Public-sector agricultural extension: what should it look like in 10 years?

For this section the Institute invites comments from two differing policy viewpoints. In this February edition of farm institute insights, David J Pannell and Sally P Marsh, from School of Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of WA and Mike Stephens, the President of the Ag Institute Australia, and Consultant with Mike Stephens and Associates, ponder the questions:

What is the future of agricultural extension in Australia given the gradual starvation of funding by state governments and the increased reliance of landholders on private sector advisors?

What should the Australian extension ‘model’ look like in 10 years if the aim is to maximise agricultural productivity and profitability?

Readers can continue the discussion on the Institute’s blog.

 

David J Pannell and Sally P Marsh

School of Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Western Australia

Our focus is on what should happen in the public sector, on the grounds that it is not helpful to ask what ‘should’ happen in the private sector. The private sector will develop in response to commercial opportunities available to them, irrespective of what we might think should happen.

To set the context, here are some predictions about the environment within which extension will operate. Agriculture will continue to change in response to technology, markets and climate. Cutbacks we have seen in funding for public-sector agricultural extension will not be reversed and may continue. The dismantling of extension infrastructure and capacity in the public sector has gone too far for it to be reversed without major new public investments, and we don’t foresee those occurring. Private sector capacity in extension will continue to grow – including extension provided by purchasers of agricultural products (eg dairy, horticulture, sugar), input suppliers (eg fertiliser, feeds) and farm management specialists. There will be continuing increases in the average size of farms, and in the number of corporate farms, with resulting growth in the vertical integration of information services (= ‘extension’) into farm businesses. There will continue to be growth in the use of advanced information and communication technologies in agriculture, providing information to farmers in novel ways. Falling numbers of graduates from agricultural programs could create a serious challenge to extension services (public and private) to obtain employees with the required knowledge and skills.

In this context, is there a need for ongoing public investment in agricultural extension? We believe that there is. Public-sector agricultural extension can continue to play important roles that address various market failures. One key role is to foster two-way information flows between researchers and farmers. Information flow from farmers to researchers is needed to ensure that the research conducted will be beneficial to farmers and likely to be adopted by them. Some researchers already have sufficiently strong relationships with their farmer audience not to need this sort of help from extension agents, but many others don’t. The traditional role of extension agents in promoting uptake of beneficial new research results (technologies, systems and practices) should continue. We do not share the negative view of technology transfer that seems to exist among some theorists of extension. We believe that technology transfer and approaches such as participatory research and farmer-to-farmer learning are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, these latter approaches, as part of a broad portfolio of extension methods, can make valuable contributions to the success of technology transfer in appropriate circumstances. Farmer groups and organisations such as the Grower Group Alliance (www.gga.org.au) have key roles to play in this process.

Given that public budgets for extension are unlikely to grow, and may shrink further, it will be crucial for public extension services to take a more business-like approach to prioritising their activities than they have commonly done in the past. Extension efforts should be focused on issues for which there would be substantial benefits to farmers from changing their practices, especially if those new practices would also generate benefits for the broader community (eg environmental benefits). Extension would not focus on practices that farmers already have good knowledge about and have decided not to adopt, because non-adoption is a clear signal that the practices do not generate large enough private benefits. The heterogeneity of farms and farmers should be recognised when looking at reasons for non-adoption. This more sophisticated approach to planning extension effort will require greater collection and analysis of information.

As important as social media and other modern communication methods will be, public extension should not rely on them exclusively, but should maintain a level of face-to-face communication. Farming is already socially isolating for some farmers, and with declining farmer numbers this may become a more widespread issue. It is likely that farmers will always put a high value on personal contact in extension.

Finally, we note that, in the past 20 years, public sector extension has been prominent in supporting natural resource management (NRM) policy for agriculture. It has been the go-to policy response of most government NRM programs. Unfortunately, these programs have often funded extension efforts without asking fundamental questions, such as: are the practices we wish to promote actually adoptable by farmers? A more thoughtful, selective and evidence-based use of extension is needed in this policy context.

David Pannell is Winthrop Professor in Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Western Australia, Director of the Centre for Environmental Economics and Policy, an ARC Federation Fellow and a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia. David’s research has won awards in the US, Australia, Canada and the UK.  

