Vol. 1 Issue 1

A Heritage in the Field of Agriculture
By Paul Roman

This might be the first sentence ever published that includes both the terms “farming” and “substance abuse treatment.”   It is the subject of technology transfer that brings these two terms together.  The conceptual and ideological structure of the technology transfer efforts in substance abuse treatment have in many ways followed earlier work that focused on the diffusion and adoption of new and improved farming practices.

There are some curious but I think accurate similarities between these two technology transfer movements.  First, both agriculture and substance abuse treatment embed issues of concern to nearly everyone.  We are all affected by success or failure in both of these areas of endeavor. 

Thus, in a general sense, the two activities are seen as forms of “public utilities.”  This does not mean that there is no profit or entrepreneurship that drives activity in both fields.   It is that the public supports the use of tax dollars to keep these activities viable, and perhaps supports their operation at a high level of both efficacy and efficiency.

The parallels become evident in that the efforts to encourage technology transfer in both of these fields have been supported by public dollars.  This support, while it has changed in scope and content in agriculture, is likely to continue indefinitely.   However, while the technology transfer activity in substance abuse treatment is only a couple of decades old, these activities in agriculture go back nearly 100 years. 

- Federal Support for Technology Transfer -

Specifically, the efforts to create and diffuse new technology in substance abuse treatment are supported in two ways at the Federal level.  The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) underwrites the majority of the research that leads to the development and testing of new treatment technologies, while the ATTC Network, with support from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), supports technology transfer.  These two sets of efforts come together at several different points, including the Blending Products Initiative and the Clinical Trials Network. 

In a parallel fashion, combinations of Federal and state tax dollars, together with commercial interests, support research on new agricultural technology that occurs in each state’s agricultural experiment station and college of agriculture.  Technology transfer is manifest at the local level through the Cooperative Extension Service, the funding for which is a complicated combination of public dollars from the federal, state and local levels. 

This would lead to the suggestion that technology transfer in substance abuse treatment has much to learn from what has happened in agriculture.  And unlike the secretive and highly competitive culture that underlies much research and development in business and industry, both research and development and technology transfer in agriculture and substance abuse are regarded as being in the public interest.

- "Agricultural Fundamentalism" -

A fascinating concept of “agricultural fundamentalism” may offer insights into some parallels with substance abuse treatment.   The historian, Gilbert Fite*, describes this idea as embodying the notion that growing up and living on a farm produces good virtues such as underlining the work ethic and teaching young people both responsibility as well as a comprehensive set of skills to get through life.   The fundamental farming unit in America was historically the family farm, centered on a family-based division of labor, the father directing the work with land and animals and the mother running the household.  As soon as they could walk, children were assigned “chores” that became more extensive as they grew older, with the boys learning farming from their father and the girls learning homemaking from their mothers. 

Thus, the key element in this fundamentalism was the family farm and the societal desire to uphold and sustain this social institution.  The societal consensus behind the importance of the family farm stemmed from the fact that nearly all Americans who were not still on the farm were descended from farming stock, either from their family members who had moved to an urban area or from their immigrant forebears who came from agricultural backgrounds in Europe.  Further, for most of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th century, representatives from rural America dominated the legislative process at both the state and the national level.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that Secretary of Defense, Charles Wilson, reflecting upon the company where he had been president, quipped, “What’s good for General Motors is good for the nation.”  Up until that time, and probably well after that time, the general sentiment among most Americans was, “what’s good for the family farm is good for the nation.”

- Gap in Farming Technologies -

The Agricultural Extension Service was established after the Agricultural Experiment Stations had been in existence for several decades in many states, and longer than this in others.  There was a distinctive “gap” between the improved farming technologies that scientists in the experiment stations had discovered and the technologies utilized by most farmers (sound familiar?).  Further, as was increasingly evident from the turn of the century, many farmers lived in marginal circumstances, able to survive from year to year only because they used family members for labor, produced much of their own food and could barter for other necessities. 

