August 1999 // Volume 37 // Number 4 // Research in Brief // 4RIB2

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An Evaluation of an Agricultural Innovation: Justification for Participatory Assistance

This article describes and assesses the adoption of a nitrogen testing innovation as a result of an Extension education program. Focus groups and a mail survey provided feedback concerning factors, variables and technology transfer strategies associated with the adoption of this innovation. Farmers indicated that economic factors and information sources impacted their adoption decisions. Results indicated that a more holistic, multi-disciplinary approach to and understanding of the decision-making processes of farmers may have improved the outcome of the educational program. Adoption of this innovation may have been improved if farmers had participated in the research, development and introduction of this innovation.

Robert N. King
Agriculture Program Leader
Cornell Cooperative Extension, Monroe County
Rochester, New York
Internet address:

Timothy J. Rollins
The Pennsylvania State University
State College, Pennsylvania


Technological change has been the basis for increasing agricultural productivity and promoting agricultural development. Research impacts the productivity of farming systems by generating new technologies which, if appropriate to farmers' circumstances, will be rapidly adopted. Historically, researchers and change agents have been primarily responsible for identifying and incorporating economic and environmental factors in the process of developing and introducing an agricultural innovation. This research/change agent centered process, usually referred to as a Transfer of Technology approach, is typically characterized as a top-down process where researchers develop the innovation, change agents promote its use, and farmers either adopt or reject the innovation (Lanyon, 1994).

In contrast, Participatory Assistance is a farmer/farm-centered process that seeks to ameliorate economic and environmental factors that may influence the behavior of researchers, change agents, and farmers during the development process and to determine the technical knowledge necessary for an innovation's use and adoption (Lanyon, 1994). Researchers, change agents, and farmers can share their perceptions and gain new insight into the development and subsequent use of an innovation.

Consequently, farmers, researchers, and change agents gain a better understanding of the innovation, thereby encouraging its adoption. By using this formative evaluation as part of the participatory process, an end user's satisfaction is likely to be increased (Mattocks & Steele, 1994; Lanyon 1994). In addition, researchers and change agents can obtain more timely feedback concerning an innovation's use, thus being able to learn new ways to modify and/or promote the innovation (Rosenberg, 1972).

Participatory assistance is more than just farmers participating in a disciplinary research project; learning is pursued by a series of experiences that may be repetitive and are based on involvement. This process emphasizes a farmer's participation in research, development, and implementation.

Some researchers (Emadi & Woog, 1994; Alonge & Martin, 1993) have suggested that other process-oriented educational methods should be considered where multifaceted problems have been associated with the Transfer of Technology. Alonge and Martin (1993) have also suggested that farmer involvement in technology development can promote an innovation's adoption, especially when dealing with the needs of resource-poor producers.

The Participatory Assistance process was applied to study an Extension education program conducted by Pennsylvania State Cooperative Extension Service (PSCE), Pennsylvania Crop Management Association (PCMA), and an agricultural consultant (AC) promoting the adoption of a soil nitrogen test innovation for corn called the Pre-Sidedress Nitrogen Test (PSNT).

Purpose and Objectives

This research describes and assesses the results of an Extension education program that promoted the adoption of the PSNT. Objectives were to: (a) identify factors and variables associated with use of the PSNT, (b) identify educational strategies associated with the adoption of the PSNT, and (c) describe a multi-faceted farmer decision-making model and its relationship to the participatory assistance approach based on factors associated with the use and adoption of PSNT.


A total of 26 farmers comprised three focus groups. Participants were identified by three different information sources used to disseminate educational programs about the PSNT: Penn State Cooperative Extension (PSCE); Pennsylvania Crop Management Association (PCMA); and a private agronomic consultant (AC). Focus group questions were based on Rogers' and Shoemaker's model of adoption (trialability, complexity, observability, relative advantage, and compatibility) (Rogers, 1983) and examined for content and face validity by five faculty members in the College of Agricultural Sciences. Participants in all groups were either adopters or nonadopters of the PSNT and were selected by respective change agents (PSCE, PCMA, AC) based on their representativeness of farming within their geographical areas.

Results of the focus groups were transcribed and analyzed using HyperQual[TM]. This computer software provided data analysis by utilizing an approach similar to factor analysis for organizing, and identifying qualitative data by theory, concepts, parameters, variables, attributes, commonality, ideals, and other modeling considerations (Padilla, 1991).

Descriptive survey research methodology was used to measure economic, technical, and social variables associated with the adoption and diffusion of the PSNT. The qualitative data from the three focus group interviews were used extensively in the design of the mailed survey that used multiple choice and scale type questions in order to identify and assess farmer's experiences, skills, attitudes, and knowledge of the PSNT.