Sally Marsh is Assistant Professor with the School of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Western Australia, but is now largely retired. Her research interests include extension policy, theory and practice; policy review and analysis; and capacity building for regional NRM.

 

The future of agriculture extension

 

Mike Stephens

President of the Ag Institute Australia, and Consultant with Mike Stephens and Associates

The art of good extension is to take bits of information and transform and transmit them into knowledge for the collective benefit of the industry. (Anonymous)

There are five important questions to be answered as a subset to broader questions about the future of agricultural extension in Australia:

1.    What information results and systems need extending?

2.    How will the extension be delivered?

3.    How will it be funded?

4.    Who will the audience be?

5.    Who will drive extension?

But first some history.

The extension concept was developed by the Land Grant Universities in the United States. Those universities were charged with the triple responsibilities of researching, teaching students and ‘extending’ that knowledge to the broader farming community, the term extension only started to gain currency in Australia in the late 1960s. Before then district officers who specialised in sheep and wool, cropping, dairy and other subjects worked at local research stations and district offices. Much of their work was underpinned by government policies of land clearing, water conservation and increased food and fibre production.

In the 1960s district officers gradually morphed into extension officers. Extension services started to come under pressure as the market economy flourished from the 1980s. This was followed by a mantra of privatisation. Australia needs to keep both the challenge and opportunities of the Asian Century and global population in perspective. Ruthven (2012) asserts that if Australia increased its agricultural production fivefold it would feed 3% of the Asian population. In addition, the ‘extension market’ needs to be segmented because 39% of Australia’s total farm income is earned by 2601 businesses (Findlay 2012).

What information results systems need extending?

If Australia is going to accept the challenge of providing more food from less land with higher input costs and diminishing resources its primary producers will need better education, more research and more effective extension. That research will need to be directed towards better land and water utilisation, more productive animals, greater labour efficiency and business resilience or agility.

A major change will be moving away from the traditional top-down activity, with information cascading from the top down, to a system where information will flow back up the decision-making pipeline from the bottom. That is the farming community will push information back up the decision-making pipeline from the bottom. This is already happening, in some industries, through participatory research, development and extension, with its own built in extension.

How will extension be carried out?

Traditional dissemination methods such as print media, radio, television, field days, farm walks, newsletters, meetings, conferences, will be complemented by an increased emphasis on electronic forms of communication such as websites, social media, emails and text messages, online videos, e-newsletters and spontaneous digital extension alerts. Self-directed farmer groups will play a major role.

How will it be funded?

Unquestionably in future the major funding will come from a user pays system. There will be exceptions for example the Federal Government Climate Change Adaption Program is underpinned by an outreach program which will continue to be funded by government.

Who will the audience be?

The ‘market’ has a number of different audiences. These include the 3000-odd very large businesses, the productive and profitable middle, the unprofitable and the peri urban, lifestyle or hobby farmer group. Each group has different needs and will utilise extension services in different ways.

Who will drive extension?

The prime movers of extension will continue to be the federal and state governments and their relevant institutions, including the R&D corporations. However the future growth of extension will be market driven and fuelled by entrepreneurial spirit.

The new models

There will be three extension models.

1.    The very large businesses will initiate their own extension.

2.    Other profitable businesses (including lifestyle and larger hobby farmers) will retain outside consultants on a fee for service basis. These businesses will be served by multi-disciplinary consulting businesses which have a range of specialists and generalists covering all technical human and business aspects of farm business management.

3.    The vast majority of producers will still look to R&D corporations to provide content for a bulk extension service. Resources currently wasted on ‘flag waving’ will be re-deployed and more general technical advice may be provided through self directed farmer groups, possibly partly funded by the relevant R&D bodies.

It is unclear how extension personnel will be trained and whether they will require accreditation. There is a place for accreditation schemes such as AgCredited as an industry wide quality assurance program.

It is difficult to imagine any major government funding for an extension service unless, as with the current Federal Government Climate Change Adaptation Program, there is a public good outcome required.

Mike Stephens, who is national President of Ag Institute Australia and a Consultant with Mike Stephens and Associates, acknowledges the influence of Trevor Johnston and Robert Patterson in the preparation of this article.

References

Ruthven, P (2012), Company Director, Australian Institute of Company Directors, August.

Findlay, J (2012), Rural Business, November/December.

Readers are invited to continue the discussion on the Institute’s blog. 

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Images: USDA