232 – Agricultural extension in 10 years

Sally Marsh and I wrote an article for the Australian Farm Institute titled “Public-sector agricultural extension: what should it look like in 10 years?”. Here it is. 

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 (e.g. dairy, horticulture, sugar), input suppliers (e.g. 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 (e.g. 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.

 Further reading

Marsh, S.P. and Pannell, D.J. (2000). Agricultural extension policy in Australia: The good, the bad and the misguided. Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics 44(4): 605-627. Journal web site here ♦ IDEAS page for this paper

Pannell, D.J. and Marsh, S.P. (2013). Public-sector agricultural extension: what should it look like in 10 years? Farm Institute Insights, Vol. 10, No. 1, February 2013. Here



  • Rob Bramley
    23 February, 2013 - 8:22 am | link

    A key question that you don’t seem to address is: why should farmers get any publicly funded (free ?) extension at all ? If, instead of my small business being a farm, it was a local corner store or perhaps a bakery, I wouldn’t get such publicly funded extension, so what makes the farmer different ? I am not saying by any means that farmers should not get such extension, but surely the primary reasons as to why they should, and what it should relate to need to be laid out ? To me, farmers should get publicly funded extension to assist with the NRM components of what they do since they are the custodians and managers of the land on behalf of society. But whether this extension should be focussed on maximising their profitability is a moot point. I think the corner store owners might scratch their heads on this one. What do you think ?

  • Dr Jenny WIlson
    23 February, 2013 - 10:00 am | link

    This is an interesting and timely article as we at the Goulburn Borken Catchment Mangement Authority recognise that extension capabilitites have changed, and we need to create effective and new extension activities. We are beginning to put a project brief together where we ask farmers about their drivers and why/why not uptake environmental activitities. We aim to ask fundamental questions that you propose such as ” Are the practices we wish to promote actually adoptable by farmers?” This project will incorporate real two way extension approach. The objective would be to inform us about how to talk to farmers, and to change extension into practice change.

    The project would greatly benefit from having input by researchers – the CMA offers a real way to be the communication conduit between researchers and farmers, as we continuously interact with them in various ways. Personally, having completed at PhD, i understand the need for good science to underpin what we do in NRM.

    Is there an opportunity to discuss our project further with you/your team?

  • Amir Abadi
    23 February, 2013 - 4:44 pm | link

    Publicly funded extension may also be helpful or desirable when information assymetry results in people being misled in situations when they are given biased or ill conceived information, either due to ignorance or greed of the proponents.

  • Roger Crook
    24 February, 2013 - 4:34 pm | link

    We all know from ‘Extension 101’ that ‘knowledge, values,attitudes and beliefs determine behaviour.
    Success in extension is measured by the level of change or adoption in the target, in other words, a change in behaviour has to be achieved to succeed.
    Looking around the agricultural landscape at present and considering the average level of debt coupled with the age demographics (eastern wheatbelt 64 years of age with 0% having tertiary education and most leaving school at yr 10, in the ABS sample) I wonder if those involved in extension in the future will understand the behaviour of their clients? Sometimes I also wonder who their clients will be? I wonder if those in the extension business have thought of that?
    My generation cannot go on forever.
    We have lost or are missing, I reckon, two generations of farmers.
    Before any extension, private or not can succeed, we have to change the age demographics of our farmers and that isn’t going to be easy in the current financial and cultural climate.

  • 26 February, 2013 - 4:13 pm | link

    I attended a GRDC briefing the other day where much of extension work is being farmed out to private bodies, consultants and the like. GGA is to be wound up by June 2014. The public sector may set the agenda for research, but will have very few people within it doing the extension work. As we have seen with National Variety Trials, the processes used to gain the trial data, is not necessarily relevant to standard operating procedures on the farm.

    Public extension work is in danger of being usurped by the private sector anyway. Once they get their hands on the public agenda, farmers will be herded into a canyon with only a cliff ahead of them, and a failed public service behind them. As we have seen in the last decade or so, farmers have not been herded down the most profitable path.

    • Roger Crook
      27 February, 2013 - 7:30 pm | link

      Stephen, could you expand on your last sentence please?

