are, for the
most part, not sizeable. Correlations in the range of 0.12 to 0.20 are
common and, while statistically significant, can hardly be regarded as
large. On these grounds it should be noted that identifying conservers
on the basis of farms, or socio-demographics, or financial situation,
or beliefs and attitudes, or social networks, or anything else, is never
going to be easy.
There was little to suggest the financial conditions of farms are related
to conservation. Large farms are more likely to practice conservation,
true, but several financial indicators were unrelated to conservation
adoption, while adopters also had significantly higher debts and lower
returns on investment. However, the one factor which strongly predicts
the intention not to adopt conservation tillage was the belief that such
a practice would be uneconomical.
On grounds of these findings it may be concluded that programs to encourage
conservation based on its questionable financial benefits are misguided.
It often appears that in developing programs to promote soil conservation
planners have assumed the need to convince farmers of its financial benefits.
However, an important factor predicting adoption of conservation practices
in this survey was the farmer's moral commitment to conserve, and it is
notable that such a factor is additionally inversely related to the belief
that conservation is uneconomical. Soil conservation in Ontario may in
the long run be better served by replacing an emphasis on economic returns
with one which stresses land stewardship.
There may be more farmers in south-western Ontario practicing conservation
than was previously believed. Among the probability sample 12.9 percent
of farmers reported using only conservation tillage, and a further 35.7
percent combined conventional tillage with conservation tillage. Further,
44.1 percent of the farms in this survey reported either now practicing
conservation tillage, or intending to practice it in the near future.
Still, it is also the case that the great majority of respondents,
86.5 percent, did use the moldboard plough in the fall on at least some
portion of their farm in 1987. On balance it can be concluded there is
some evidence of increased conservation occurring in south-western Ontario
farming, and a willingness by farmers to do more.
A factor which appears consistently related to the likelihood of adoption
of conservation forms of farming is the farmer's perception that soil
loss is occurring on the farm. The belief that soil loss is occurring
on one's own farm is a necessary condition for taking steps to prevent
it. However, farmers cannot believe in soil loss until they experience
it, and cannot experience it until the phenomenon is understood and recognised.
If more farmers could be shown how to recognize soil erosion and to estimate
its cumulative effects, they would believe in soil erosion and practice
An important goal of this research was to investigate the influence
of the farmer's social network on the decision to adopt or to not adopt
conservation tillage. In this regard the findings are suggestive, but
not conclusive. The structural properties relating to the size and density
of the network appear to be related to the dissemination of new information,
as well as influencing the network's receptiveness toward innovative farming
technology. The networks in the sample are characterized by highly homophilous
and strong ties, properties which may impede entry of novel information.
However, comparisons between the networks of adopters and nonadopters
revealed little which distinguishes their behaviours, excepting the networks
of adopters were larger. While the findings from this approach are not
conclusive, it should be understood that these network variables introduce
a new level of analytical complexity, and with continued investigation
are still potentially rich in their ability to explain conservation adoption.
(From Technology Transfer Report Summaries - A. Hayes, L. Cruickshank,
The intent of this study was to explore the factors affecting the decisions
of producers regarding conservation technology. The goals of the study were:
(1) to determine the influence of social structure on producers' decisions;
(2) to define composition of reference groups; (3) to assess the relative
influence of environmental, social, personal and business factors on decisions
for changing cropping technologies; (4) to contrast the above with traits
of known adopters; and (5) to establish the relative rates of adoption of
conservation practices. A multi-faceted approach was chosen to address the
diversity of factors identified.
A mailed questionnaire containing over 200 questions was mailed to two
groups of cash-crop farmers in the SWEEP area: a randomly selected group
of 497 grain producers (probability sample) and a purposive sample of 85
producers known to have practised conservation tillage. Following a cull
process to eliminate unusable returns, 259 probability and 55 conserver,
for a total of 314 of the 350 returned questionnaires (return rate of 60.2%)
were found to be acceptable to be used in the database. The questionnaires
and findings are categorized into the following areas: farm characteristics,
household composition, soil and erodibility conditions, farming practices,
attitudes and personal networks.
Farm Characteristics - most features were similar between the two groups
except that the conserver group had on average larger farms and lower
return on their investments in 1987.
Operator/ Household - most features were similar except that conservers
were younger and better educated and predicted more often that the farm
would stay in the family.
Soil Characteristics - conserver farmers had soil features with a high
potential for erosion and had changed practices because they had observed
erosion and had decided to take responsibility. It is postulated that
the probability group may not be able to recognize erosion problems and
there exists a causal relationship between this and motivation for change.
Conservation Practices - although more conserver farmers use conservation
or no tillage more frequently than the probability sample, most farmers
use a variety of tillage methods and planting methods (nearly one-half
of the probability sample reported using some sort of conservation tillage
in 1987). At this time people were experimenting or had selected tillage/cropping
practices to reflect the range of conditions they farmed.
Attitudes - the conserver group had a stronger stewardship ethic and
commitment to innovation in conservation than the probability group. Recognition
or acknowledgement of soil problems was once again correlated with belief
and commitment for change.
The social network - peer pressure was found to have a positive influence
on adoption rates. Both groups rank the relative importance of information
sources in a descending order of importance as follows: personal experience,
their neighbours, the farm media, specialists, agribusiness representatives,
farm organizations, family and spouse. Larger networks were positively
correlated with adoption of conservation tillage. Smaller groups had a
tendency to be closed. Thus, if another farmer is the best source of information
for other farmers, those with conservers in their network would have a
higher probability of adopting.
The strength of this study was that the approach reflected the very nature
of the phenomena itself; multifaceted. Financial or personal characteristics
alone do not explain an individual producers reason to change. Of note they
Farmers need to understand, be able to recognize and feel comfortable
admitting to problems on their farm before considering changes to their
operations. This should be central to conservation/environmental farm
The stewardship ethic is as important as financial considerations when
fostering change - it should be fostered in conservation programming.
The role of the extension agent in conservation has been verified as
to support innovators and leaders in their trials and to promote their
leadership in their community, to provide the farm press with accurate
information and case studies and to work with agri-business and farm organizations
to promote conservation practices and beliefs.
SWEEP Report #0 - Cropping, Tillage and Land
Management Practices in Southwestern Ontario 1986
SWEEP Report #3 - An Economic Assessment of
the Distribution of Benefits Arising from Adoption of Conservation Practices
in Crop Production in Southwestern Ontario
SWEEP Report #6 - A Survey of Crop Residue in
Southwestern Ontario 1987
SWEEP Report #7 - Sources of Motivation in the
Adoption of Conservation Tillage
SWEEP Report #9 - Conservation Practices in
Southwestern Ontario: Barriers to Adoption
LSP7008 - Differences in Soil Conservation
between Operator-Owned and Rented Land
Other Publications and Theses from this Research:
Moul, G. M. 1991. Power relations of spouses farming in southwestern
Ontario. Master's Thesis, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ont.
Warriner, G. K., and G. M. Moul. 1992. Kinship and personal communication
network influences on the adoption of agriculture conservation technology.
Journal of Rural Studies 8: 279-291.
Future Research: ( ) indicates reviewers suggestion for
priority, A - high, C - low.
(C) Similar work should be initiated to determine if other areas of conservation
(pollution control, nutrient management, etc.) follow similar trends of
adoption and diffusion.
Thursday, May 19, 2011 01:11:35 PM