Innovation and the Resistance to Change in Agriculture
I spent some time talking to my father this past week about what he knew of life in the early 1900s. I asked him questions about Dr. W.E. Taylor’s book Soil Culture and Modern Farm Methods and was somewhat surprised by his response. His ancestors were not doing much of what Taylor talked about because even if they knew of it, it was likely impractical for them to implement.
The process of innovation is often very slow. Taylor and his fellow researchers had great ideas, but convincing farmers to adopt those ideas and giving them the tools to put them into action was not an easy task. When faced with a new idea, it is always easier to go back to what you know than to take the risk of trying something new and failing. This, combined with the expense of implementing the new ideas and technologies, meant many farmers went back to their comfort zone even if they heard of a new idea.
This resistance to change and lack of knowledge about new research was a huge reason why more educated people (often from the city) dismissed farmers as “dumb.” The need for education among farmers promoted the creation of resources such as the magazine Successful Farming, which was first published in 1902, and Hoard’s Dairyman, first published in 1885.
I’ve taken a fairly extensive look at Taylor’s book for this blog. Does its content accurately represent what life was like on the farm in the 1910s? Most likely, no. For many reasons, the innovative ideas Taylor talks about were likely either ignored completely, never heard, or deemed too overwhelming or impractical to adopt fully.
Why is that? Innovation has so many barriers to it and not just in agriculture.
I recently heard a statistic that it takes approximately 15 years for new medical breakthroughs to become mainstream. Why? It takes time for the new knowledge to trickle down through the entire medical system. If the new breakthrough is introduced when a doctor begins their schooling, they still won’t be practicing for 8 years and, by then, the understanding of even that one breakthrough will have changed tremendously. New knowledge simply takes time to catch on.
When we apply this concept to agriculture 100 years ago, we can see why adopting innovation was so slow. Information was much less available, and, unless farmers actively chose to be cutting-edge, they were too busy trying to survive life on the farm and make ends meet to be swaying too drastically from what their parents did.
It is not at all surprising why Taylor’s writing often carries a tone of frustration. He’s seeing what the farmers are doing and knows there is a better way. He would have loved to see an immediate, dramatic shift, but that is not how innovation usually takes root. Ultimately, Taylor was fighting an uphill battle.
For more on Dr. W.E. Taylor’s book Soil Culture and Modern Farm Methods, check out the following articles: