Aspirations lead to innovation

Producers with the largest farm receipts aren’t necessarily the most innovative. 


Rather, it’s the farmers and livestock operators who are starting or expanding their businesses who are most likely to adopt new products and production, marketing and management techniques, says Eric Micheels of the University of Sask-atchewan. 


Micheels, a professor in the university’s department of bioresource policy, business and economics, is studying the absorptive capacity of agricultural producers, which means their ability to apply new knowledge.


Earlier this year, he oversaw a survey of 500 Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba producers. While a small sample, the results begin to paint a picture of the innovators within western Canadian agriculture.


He said the results could benefit policy-makers and those working in agricultural extension to speed the transfer of knowledge throughout the sector.


“This absorptive capacity seemed to really almost replace the importance on farm size,” said Micheels. 


“That’s not significant, if you just look at sales. Basically, sales is a result of the innovation. It’s the result of the actions that farmer has taken. It’s not necessarily a driver.”


The survey, which defined innovation as “a change in routine” within the last three years, found that early adopters operate larger farms with more employees, have larger social networks, attend workshops and work with consultants. Age wasn’t a factor. 


“It’s basically where do you see your farm in five years, 10 years? If you’re on this expansion path, then you’re probably going to be casting a wider net,” said Micheels. 


“If I’m on this plan to get bigger, I have to be more efficient. I have to do all these other things.”


Aspirations matter, he said. 


“You could be the most inefficient farmer and if you’re happy with that, you’re not going to innovate. And if you’re still able to make a living and make your payments and do everything else, you can farm like that forever,” he said.


The survey found that new cultivars and crop types were more likely to be adopted than new livestock breeds. 


Weed, pest, disease and soil management techniques and new farm equipment were the most adopted innovations. 


“Some farmers are really good at getting the crop out of the ground. They don’t really care so much about the marketing, and vice versa,” said Micheels. 


“I think that the most successful farms are the ones that really understand their strengths and how to outsource what maybe isn’t their strength.”


It’s where farm meetings and a few friends, as well as paid consultants, can help. 


“One thing that I found is the use of consultants tends to contribute more than just coffee row,” he said. 


“So there you have a farmer that’s making that investment.”


The survey offers a snapshot of a three-year period, which means it may have missed producers who made significant changes to their farm outside of that window. 


Micheels said he would like to replicate the survey again in the future.

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