      • 28 February, 2013 - 1:45 pm | link

        Sure Roger. How about we talk about the eastern wheatbelt heavy soils. Research into these soils and their productive capacity is sorely lacking. This year, many of them are in a position of wanting to know if the economics of putting in a crop without fertilizer inputs is viable. Additionally, are these soils even viable under present cropping system regimes. The private sector certainly doesn’t have an interest in such a question. Research questions have traditionally been about dry seeding methodology, rotations and the like. The bank managers have probably been the first to recognise that these soils are perhaps not the most economic soils to be farming.

        Continuing to focus on the industry accepted questions of research, is not offering these farmers an alternative farming system approach to soils which don’t conform to the average norm. Most of these farmers still run sheep, yet they are still farming from a cropping perspective with sheep grazing stubbles or fallowed pasture. Perhaps these soils need to be looked at as a separate farming system altogether, with different strategies of management to the rest of the normal farming system.

        I put it to you that public extension can address these research questions without commercial bias. Are we to just let these areas of farming which fall outside the norm, and therefore do not conform to the standard research effort, fall by the wayside? A new and innovative system is needed here. Cropping is a systems approach and a different system would work out here. The farmers are not game to put a crop in, yet have been locked into a system they can’t escape from. I see frustration at not having an alternative way to use their land, which has an innovative approach to land use, pastures, rotations and inputs. It would be public extension work at its’ very best, providing answers for people who really need it.

        • Roger Crook
          28 February, 2013 - 9:02 pm | link

          Stephen, thank you.
          May I first direct you to ‘Physical and financial performance benchmarks for grain producing farms, Western Australian eastern agroecological zone. ABARES report prepared for the Grains Research and Development Corporation. Hooper. Levantos and Formosa. Feb 2011.
          Contained in that report is all that an extension officer from the public sector should require to gain a full knowledge of what makes the eastern wheatbelt ‘tick’.
          It’s not as if the ABARES report for the GRDC revealed anything we didn’t know, and haven’t known for some years, and that is, as you say, many parts of the region are questionable as far as profitable cropping is concerned.
          I cannot go into what this report reveals, but it has been available for a few years and I question whether the findings have been extended by the public extension service.
          I now direct you to: Energy Balance of Mallee Biomass Production in Western Australia
          Hongwei Wu1, Qiang Fu1, Rick Giles2, John Bartle2 and ask what has happened? Do we have an alternative industry?
          Then of course there is: Toward Sustainable Production of Second Generation Bioenergy Feedstocks†
          John R. Bartle* and Amir Abadi
          Department of Environment and Conservation Perth Australia, Locked Bag 104, Bentley Delivery Centre, Western Australia 6983 Received June 24, 2009. Revised Manuscript Received September 2, 2009. Agai, what has happened?
          In addition to all of that there is:
          The global agricultural surplus and the case for non-food crops
          John Bartle Department of Environment and Conservation and Future Farm Industries CRC.
          All of these papers have provided the potential for alternative system of farming for the less productive areas of the eastern wheatbelt, leaving the ‘best paddocks’ for cropping.
          All of these initiatives have come from what is called the public sector and I just wonder why farmers haven’t been ‘herded’ into confined spaces, even using inducements, and shown the potential for change.
          Of course, the inevitable question is whether the public research has resulted in viable products for those being herded? Or whether they, those being herded, were better doing what they know best until there is nothing left?

  • Scott Glyde
    27 February, 2013 - 8:03 am | link

    Some excellent comments above.

    Dave – my comment relates to what’s not mentioned in your paper and partially in relation to this extract: “Private sector capacity in extension will continue to grow – including extension provided by purchasers of agricultural products (e.g. dairy, horticulture, sugar), input suppliers (e.g. fertiliser, feeds) and farm management specialists.”

    In what form will this ‘capacity’ grow? Anecdotally, at least, and certainly based on discussions with various different private sector company senior staff, private sector advisers struggle with service based roles. Retailing products is a core task, but actually making a profit from service based advice is much more difficult. We might explain this due to a non-demanding farmer sector for such advice (knowledge gap perhaps – ‘they don’t know what they don’t know’). Or that our graduates aren’t sufficiently trained (by universities or their own businesses) to sell knowledge. Or that the differences between operational, tactical and strategic decision making (short vs. long term), even profitability vs. productivity messages, are poorly understood (by both advisers and producers). Or that there is a strong disconnect between the explicit knowledge of R&D and the tacit knowledge employed in farm management decision making (forthcoming publication).

