A common misconception of the American farmer is they have an ingrained stubbornness to resist change. That misconception couldn’t be further from the truth. American agriculture has rapidly transformed in the last century to be complex and remarkably efficient. The progression shows no signs of slowing down. Change is not isolated to urban food hubs and hydroponic grow rooms, but rather change is persistent even in our most rural agricultural communities. For most farmers, change is not a bad thing. Change is self-induced and offers farmers a way to increase their economic stability. Higher yields can be achieved by switching to crop varieties with improved genetics. Crop diversification allows farmers to minimize risk from underperforming markets, and input costs, like fertilizers and pesticides, can be reduced through the adoption of precision agriculture. Recent outcomes of change have also focused on improving agricultural sustainability and reducing environmental damage.
So how does change disperse through the agriculture industry? After a new product becomes available or a new practice discovered, it takes time for it to become widely implemented. Some farmers are eager to adopt the new practice, while others wait and closely watch those who have adopted it. As adopters experience success and that success is seen by others, the adoption spreads to more and more individuals. Social scientists define this process as the diffusion of innovations and characterize the first 2.5% of a population to adopt a new practice as innovators.
Diffusion of innovations can be applied to hemp cultivation in the United States. The legalization of hemp has provided American farmers an opportunity to adopt hemp as a new crop in their farming operations. The speed of hemp adoption among the greater agricultural community largely depends upon the success and fortitude of the innovators, the first 2.5% of farmers to incorporate hemp in their farming operations.
A research study conducted at Doane University in 2020 interviewed fourteen first-year hemp farmers to find common themes related to their motives to grow hemp, source of knowledge on hemp cultivation, growing challenges, growing success, and plans to continue growing the crop in the future. The results of this study inform support systems that can accelerate hemp adoption in the greater agriculture community.
It is no surprise that farmers reported economic incentives as a leading motive to grow hemp. However, other motives, such as a desire to increase crop diversification and improving environmental sustainability were seen. Farmers also had personal characteristics that aligned with their classification of being an innovator. The hemp farmers appreciated a good challenge, were attracted to the “newness” of the crop, and desired to be leaders within the agriculture industry.
A gap in knowledge and resources to guide farmers in their hemp operations was evident. Farmers turned to trusted resources from the state University Extension program, only to find limited resources, many of which were in the research and development phase. Extension programs from outside states with a more prolonged history of hemp cultivation were cited by farmers as a relied-upon resource. Yet, a large portion of farmers found themselves searching YouTube videos for assistance. The presence of networking with other like-minded hemp adopters allowed for the transfer of knowledge between a newfound and close-knit community.
Once again, showing characteristics of being an innovator, most farmers expected significant challenges during their first growing season. They were prepared for these challenges by implementing hemp in their operation on a minimal scale. They had a mindset that their first year was a learning opportunity to see what worked well and what didn’t work. Farmers described their most significant challenges as weed pressure, insect damage, lack of approved pesticides, stringent regulations, lack of infrastructure, and pollination from feral hemp. Several Nebraska farmers mentioned challenges stemming from the public’s stigma and misconception of hemp, including the inability to obtain funding from their banking institution, entanglement with local law enforcement, and frustration with state political leaders’ lack of support for hemp, despite the state’s agriculture-based economy.
Despite these challenges, a majority of farmers described their first year growing hemp as successful. They learned new techniques, became well-versed in hemp terminology, built strong networks with other growers, and learned what works and doesn’t work for them and their operation. While one farmer decided that growing hemp was simply not for them, a majority of farmers planned to continue growing hemp, and several anticipated expanding their operations.
The only thing consistent in agriculture is change. Hemp innovators are paving the way for the adoption of hemp in the greater agricultural community. We owe it to these leaders to listen to their voices, to understand and learn from their challenges, and to provide the support and resources needed for them to be successful. The potential for hemp to bring positive economic, social, and environmental change in agriculture is evident. What remains to be seen is the rate of wide-spread hemp adoption in diversified farming operations, and this rate is dependent upon the success of our innovators and early adopters.