The survey instrument was examined for content and face validity by five faculty members in the College of Agricultural Sciences. A pilot test (n = 14) of the instrument resulted in a Cronbach's alpha of .92 for experience, skills, and attitude scales, and .90 for information and knowledge scales.

For the mail survey, a random sample of 220 farmers was drawn from 515 adopters and non-adopters of the PSNT from 37 central and south central Pennsylvania counties. Three successive mailings of the survey resulted in a response of 61%. Six questionnaires were either undeliverable or unusable for an adjusted usable response rate of 58% (total responses = 127). Responses were statistically compared on key variables relating to demographic and adopter characteristics and no statistical differences (p > .05) were found between the respondents to the three mailings nor between the first mailing with the combination of second and third mailings.

Results and Discussion

Objective 1: Describe Factors and Variables Associated with Users of the PSNT.

Farmers' ages ranged from 24-75 years with a mean of 45 years. Virtually all of the farmers were male and almost half (45%) had completed high school; 10% had less than a high school education while the remainder had some post secondary education. Farming experience ranged from 5-60 years with a mean of 23 years. Sixty-two percent of the farmers had herds averaging 58 milking head with an average of 47 heifers. Sixty-five percent of the farmers did not have off-farm jobs. Almost 85% of the farmers were responsible for making their own major management decisions concerning the land they owned and operated. About 80% reported that they planted corn for grain on an average of 81 acres. About half of the farmers applied their own nitrogen and almost one-third indicated most of their nitrogen applications were made while side dressing.

All 127 farmers in the sample had used the PSNT. Based on a multiple response question (total responses = 352) which solicited farmers' preferences for using the PSNT, the top five preferences were: the ability to test and fine tune nitrogen applications (19%); saving money (18%); as a management tool to prevent nitrogen pollution in ground water (14%); the PSNT was inexpensive (14%); and PSNT reduced uncertainty about growing good crops (13%).

A multiple response question (total responses = 234) asked farmers why they did not like using the PSNT. Farmers reported that: reliability of the PSNT was questionable (23%); timing of the PSNT conflicted with other production practices (22%); taking soil samples was too difficult (12.5%); soil samples had to be dried (11%); and/or the PSNT did not reduce uncertainty (8.5%).

Data revealed that more than 75% of the farmers had not adhered to the following requirements for using the PSNT: soil samples were taken at improper depths (68%) or were taken from fields poorly drained (66%); soil samples were dried too late (53%); PSNT was performed when corn was taller than 12 inches (43%), or in fields injected with manure (13%).

Objective 2: Identify Strategies for Educational Program to Promote Adoption/Diffusion of PSNT.

Table 1
Information Sources Used by Farmers
(n = 100)
28 23 4 25 8 13
9 15 8 11 21 13
10 9 5 0 8 18
12 13 36 19 31 15
12 12 7 11 7 11
21 15 28 19 17 23
Ag Chemical
8 13 12 15 8 7

Table 1 reveals farmers' responses to six questions that attribute six descriptors to the information sources used for fertilizer application decisions, techniques, and products. Each question had a total of 100 usable responses that were converted to percentages in order to aid in the interpretation of the data. The most trustworthy source of information was university specialists (28%), followed closely by crop management consultants (21%), private consultants, and local dealers (12% each).

The most knowledgeable source of information was university specialists, with crop management consultants and county Extension agents scoring equally as the next most knowledgeable source. Agricultural chemical representatives (Ciba, Dupont, etc.) and local fertilizer dealers followed closely. The two information sources rated most available and convenient by farmers were the local dealer (36%) and crop management consultants (28%). University specialists (25%), local dealers (19%), and consultants (19%)were ranked as the top three up-to-date sources of information.

In summary, local dealers, county Extension agents, and crop management consultants were the most locally relevant sources of information. Crop management consultants were the most preferred source of information. The second most preferred source of information came from farmers' own experience and knowledge, followed by local dealers, county Extension agents, and university specialists.

Objective 3: Multi-faceted Farmer Decision Making Model.

The Participatory Assistance process was applied to both focus group and survey data. It revealed a conceptual model with seven multi-faceted variables, each possessing several dimensions of divergence where the decision-making process to adopt the technology could have a common point but extend in different directions. Rogers' and Shoemaker's (Rogers, 1983) model lacked a sufficient template to describe a complex and multi-faceted problem. The seven factors impacting the adoption decision were: (a) observability, (b) nitrogen usage, (c) opportunity costs, (d) production practices, (e) risk, (f) communication networks, and (g) technical efficiency. All factors varied in their magnitude and direction as to how the adoption decision was made. Therefore, multiple solutions arose as to the adoption decision.