    Recent research we conducted in the rice industry (forthcoming publication), however, makes it very clear that the independent knowledge generated and shared by the public sector plays an equally important function for both farmers and the private sector. I wonder about what sort of advice – and hence what sort of impacts (nrm and otherwise) – our industries might receive if the private sector is left entirely to its own devices and sources. Capacity is an industry issue. We might underestimate the extent to which the private sector is able to increase its ‘capacity’ in light of a decline in public sector investment, expressed in various on and off-farm impacts we’ve yet to give appropriate consideration to.

  • Jo Crosby
    16 May, 2013 - 3:27 pm | link

    Regardless of the model of extension into the future, where are the extension officers going to come from?

    The public service has been a great training ground for independent extension professionals in the past. Not only have they be exposed to the latest technical information, but they have usually had training in extension methodology and evaluation, and they understand the motivators for change in the farming community. If and when they move into private consulting or field officer roles they have a solid foundation of knowledge and experience.

    With public sector extension disappearing, where will the new generation of extension practicioners get their start?

  • 16 May, 2013 - 6:34 pm | link

    Interesting article and discussion. I guess I belong to one of those research groups (at Wageningen University) that has been critical of technology transfer (in relation to the following sentences in the article: “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. “)

    I do agree that technology transfer, as bringing useful research results to farmers in order to change practices towards more economically, socially and ecologically beneficial outcomes, remains necessary. But the problem is that the concept is often interpreted very narrowly, and remains dominant in policy and practice, and this can lead to:
    – prescribing solutions that the farmer may not need and want, or cannot integrate ( related to the question ‘ are they adoptable in the first place?’);
    – having insufficient focus on farm level adaptation of research results;
    – ignoring that the major drivers of farm level change lay outside the farm level and many of those have nothing to to with integration of research results.

    Continuing to use technology transfer as a dominant concept can thus obscure the fact that advisors need to perform different kind of activities and have a whole repertoire of functions, one of which is connecting research and farming practice.

    • 17 May, 2013 - 6:30 am | link

      Thanks Laurens. Of course, I agree that it’s important to undertake extension (of what ever type) in a thoughtful way, not a simple-minded way. My experience of engaging with extension programs and extension agents is that they generally don’t operate in a narrow top-down way, even when working within a technology-transfer paradigm. My feeling is that a lot of the critique of technology transfer relates to a straw-man version of practice. A consequence of the critique has been that technology transfer has become almost a dirty word among many in the extension world. (In other words, the application of the critique has at times been a bit simple-minded, rather than thoughtful!) This is really unfortunate, as history shows that, applied well and in the right circumstances, the benefits of technology transfer have been enormous. In the Australian context, at least, I would venture to say that the benefits generated by technology transfer in agriculture have far exceeded the benefits generated by the predominantly bottom-up approaches that have dominated extension thinking in recent decades. That’s partly about the nature of the practices extended, rather than the nature of the extension approaches, but it does highlight that talking down tech transfer in a general way is inappropriate. I think it’s ironic that a critique that amounts to “an approach has been applied too narrowly and inappropriately” has itself been applied too narrowly and inappropriately. Having said all that, if one can identify cases where the straw man is the reality, then the critique is highly appropriate.

  • 18 May, 2013 - 6:17 am | link

    I agree with you David that talking down technology transfer in a general way is inappropriate, and does not do justice to the good work extension agents and advisors do in supporting farmers and how this has supported the advancement of the agricultural sector (at least what I have seen in my country, The Netherlands). Generally extension agents/advisors embed technology transfer within a broader portfolio of approaches, and determine for different situations which approach is best suited to ensure adequate embedding and if needed adaptation of the advocated technology.

    For some countries however, for example Ethiopia, the straw man applies. The main concern here is that technology transfer is used normatively to represent a ‘one-size-should-fit all’ technology-push approach which ignores specific local circumstances and farming styles.So it is highly dependent on issues such as training, incentives, advisor-client relationship and accountability, whether technology transfer becomes more than its narrow interpretation and whether extension agents/advisors also can execute other approaches from the portfolio.

    Also sometimes (e.g. in policy documents) all extension/advisory work is called ‘technology transfer’, and that doesn’t capture adequately what it is.

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