Rayner Reckons

Jun 05

Nice to know, or need to know?

Posted on Thursday, June 05, 2014

This morning I was listening to a radio interview on the opportunities for careers in agriculture.  The person being interviewed talked about the wide varieties of roles there were in agriculture and in particular the roles for people to give farmers new information from the research and science being done in agriculture.   

I've been thinking about that interview for a few hours now!  I admit I was troubled by some of the points this person made in the interview.  I agree there are exciting and amazing opportunities in agriculture to build a rewarding and fulfilling career and life. 

I'm struggling with the assumptions made by this person that helping farmers is just about giving them information or the results of scientific studies.  This person was obviously talking about the role for people to build a career in agricultural extension.  To simply describe extension as taking research and giving it to farmers is pretty outdated and doesn't reflect what agricultural extension should be.  I also think its pretty insulting to farmers. 

Over 50 years ago, extension used to be described in this way.  Farmers were seen to be devoid of knowledge of best production practices and desperate for new research.  The extension process was seen as a way of filling farmers full of new knowledge and better practices.  

This then lead to people describing farmers as being innovative, or early adopters, or laggards when they didn't take on the new ideas.

The worst thing about these labels, I reckon, is the unfairness of them.  In their lives people make decisions about how to go about things, based on a range of reasons.  These include the information or knowledge you have.  But it is also the practical application of knowledge, the time it takes to do something, how much it might cost or what has to be given up to do something new.  

Its no different for someone deciding on a new TV or a new way to do business.  These motivations underpin why people do what they do and when they do it.

In agricultural extension terms, there are two things we can do.  We can make people aware of new information.  Or we can work with producers and others to put new information into practice.  

I get worried by people who think all that needs to be done is to tell farmers about new information and thats all that they need to do.  I call that the nice to know approach!  Field days, seminars and newsletters are handy ways to share the nice to know things.  

There's a huge difference between nice to know and need to know!

The stuff that is need to know are the practical things to make information work properly, safely and efficiently!

Things like:  

  • How do I feed this product - not just how much?
  • Will this feed effect my market strategy?
  • What do I put on the Vendor Declaration?
  • Can I do it this way instead because I don't want to buy new equipment..

The list of need to know questions can be quite long with new research, or it can be really straightforward.  The thing is, the need to know part of extension is pretty important.  It takes trust in the person helping you.  It also means trusting the farmer you are working with to share their thoughts and actions, so you know you are getting it right!  

You have to understand the practicalities of someones business and the realities of the industry which can be very different to an academic or theoretical understanding.

So what does this mean really?  I guess it means that if you want to build a career in agriculture based on sharing knowledge and information, you will have to be able to do more than just run a field day and promote the nice to know information.  It takes time to build knowledge and experience so you can work to share the need to know with farmers and industry.  

For farmers, I think the bigger challenge will be finding people you can trust to work with you on the need to know subjects. I'm continuing to work with many producers on these subjects.  Each time we do a job, I know a little bit more of the need to know things, which in turn grows to help everyone I work with in the future.

I think listening to that interview today reenforced my desire to be the person farmers turn to when they are looking for someone to help make changes in their businesses.  I want to keep being the "need to know" advisor.  As long as I keep doing that, I reckon the people paying me to work in their businesses will continue to get the service they want and need, and I can keep my rewarding and fulfilling career in agriculture.


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