Episode 5: Farmers Adopting Technology

Ever thought about how your food makes it way to your plate?

In his work as a sociologist, Vaughan Higgins studies the local, national and international forces that impact on farmers. That’s a fancy way of saying that he looks at why or why not farmers adopt certain technologies or change practices. But to Vaughan, this work cannot be done without thinking of the realities facing farmers. Adopting new technologies goes beyond simply knowing the technology exists, he argues–the farmers must know how it will benefit them and their farms and believe in its potential.

Without this understanding and optimism about new technologies, according to Vaughan, farmers will continue doing things the way they always have, not interested in any alternatives. And so, this is how Australia ends up with the stereotype of the old man farmer, the guy not interested in anything sustainable or renewable–just because it’s new, he’ll reject it. In this episode of What’s Sociology Got To Do With It?, Vaughan calls on Australians to move beyond this stereotype and consider why farmers may not be able or willing to adopt new technologies–and the role researchers and scientists play in this.

If you want to contact Vaughan, he can be reached through the University of Tasmania, where he is an Associate Professor of Sociology. His e-mail is vaughan.higgins@utas.edu.au. Vaughan’s work can also be found through his ResearchGate profile.

Produced by Dr Sarina Kilham with support from Charles Sturt University and The Australian Sociological Association for Social Science Week 2020.

Transcript of Vaughan Higgins talking Farmers adopting technology

Higgins episode

[00:00:00] Vaughan Higgins: [00:00:00] That’s why one of the key things that we try and challenge through our research is to really challenge this notion that adoption is simply to do with characteristics of the farm and farmer themselves. [00:01:00]

Sarina: [00:01:00] Thanks for joining us on the podcast What’s Sociology Got To Do With It? Can we get started by getting you to tell us about your research?

Vaughan Higgins: [00:01:10] Sure. So my-my research very broadly focuses on the sociology of agriculture and food. Well, what does that mean? Well, basically in the context of the work that I do, the focus is very much around trying to understand how agriculture is governed, the broader forces that are global and national and also regional and local that shape how food is produced and importantly, how farmers produce our food.  As part of that focus, my specific interest is around adoption of technologies, around adoption of practices at a farm level. I’m particularly interested in not only why farmers adopt or why they [00:02:00] partially adopt particular practices or innovations or not, but I’m also very interested in the influences that are in terms of policy, in terms of other organizations and agencies and institutions that have an influence on what’s adopted, why it’s adopted and how it’s adopted as well.

Sarina: [00:02:18] Can you give us a-like, a concrete example? Innovation or a  technology in agriculture.  What does that actually mean for someone not familiar with the sector?

 Vaughan Higgins: [00:02:27] Okay. It’s a very good question. So let me give you an example of work that I completed a couple of years ago with the Australian rice industry and that industry, the focus was very much on trying to get farmers to adopt what’s called precision agriculture technologies.

So technologies that are aimed, for example, at improving the consistency, improving the accuracy of measurements around inputs into the soil, improving the [00:03:00] efficiency of how they harvest their crops and so forth. That’s one example where, as researchers, we came on board to try and understand what some of the factors that influence farmer adoption of these sorts of technologies.

I guess one of the things that we found is that even though  there’s a-a broader focus on farmers being encouraged to adopt these technologies in the context of the rice industry, this actually wasn’t a major priority. And in fact, there wasn’t a lot of support from specialists, from precision agriculture specialists, to provide that supporting environment for farmers to adopt, either.

Sarina: [00:03:42] Means the people who were promoting the technology just weren’t really interested in rice or rice growers. Is that right?

Vaughan Higgins: [00:03:50] Um, well, yes, I think that it’s a very good point because in the areas we were focusing on, cotton was becoming an increasingly important crop. And so many [00:04:00] of the rice growers that we spoke to really believed that perhaps precision agriculture wasn’t really as relevant for them, it was much more relevant to larger scale  production such as cotton, there was much more support for the cotton sector. 

Sarina: [00:04:15] -that mean, from the rice growers’ perspective, because the precision ag. consultants just weren’t turning up, they were just like, well, ‘this technology is not for me’, then ‘it’s not for my farm or my type of business.’

Vaughan Higgins: [00:04:30] Yes. Yeah. I think it wasn’t so much a matter of the precision ag. specialists not turning up. It was more, a matter of there was very limited expertise within Australia. So really numerically speaking, compared to the number of farmers who were interested in adopting, really wasn’t that much support available.

And I guess that needs to be also seen in the context of declining  funding for public extension services as well. This is something that I focus on a lot in my research and it comes up [00:05:00] time and time again, the declining support for public extension is a huge factor in understanding why farmers do or don’t adopt. Because there’s a hell of a lot of reliance on the private sector, such as commercial  retail agronomists, to do this work, but it’s not really coordinated.

A lot of the messages that agronomists are giving are not necessarily the best advice  With precision farming, agronomists don’t necessarily see it as their role either. So there’s huge issues around coordination. That’s why one of the key things that we try and challenge through our research is to really challenge this notion that adoption is simply to do with characteristics of the farm and farmer themselves.

So it’s not to do with necessarily resistance to new technology. It’s not necessarily around older farmers not adopting. It’s far more complex than that.

Sarina: [00:05:57] Cause they’re the stereotypes, isn’t it? [00:06:00] That farmer Joe is much too old. He’s not interested in new technology.

Vaughan Higgins: [00:06:04] Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s, that’s, that’s exactly right.

So it’s very much assumed that older farmers are least likely to adopt the technology cause they’re getting old and tired and they’re about to, you know, retire, and that younger farmers are much receptive. Then, of course you hear conflicting stories where, for example, which say, well, ‘what about those younger farmers who dad still runs the farm ‘ or those younger farmers who are quite conservative in their outlook.

Yeah. All these sorts of things.

Sarina: [00:06:34] What would you say to the question then? What’s sociology got to do with it?

Vaughan Higgins: [00:06:39] Well, it’s a good question. What has sociology got to do with it? I-I guess because sociology broadly is around looking at social relations, but also looking at the relationship between structure and agency.

When we look at adoption issues a lot of the emphasis, outside of the social [00:07:00] sciences, is on  farmers as having agency;  assuming that farmers are largely unconstrained by factors that might be outside of their control. So I guess the importance of sociology is by drawing attention to issues around socio-technical, socio-cultural factors that might exist in our cultural values about-around what constitutes good farming and good farmers but also broader issues around the policy settings that might stand in the way, or that create tensions in farmer’s implementation and adoption of good practices or more sustainable practices.

Sarina: [00:07:43] Just for the people who are listening, who might not be familiar with this structure-agency type debate. Can you summarize that for us in lay person’s terms?

Vaughan Higgins: [00:07:54] Basically, that debate focuses around our capacity as individuals to be able to make a difference [00:08:00] in the world. So, in other words, how much freedom do we have to do what we want to do?

Sarina: [00:08:05] Yeah. That’s the agency part.

Vaughan Higgins: [00:08:07] That’s the agency part. The structure part refers to well, to what extent are at day-to-day activities and practices shaped or influenced by factors outside of our control-so broader institutions, such as the economy, the education system, and so forth.

 T-to what extent do those play a role in shaping our practices?

Sarina: [00:08:29] I guess for agriculture and in particular, some of the parts of agriculture that you have talked about, like precision ag. and people changing their practices, social science isn’t necessarily the first thing that would spring to people’s minds as the best way of understanding this issue.

So how would you say that sociology or your social science approach is disrupting or innovating the [00:09:00] normal science way of thinking about this issue?

Vaughan Higgins: [00:09:03] Hmm, look, probably the best way of illustrating that is through projects that I’m involved in at the moment, looking at understanding adoptability of improved soil management practices by farmers and a lot of the funding that we received for this project is from a body called the Soil Cooperative Research Center.

And there’s a number of other projects attached to that Center, which are purely soil science. I remember it, a conference I went to around this topic, one of the researchers said ‘we see the purpose of social sciences smoothing the process of change’. So in other words, the task of soil scientists and technologists is to produce new technologies, new techniques.

And then the job of social scientists is to affect smooth process of change so that people then adopt it. That’s a very typical approach that I’m used to coming across and at face value probably doesn’t [00:10:00] seem that problematic. Where social science and sociology comes isn’t actually questioning that  approach to adoption. One of the ways we do that is saying well, rather than seeing us as smoothing the process of change, it’s actually quite important for social scientists to be involved from the outset and actually considering what technologies, what techniques, what practices are likely to be most relevant and suitable and often regional  farming groups and farmers themselves are left completely out of the equation.

So-

Sarina: [00:10:33] At that big step of defining what even should you be researching on?

