As food producers do you connect with the broader community? I know many farmers, and for that matter, people in country Australia feel there is a disconnection between the farm and the plate.
In some ways there is a huge disconnection. Society as a whole has changed so rapidly that we are all grappling with the challenges in our daily lives. People have moved closer to large centers for work. Increased mechanization and efficiencies on farms mean less people have direct jobs in agriculture. So somewhere along the way a gap has opened between the farm and the people.
While we often talk about this disconnect, I reckon we often overlook there is a deep interest and support from the broader community for farming. In my work I’m often asked to speak about farming to the broader community. I always come away feeling there is a deep desire to understand more about farming, its challenges, its rewards, and more importantly I sense a real value for farming among the people I talk to.
One of the more important roles of the Sydney Royal Easter Show is to showcase agriculture to the broader urban communities. The livestock pavilions and the district exhibits are consistently rated as the most important attractions to the public.
So, as a farming community or as an individual producer, how can we connect to our consumers and meet their interest in our business? I guess there are plenty of ways that we do this. I did mention our traditional activities such as the Easter Show. But its just as important to see the local show as part of this connection.
Increasingly I see farmers sharing their stories through social media. There are Facebook pages, twitter accounts, and Instagram posts showing the variety of a day in Australian agriculture. I personally enjoy the blogs from the contributors from Central Station.
These are great ways of sharing stories. However I think the next step will be to show our skills as producers and business operators. I think this may happen through the connection of our farm data with other data sources.
If you think of the demand for traceability and food safety, there is a great story for us to share. The challenge is to link our on farm QA records with our industry systems like the NVD system and with processor information and present it to the consumer as a whole of life story.
This week a company called Aglive (www.aglive.com) showed me their progress in linking our on farm data with industry QA systems and processor information. I have to say I think systems like these will be part of how we connect with our consumers. True I think they will still want to see our stock at the show, read our stories and see our pictures on line. However I reckon these connections will become stronger as they start to see the things we do on farm with the data we capture being used to sow how clean and safe our food systems are.
I think the next few years will be pretty exciting, and hopefully see a narrowing of the gap between farms and consumers as we share what we do in new and engaging ways.
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.
I'm very passionate about sharing information, ideas and advice which can help producers run their businesses in a better way. I was told once by a farmer that there are not many ways in which you can save $100, but if you can find 100 ways to save $1 you will come out in front!
I reckon that's not a bad piece of advice. Finding ways to save a dollar or to be more efficient with the money you invest in your business is a rewarding part of my job. I also get a big lift when I can share an experience or an idea I've seen somewhere which can be used to make an impact on someones operation or to solve a new problem.
In the last few years I've been using social media to share some of those ideas, experiences and images. I reckon one of the great things with Twitter or Facebook is the chance to share events as they are happening. Good decisions come about from accurate and timely information. I reckon if I can highlight cattle in a paddock, or an event as it happens, then I've helped producers access that information more quickly and efficiently which might help them make a better decision for their business.
The other great thing with social media has been a chance to connect with new people who have ideas and experiences with similar challenges to the producers I work with. Being able to share ideas and experiences isn't just good for decision making, but its also important to keep us connected.
In the last few months I've delivered several workshops with producers to work through the opportunities to connect and share their experiences and ideas through social media. While I've really enjoyed the workshops, I've got so much more pleasure seeing and reading their stories long after the workshops. It helps me feel connected and involved and every now and then it gives me an idea which I know I can use to help someone else.
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