Farmers learn by learning

21 Feb, 2016 01:00 AM
Dr Fiona McKenzie, policy director, Australian Futures Project
Dr Fiona McKenzie, policy director, Australian Futures Project

How does agriculture develop an “innovation culture”, the creative, entrepreneurial environment being cultivated by corporations everywhere? Not by pumping farmers with information, according to Fiona McKenzie.

Information isn’t knowledge, the saying goes. Dr McKenzie, policy director with the Australian Futures Project, agrees.

“You can’t just transfer knowledge to someone else, as you can with information. They have to build knowledge themselves, in their own heads.”

Highly innovative farmer groups don’t merely teach, Dr McKenzie found when studying farmer-driven innovation in NSW for her doctoral thesis. These groups build an environment that encourages people want to learn, and freely trade whatever new perspectives they add to that learning.

“All the effort around adoption and extension is trying to tell people what to do. But for people to change, they have to be part of the knowledge network, and create the new knowledge themselves. That’s really tricky, because every single farmer recreates that knowledge for their own context.”

It’s an area that Dr McKenzie was familiar with before her doctorate. She grew up on the 3328 ha family farm “Loyola”, at Coonamble, and still provides a spare pair of hands there during seasonal pressure points.

During her doctorate, she saw that many innovative farmers hit constraints trying to get their ideas picked up, especially by service providers.

“Where there is innovation in ther industries, people are treated as equals. In agriculture, farmers are treated as the student. It's like we forget our lessons when we get to ag, and we go back to the 1960s.”

Sometimes researchers become interested in on-farm innovation, but research funding cycles often prevent that interest bearing fruit.

“… abandoned tree plantings, soil measurement probes and other instruments were still in the paddock years later, a legacy of ‘collaborative’ research projects,” Dr McKenzie has written.

She saw the early stages of this familiar story while consulting to a cocoa farming project in Sulawesi.

“I had to spend a lot of time with scientists, getting them to understand that it wasn’t about publishing research papers or telling the farmers what to do: they had to sit down with the farmers and ask them what they wanted.”

The farmers’ top three questions weren’t what the scientists wanted to research, but the project pushed ahead with those questions anyway.

“The whole point was, if you teach people how to experiment, and to have open minds, they can start to deal with whatever pests or diseases come along themselves.”

Dr McKenzie has some ideas about building a broad innovation culture within Australian farming, but it involves a drastic re-think of the role of extension.

“Traditional extension services could be transformed into knowledge brokerage services, so that independent advice and evaluation is easily accessible,” she wrote in Australian Geographer in 2013. “Extension agents could be retrained as network facilitators, whose role includes creating ‘space’ for stronger interactions and learning across the whole range of actors involved in innovation.”

Challenging, yes, but Dr Mckenzie thinks that building such a network could help in “rejuvenating rural networks and communities and resolving the current crisis in agricultural extension in Australia”.

Matthew Cawood

Matthew Cawood

is the national science and environment writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media


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