Farmers have many reasons for ignoring expert advice

Why do farmers often ignore expert advice?

That’s a question that buzzes around in many experts’ minds as they spend years and decades urging farmers to follow various types of well-informed, well-grounded advice and then see farmers generally not follow that advice.

You hear it occasionally in crop marketing and hedging circles, where advisers and brokers and newsletter writers ponder the slim take-up of their learned suggestions by the farmers they talk to. Some of those farmers pay for the advice and then don’t seem to use it.

It doesn’t seem to make sense.

This subject came up last week at the Canola Discovery Forum, although it was about agronomic advice and not marketing.

Murray Hartman, an oilseeds specialist and Alberta Agriculture alumnus, was looking at the phenomenon of farmers often growing canola in far tighter rotations than virtually all agronomists, researchers and scientists recommend, even when they start seeing the impact of clubroot in their fields.

Why would that be, when all sorts of research suggests that farmers not do that?

He went through yield data that made the costs of too-tight rotations obvious, but then compared that data to price and profitability data. A different picture emerged, with lower canola yields sometimes more profitable than the results provided by other crops in a longer rotation.

How about the value of simplicity of production, management and finance? A simpler rotation can bring benefits not showing up in yields.

And the results showing up in crop plots and small studies might not reflect what farmers are actually seeing.

Where I think Hartman got this completely right is in recognizing that an apparently simple agronomic decision like how frequently to grow canola is actually an exceedingly complex decision in the real world of farming. Agronomy is just part of the puzzle farmers need to piece together every growing season. Clubroot risk has to be balanced against other forms of risk.

“There are sometimes other things going on,” he noted.

Amen.

The farmer has to look at not just the theoretical risk and impact of clubroot, but also the relative returns of other crops, the management demand and financial costs of running extra lines of equipment, and then weigh those against the reality he sees on his own farm.

It’s great to get the expert advice and consider it. It’s always worth considering whether you could be doing things better.

But when it comes to which expert the farmer is most likely to listen to, it’ll almost always be the expert closest to the farm, which is himself.

Experts tend to be experts in one small thing, but the farmer has to balance expert advice in multiple areas. That’s the kind of expert the successful farmer has to become: an expert at balancing expert opinions.

After all, the farmer is the only expert who has all his skin in the game.

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