The first factor, observability, is assessed by either peer pressure, profit (money) and/or productivity (yield). Peer pressure in this case emanated from the competitiveness that existed among and between farmers to have the best looking corn regardless of profit and/or productivity. Both profit and productivity were easily measured by check books or weigh wagons.

The second factor, nitrogen usage, was composed of either farmer attitudes, attempts to increase and secure profits, social responsibility, and/or threat of regulation. Most farmers varied widely in the magnitude and direction of these attributes and at times were inconsistent with their beliefs concerning the use of nitrogen. However, many farmers were concerned about how the community was perceiving their production practices and wanted to be deemed environmentally friendly.

The third factor, opportunity costs, was composed of labor and alternative crops. Often times the PSNT required labor to be expended on soil sampling and side dressing during a time when labor needed to be devoted to cutting, raking and baling hay or milking cows.

The fourth factor, production practices, was mainly composed of equipment availability, whether or not the farmer was set up to pre-apply or post-apply nitrogen, manure management practices, and soil type. Some farmers were either unaware of how to side dress or did not know how to incorporate side dressing in their production practices. In addition, some farmers were locked in as to their production practices and were unable to incorporate side dressing techniques.

The fifth factor, risk, included perceptions about feed supply, weather conditions, price, size of operation, debt, and attitude. Farmers indicated the need for securing a stable feed supply for their animals, while others were willing to make up potential crop losses by purchasing supplemental feed with cost savings. In addition, smaller farm operations tended to more risk averse than large operations. However, young farmers of small size operations tended to take on very risky practices in an attempt to quickly build equity.

The sixth factor, communication networks, often impacted the adoption decision. Farmers weighed information sources heavily for both reliability and content. Farmers tended to seek out information from a variety of sources which often affected their assessment of the previous five factors.

Finally, technical efficiency was a key factor that impacted all of the previous factors. Once the technology was trialed, it needed to perform as expected. Often times, the technology did not meet the expectations that farmers had established, such as increasing crop yields or increasing profit.

Conclusions and Implications

Farmers lacked economic information about the PSNT and this adversely impacted adoption decisions. Both focus group and survey results indicated that farmers rely on economic criteria for making an adoption decision. Many farmers based their assessment of the PSNT's economic usefulness on observable results, such as "saving me money" or "it was inexpensive to use." The PSNT did not always provide immediate and observable economic results in the field. Many farmers were skeptical that information about nitrogen usage leads to a reduction in their risk for growing a corn crop.

Inappropriate use of the technology and inadequate soil sampling skills resulted in poor credibility and reliability ratings (lack of technical efficiency) of the PSNT and adversely impacted the adoption decision. This information was quickly conveyed throughout a farmer's communication networks. Many farmers indicated that the PSNT tended to give results contrary to their expectations. This outcome was primarily due to farmers lacking the necessary knowledge and skills for correctly using the PSNT.

Communication networks impacted the adoption decision. Farmers tended to seek a variety of information sources before and during the adoption decision. Previous research (Sulaiman, Baggett & Yoder, 1993) indicates that information sources tend to significantly impact a farmer's adoption decision. Crop management consultants, local dealers, and private consultants were deemed as trustworthy sources of information and played a critical role in promoting the adoption of this agricultural innovation.

Besides crop management consultants, farmers preferred their own experiences and knowledge. Many times, farmers' experiences and knowledge are expanded due to interactions with other farmers. Consequently, improving communications networks among and between farmers may prove to have a significant impact on enhancing the efficacy of the adoption decision as well (Drost, Long, & Hales, 1998).

The PSNT resulted in "farm" effects that necessitated major changes in production practices for many farmers. Farmers had to be either engaged in compatible practices or make significant changes to adopt the PSNT. Due to the timing requirements of the PSNT, labor for soil sampling and testing was scarce. Had researchers known this, the innovation may have been developed to account for labor availability and the need to change production practices.

When confronted with a multi-faceted decision making problem, farmers engage in a holistic process in order to make an adoption decision. Lanyon (1994) supports this conclusion and also suggests that this holistic process of adoption tends to be largely ignored by researchers. To account for this holistic process, researchers may want to consider forming partnerships with farmers and change agents when developing and introducing an innovation. This could be done through many methods such as the use of advisory committees and one-on-one meetings with respective partners. When appropriate, these meetings and interactions could take place on farms or at sites where an innovation is to be considered for adoption. Consequently, the adoption of the innovation would likely be enhanced due to an increased understanding of farmers' needs and circumstances.


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