Are traditional extension methods still preferred?

The role of private sector crop advisors in communicating research findings to grain growers is currently the subject of research being carried out by the Australian Farm Institute, with funding from the Grains Research and Development Corporation. Traditionally, agricultural ‘extension’ has been carried out in Australia by public-sector agencies such as state Departments of Agriculture, but this has changed over the past decade and most commercial grain farms are now serviced by a private-sector agronomist, who is the main source of technical information for the grower. Little detailed information is available about the private sector crop advisory industry in Australia, so one of the components of the research project involved a survey of crop advisors, aiming to gain a better understanding of the work they do, and the information they use.

Results from this survey have been compiled and will be collated into one of several reports arising from the project. One of the questions put to crop advisors concerned their preferred method of delivering advice to their farmer clients. Interestingly, despite all the modern communication technology and smartphone applications that are available, the response from the advisors participating in the survey was that face-to-face discussions with a grain grower on-farm is still the most important method of delivering crop production information. Telephone consultation was ranked as the next most important way of relaying information, followed by email and the internet.

When private sector crop advisors were questioned about the sources of information they utilised in providing advice to growers, the highest ranking source of information was research findings and other information published by the Grains Research and Development Corporation. The next highest ranked information source was researchers or technical specialists within an advisor’s own organisation, followed by information obtained from industry conferences, and from other leading farmers.

The high rating given to information obtained from other leading farmers is an interesting aspect of the of the survey results. Traditionally, agricultural extension has been thought of as a vertical or ‘top down’ information flow, that starts with the discovery by the researcher, which is then communicated to the farmer by an extension agent (either public or private sector). What this response highlights, however, is that the horizontal transfer of information is also important, with innovation and knowledge gained by leading farmers being transferred to other growers by their commercial advisors.

One of the interesting issues associated with the development of a strong commercial crop advisory service is not so much what services or information these advisors are providing to their clients, but what services and advice they are not. It was evident from the responses that issues such as natural resource management and whole farm planning are not generally part of the ‘package’ of services provided by private sector crop advisors. How advice about these subjects will be delivered to farmers in the future is a question that will need to be considered when thinking about what grain industry extension systems will look like in the future.

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Images:  CSIRO, USDA