Behaviour, Communication, Policy

25 – Targeting agricultural extension to high-impact areas

My colleague Rick Llewellyn has been doing some fascinating work measuring farmers’ knowledge and perceptions, with some radical implications for the technology transfer side of agricultural extension. The implications are that it is actually possible for extension to focus on specific areas of information that are most likely to make a real difference. This would be a major departure from historic practice in extension, where extension agents commonly apply a broad-spectrum approach to extension in a subject area. If Rick’s approach were to be widely applied, it could dramatically increase the impact and cost-effectiveness of extension.

Rick’s study was focussed on farmer adoption of Integrated Weed Management (IWM) practices, but the logic is applicable to extension on any subject area. His approach involved several stages.

  1. Identify the variables or factors that are relevant to management of the issue in question;
  2. Find out which of the variables have the biggest impact on management decisions;
  3. Identify and measure farmers’ current knowledge and perceptions about the area and all the relevant variables;
  4. Identify areas where farmers’ current knowledge and perceptions are inconsistent with each other or with scientific evidence;
  5. Select those variable from step 4 that are also important in the management decision (from step 2);
  6. Focus the extension messages or activities on those variables.

The sequence is common sense when you see it laid out like this, but I don’t think it has ever been done before anywhere, or at least if it has, it has not been published.

When Rick applied this approach, some of the results were unexpected and very illuminating. Part of the motivation for the study had been concerns that crop producers are not sufficiently adopting IWM practices that could delay the onset of herbicide resistance. Some commentators suspected that the farmers lack accurate information about the efficacy of IWM options.

The study reached a very different conclusion. Rick found that most of the WA crop producers had a fairly comprehensive knowledge of herbicide resistance and the available weed management options, and that most of what they know on the subject is reasonably consistent with latest scientific findings and field experience. This was true not only for farmers who have experience with resistance and IWM, but also for non-users of the IWM practices, growers with no herbicide resistance, and growers from a region with relatively low levels of herbicide resistance.

There were some exceptions, a prominent one being that many farmers are relatively optimistic about the likelihood of new herbicide types being developed soon and becoming available to replace those lost to resistance. Scientists and the herbicide companies consider that farmers’ degree of optimism about this is unwarranted. Rick found that this perception was significant in explaining adoption of IWM, so it points to an opportunity for extension to make a difference. Many farmers also believed that herbicide resistant weed populations would return to being susceptible after a few years – something not supported by research or field experience for the herbicides in question.

Rick concluded that adoption of some of the IWM practices would be most strongly affected by perceptions about their performance for outcomes other than weed control. He noted that “The study results point to the need for farming systems approaches to develop and extend the broader attributes of IWM practices that may add to their overall profitability.” For example, the level of weed control provided by seed catching was very well understood but its integration into harvesting and livestock system needs development.

The study of IWM was based on surveys of samples of farmers. The trickiest part of the process is probably step 2. Rick did this with detailed statistical analysis of sequential surveys recording farmer’s management intentions before and after extension workshops (including farmers who didn’t attend the workshops). Applying this approach would be heavy going for most people. Alternative quick and dirty approaches to this step might include discussions with focus groups of farmers, or applying detailed economic models.

The key point from Rick’s work is well summarised by this conclusion: “Focussing extension information on aspects of a farming system that are already well understood and accurately perceived by farmers is unlikely to be beneficial, but is at risk of occurring without the sort of survey work presented here.” Given the shrinking budgets for agricultural extension in Australia, the importance of doing it in a well-considered and well-targeted way is greater than ever.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further reading

Llewellyn, R.S., Pannell, D.J., Lindner, R.K. and Powles, S.B. (2005). Targeting key perceptions when planning and evaluating extension. Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 45 (forthcoming). full paper (52K)

Llewellyn RS, Lindner RK, Pannell DJ, Powles SB (2002) Resistance and the herbicide resource: perceptions of Western Australian grain growers. Crop Protection 21, 1067-1075.

Llewellyn RS, Lindner RK, Pannell DJ, Powles SB (2004) Grain grower perceptions and use of integrated weed management. Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture (forthcoming).

Pannell, D.J. (2004). Capacity building? The role of communication and education in NRM, Pannell Discussions No. 23, 25 October 2004,