Vaughan Higgins: [00:10:38] Yeah, yeah, that’s right. So, it’s very nicely illustrated to by one of the individuals that we spoke to in our soil research, which said that one of the big problems is that soil scientists, they develop these so-called silver bullets. That, you know, are meant to provide solutions, but there’s really limited [00:11:00] consideration of what regional and local needs actually are.

Or in fact, what’s going to be locally workable, given the current cultural values around good farming and that region or what the soil challenges are, what their actual local needs are. So this is where social scientists can provide a really important contribution by not so much saying to soil scientists ‘well, no, you’re doing it wrong.’ It’s really more about say, ‘well, in order for these technologies or techniques to have a more likely chance of being adopted, you need to bring us in from the start’. And ‘we need more multidisciplinary projects which involve a range of different perspectives.’

Because at the end of the day, as social scientists, I think we make a really important contribution to understanding how scientific innovations can [00:12:00] become more widely accepted and certainly an understanding why some don’t.

Sarina: [00:12:05] And that involvement with people, right from the outset in the design and the focus and the definition of that scientific innovation is what makes it more likely to suit people’s needs rather than something that’s just thought out some-

Vaughan Higgins: [00:12:23] Yup. That’s-I think that’s exactly right. Yep. And it’s I guess it’s not just a matter of trying to ensure that scientists think about these issues slightly differently and making these issues more social, but also about thinking around, well, how can these very local issues that farmers and regional farming groups face, how can we frame those in ways that at the end are more amenable to scientific  research?  And when I say scientific research, I mean, in this case, soil science. [00:13:00] So I would almost call that a case of trying to harden that local knowledge so that there’s more of a two way dialogue between scientists and then also scientists to using local groups at a local level as way of really helping to improve implementation.

Sarina: [00:13:18] That’s fantastic. Have you got any final thoughts or messages for the listeners of What Sociology Got To Do With It?

 Vaughan Higgins: [00:13:26] Well, look, I mean, I guess in terms of my research, that ground I’ve been involved for many years now. And I’m looking at very applied problems, whether it be trying to work out  how farmers become more involved in just more sustainable practices, whether it be around how Australia can develop improved arrangements for sharing responsibility for bio-security, which of course is a very big issue at the moment. I guess the consistent thing that I’ve [00:14:00] found all the way along is that  non-sociologists, you know, scientists and so forth, are always very amenable to sociological inputs and expertise.

I mean, they don’t usually know what sociology is.  And I guess one of the big barriers we do face as sociologists is that, often those from outside the discipline specialty, outside of the social sciences more broadly, think that sociology is common sense dressed up in fancy language. So, it’s a constant challenge in that sense of telling them what they think they already know. But at the same time, really providing a new angle on the particular problem that you’re dealing with to show, well, this is not only a new way. This is not only new lens for seeing this particular problem or issue, but it provides you with potentially alternative different strategies for addressing that problem as well. So I think that’s the real challenge, but also the opportunity for us as sociologists. 

Sarina: [00:14:58] That’s [00:15:00] fantastic. This is the end of our interview, but at this stage, can I ask you to tell us your name, where you’re talking to us from and what is your current role?

Vaughan Higgins: [00:15:12] Sure. I’m Vaughn Higgins and I’m an academic at the University of Tasmania. I’m based in Hobart. I’m talking to you from Hobart, right at the moment. I should say my other role is, I’m Associate Head of School of Learning and Teaching in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Tasmania, too, if that’s relevant.

Sarina: [00:15:34] Vaughn, where can our listeners best get in contact with you? Are you on social media, e-mail? Have you got a website that if people want to find out more about your research, they can go and have a look at?

Vaughan Higgins: [00:15:47] The best place for people to look is I do have profile site at the University of Tasmania.

So if they wanted to find out more just simply do a Google search of Vaughn Higgins at University of Tasmania. I’m also on [00:16:00] Research Gate for those who are more research inclined. But for general listeners, I think that the University of Tasmania profile page would probably provide the main information that people would want to know.

Sarina: [00:16:11] That’s fantastic. I’ll put a link to all of those in our show notes-

Vaughan Higgins: [00:16:15] Righto.

Sarina: [00:16:16] Thank you so much for joining our new podcast What’s Sociology Got To Do With It?, and hopefully we’ll get to talk to you again.

 Vaughan Higgins: [00:16:23] Yep. Very good. Thank you.

Sarina: [00:16:25] Bye.

Vaughan Higgins: [00:16:25] I appreciate the opportunity.

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