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What is the future of Australian agricultural extension?

- Monday, February 18, 2013

What is the future of agricultural extension in Australia given the gradual starvation of funding by state governments and the increased reliance of farmers on private sector advisors? What should the Australian extension ‘model’ look like in ten years if the aim is to maximise agricultural productivity and profitability?

These are questions that the Australian Farm Institute put to David Pannell and Sally Marsh of the University of Western Australia, and Mike Stephens, President of the Agriculture Institute Australia and Consultant with Mike Stephens and Associates. Their responses have been published in the Institute's quarterly Insights newsletter, released this week.

In the In My View section of the newsletter, David Pannell and Sally Marsh argue that although widespread cut-backs in public-sector funding will not be reversed, the public sector still has a role to play. They believe that improving information flows, whilst focusing on  issues with knowledge gaps and economic benefits is the key to successful public extension.

On the other hand, Mike Stephens believes that in future the major funding for extension services will need to come from a user pays system, with 'self-directed farmer groups' having an increasing role to play.

Read more here.

How do you foresee the future of Australian agricultural extension? What is the preferred way for farmers to benefit from extension services? Do you also think that farmers will have to engage more time and money to benefit from good extension?  

What is your opinion?

Jim Moll commented on 18-Feb-2013 03:50 PM
Agricultural government extension services are no doubt drying up --and will continue to do so over the next 10 years. Regional groups like the Birchip Cropping group and Southern Farming Systems, which have a R&D and extension structure focusing on issues in their own regions, would, I believe, be a good extension model to adopt. For this to happen, any existing Government funding would obviously need to be diverted from the current avenues, including the addition of industry and federal R&D funding for more regional R,D& E positions. Extension services need to be funded together with R&D. You cannot have one without the other.
Bruce Howie commented on 26-Feb-2013 05:22 PM
It is important to understand the goal of extension is practice change or change in behaviour. It could be argued that extension is simply the delivery of information and informed farmers will determine on the evidence whether they should change practice or not. Whilst informed non-adoption is a reasonable outcome, if we are honest about extension it is not really the desired outcome. As stated by Pannell & Marsh in their commentary, ‘Extension efforts should be focused on issues for which there would be substantial benefits to farmers from changing their practices…’

If, therefore, the goal is adoption then there is something missing from the vision of the future presented in these articles. They both deal well with the concept of information delivery and how that might evolve into the future. However, adoption or practice change is a decision that is bound up, not just in the evidence but also in the connection that evidence makes with the values and culture of the decision-maker.

It is a normal human response that when the evidence aligns with our values and we use those values to guide our decisions, we feel more comfortable with the actions we take. Farmers are no different. Whilst we will always want to ensure evidence-based decisions, if we lose sight of the human aspects of practice change there is a danger that we get stuck in information delivery mode.

Information, in one form or another, will always appeal to the information seekers and digital technologies along with social media are finding their place in a whole new generation of information seekers. But how are we reaching out with extension to those whose decision-triggers are embedded in values other than their passion for the facts? How do we capture their interest so that they are drawn to the information that will underpin a decision based on the evidence?

For me, that is what is missing. The capacity within our extension efforts to recognise common values and connect our research to them. We focus extension around the tools and the various options we have for information delivery. Information rules. We throw the technically competent and bright young agronomists into extension, never having thought that they need human skills in reading their client’s interests, understanding their motivations and drivers, or how to communicate to the wider audience of those who don’t have the natural inclination to seek out solutions.

That’s why participatory research and farmer-to-farmer methodologies work – because they connect through shared values.

For me, extension in the future must be much broader in its appeal. Of course it must use the emerging tools and new models discussed in the articles. But more than that, it must be channeled through skilled personnel who are not only technically competent but have the human skills to reach into the hearts and minds of the broader farming community and fire them up with a passion and desire for change.

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