Rayner Reckons

Feb 27

A new direction for agricultural extension

Posted on Thursday, February 27, 2014

Over the past two weeks I've had a chance to undertake several farm visits to discuss feeding, cow selection, early weaning calves as well as preg testing a number of breeding groups.  I've also been able to work with Landcare to present drought management advice at workshops which all up attracted around 200 people. Its been busy and very rewarding.

In the time I've spent travelling to and from these events, I've been thinking about the way extension services are changing, particularly in Australian agriculture.  My background in in extension, which inspired me to undertake a Masters of Philosophy to research how extension methods impact on the decisions by farmers to adopt new technologies.

I reckon a lot of people don't really understand extension.  It surprised me a lot when doing my research and when working for NSW DPI, just how varied peoples understanding of extension was!

In broad terms extension is the term used to describe the way which agricultural science is shared, used, and refined by both farmers and scientists.  Extension can describe the basic one to one sharing of ideas between farmers and scientists, through to field days demonstrating a technology or an outcome, or to the process of working with a group of people to test and adapt ideas to suit the real world.

I reckon what many people overlook is extension is not just about knowing about science or agricultural technologies. 

And its not just about the ability to bring farmers together to join a discussion group or to arrange and hold a field day. 

The people who work in agricultural extension are able to blend a range of skills together.  They have to be practical people who understand and can empathise with both scientists and researchers as well as the farmers who actually use technologies every day.  They need to be able to listen and learn from others and be willing to share advice.  I reckon they need to be able to work in a range of ways to best share ideas and information.

In the past agricultural extension has been seen to be a service or a role which is freely available to farmers.  I don't know that that is really a practical option for agriculture in todays environment.  

Having worked as a government extension officer for 17 years and as an independent provider of extension serves for a year, I reckon the change to extension as a paid service will become much more accepted and utilised in Australian agriculture. 

I reckon this is the case for a few reasons.  Firstly todays farmers and graziers are working to achieve much more specific outcomes for their enterprises. Sourcing reelable farm labour is more challenging, which means farmers are more discerning about how they invest their time in obtaining new information and advice.

I also reckon farmers want to find the advice, support or input they want to address their specific needs. In recent years as a government extension officer, it was much harder to provide a tailored level of advice for individual farmers, which was as frustrating for me as it was for farmers looking for that support.

So what does that really mean for agriculture in Australia?  Well I reckon it doesn't mean the end of activities like field days or discussion groups or any of the other activities which we have used to share ideas and develop new and exciting directions for our industries.

What I do reckon will happen is we will become more used to looking for and paying for a service which provides the tailored or specific information sharing needed for todays agricultural businesses.

It may be  more producers joining research and extension groups which co-share in research and extension with support funding from industry R & D bodies.  It probably also means producers will be more comfortable using provide providers of knowledge and advice.  As someone building a business in this area, I have to say I hope so!  

However it develops,  I reckon as an agricultural sector we have to acknowledge that good extension doesn't just happen and shouldn't be expected to be freely provided.  A small investment by individuals to obtain specialised information, advice and support can often return significant results in the way a business operates. 

I reckon valuing extension is the new direction and I'm pretty confident the people who see the value and invest in those skills will be the ones who will achieve the greatest returns.


Anonymous commented on 03-Mar-2014 06:07 PM
Good thoughts Al. I suspect that around 70% of applied agricultural extension is carried out by various components of the private sector. This will almost certainly increase as the LLS system in NSW develops. Their people are describing themselves as "facilitators " and this is an important area that the LLS could well occupy. State governmentshave been looking at various ways of diminishing their role in extension for many years. The LLS model is probably an outcome of some years deliberations.
This underlines the need for the various extension providers to improve communications to bridge government / private sector workers.

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