This lowered standard of living threatened the sustained existence of the family farm, making the relative ease and predictability of city life and factory work attractive to youth raised under the marginal and stressful conditions found on many farms.  Thus, the Extension Service swung into action to both enhance the quality of life for all through improved farm production, but also by improving farm income through the adoption of improved technologies that had been developed to benefit farmers’ productivity and income, but which were not being adopted and used. 

The dynamics of this technology transfer are documented in what turned out to be the most influential study of “diffusion” that has ever been published, by Bryce Ryan and Neal Gross* in the journal, Rural Sociology in 1943.   Here I abbreviate the story as told by Everett M. Rogers in his book, Diffusion of Innovations.  

Hybrid seed corn had been developed at the Iowa Agricultural Experiment Station in 1928.  It was seen as a critical new idea because its use demonstrated 20 percent improvements in corn crop yields.  By the mid-1930s, many farmers had adopted the use of hybrid seed corn, but a very large number had not, despite the best efforts by the Iowa Agricultural Extension Service. It was not until the end of the decade that hybrid seed corn use was clearly the norm.  Ryan and Gross undertook to figure out why the process moved so slowly in one of the first studies of technology transfer. 

They interviewed a sample of 259 Iowa farmers who were using hybrid seed to find out when they had adopted the new seed corn, and from whom they had learned about it.  While the study had many findings, two findings are outstanding for our attempted linkage of these events to technology transfer in substance abuse treatment. 

First, it is critical to understand the nature of prior practice.  Seed corn was  traditionally a product of the prior year’s corn crop.  Using his own experience, the farmer identified the corn plants that appeared to be the most hardy and produced the highest yield.  It was not necessary to identify a large number of plants for seed since each ear carries a large number of kernels, and a good plant will have multiple ears. 

As a result, using skills gained from experience, the farmer grew corn crops that were essentially inbred by following what appeared to be “nature’s way.”  By contrast, hybrid seed had to be purchased at the feed store, and to assure best yields, needed to be replaced with newly purchased seed each year. 

- Hybrid Corn Required Investment -

Thus, while there was the promise of improved yields, hybrid seed corn presented the need for a cash investment “up front” that was a heavy demand on many cash-poor farmers.  Further, the new procedure essentially took the farmers and their talents at choosing the best plants for seed “out of the loop,” replaced by the products developed by “experts” somewhere up the road in Ames.  The skepticism was deep.  Ryan and Gross reported that many farmers experimented with small plots based on hybrid seed before they finally convinced themselves to move toward full adoption. 

The second finding of great interest was that for most of the farmers who adopted hybrid seed corn, the most important influence was the experience of other farmers.  The early adopters were influenced by salespeople and by the Extension Service, but eventually the diffusion process took on a life of its own, moving toward the well-known “tipping point” after which it became institutionalized behavior.

While these findings might seem rather pedestrian today, they were very important in retrospect.  It is interesting to look at the diffusion of the Ryan and Gross findings themselves, for the explosion of studies of the diffusion of farm practices by rural sociologists did not begin until nearly a decade later in the 1950s. 

The Ryan and Gross study, 65 years later, underlines the importance of the “change behavior” that is expected in technology transfer.  For those who adopted hybrid seed corn before it became widely accepted, it was necessary to abandon a cherished practice that tapped into one’s own expertise, and thus affirmed one’s own authority.  Further, even though the cost of purchasing seed may have seemed trivial when matched to the expected yield, it was seen as a gamble and perhaps an irrational gamble on the parts of many of those who were “in front of the curve.”

Hopefully there will be other opportunities to turn back to the literature on agricultural innovation and especially to look very closely at some of the ideas of Everett Rogers.  This well-established specialty may offer “lessons learned,” as the currently most popular catch-phrase goes, and it may also suggest “lessons to be learned” and “lessons never learned.”

For Additional Reading:

Gilbert C. Fite. 1962. "The Historical Development of Agricultural Fundamentalism in the 19th Century," Journal of Farm Economics 44: 1203-1211.

Bryce Ryan and Neal C. Gross. 1943. "The Diffusion of Hybrid Seed Corn in Two Iowa Communities"  Rural Sociology 8: 15-24.

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