A no-till farming method called the Direct Planting System (DPS) is one of the most important developments in agriculture in the past decades. Farmers who adopt the DPS produce higher crop yields at a lower cost while generating lower carbon emissions from their farming, outcomes that benefit both farmers and the climate. Adoption of the DPS does not have any relevant upfront costs and results in more reliable yields than traditional farming.

However, nearly forty years after the introduction of the DPS in Southern Brazil (in 1971), adoption levels remain very low throughout the country: Only 10% of Brazilian farmers reported using the system in 2006 and the adoption rate is the same for both small farmers and large-scale operations. Given the unambiguous advantage to farmers of the DPS, this low adoption suggests there is some kind of barrier to the spread of this method.

In this study, we find that social learning — i.e. farmers learning new methods from their neighbors and peers — plays a major role in the spread of the DPS. We also find that in any given municipality in Brazil, similarities or dissimilarities in soil composition directly affect social learning, and thus, uptake of the technology: The more similar the soil within a municipality, the easier the spread of social learning. This is particularly true for areas with intermediate levels of DPS adoption where there are enough farmers to share their knowledge with their peers.

Finally, we find that other ways in which the DPS spreads (such as formal training) reinforce social learning mechanisms as they raise DPS adoption to intermediate levels. 

These results have two direct policy implications:

  • First, in order to increase agricultural productivity, it is not sufficient for policy to address innovation, develop business models, and marginally subsidize adoption. It must also disseminate information on new techniques and their associated technologies. Our results suggest that an itinerant training process, moving across municipalities over time, can support the spread of knowledge and adoption. In fact, one of the alternative channels of dissemination shown to have an impact is a private training center — Clube da Minhoca — run by the Brazilian Federation of Direct Planting, that works temporarily in municipalities where the DPS has low adoption levels. Our analysis suggests that public policy could follow this private sector example, to raise DPS adoption levels to where the technique can more easily spread through social learning.
  • Second, the impact of such efforts is decisively affected by soil composition in any given municipality. Where soils are more similar, learning from peers becomes easier, and thus efforts to increase adoption can provide an initial spark that is then fueled by social learning. It follows that public policy should take into account geographic diversity and first target areas where social learning can go farthest in order to be as cost-effective as possible.



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