Extension practitioners play an important role in supporting producers to increase their knowledge and skills which, in turn, can lead to adopting on-farm changes that contribute to reduced nutrient, sediment and pesticide run-off.
The Reef Extension Forum, organised by the Queensland Farmers’ Federation- led Rural Jobs and Skills Alliance and the Reef Alliance, and facilitated by Ag Consulting Co, was held in Townsville on August 14th and 15th 2018. It brought together over 100 extension practitioners from the cane, grazing, banana and horticulture industries delivering extension across the Reef catchments. Participants shared their knowledge and experiences about their extension methods, improved their capacity to deliver extension services, and shared updates of current and future Reef protection programs and projects.
At the forum, six graduates from the ‘Pilot Agricultural Capacity Building Program’ were presented with certificates of completion for their participation in the one-year placement program that included mentoring, training and opportunities to increase their networks and abilities to perform extension practitioner duties. A big thank you to the trainees, the mentors, and the host organisations for their contribution to the program and also to the Queensland Government for the funding provided to deliver this program.
From the facilitated sessions throughout the forum, we learned that extension officers face challenges such as:
- Creating practice change and keeping growers engaged
- Improving coordination and collaboration between industry service providers
- Working with growers who are stretched both for time and finances to make changes on their farms
- Measuring practice change and reporting in a time-poor environment
- Dealing with the short-term nature of funding cycles and tight budgets
- Getting buy-in – farmers are “reefed out”.
Overall the forum was well received by those attending. Of the many activities covered in the forum, the most valuable sessions for participants were the extension panel and discussion about peer-to-peer learning. The opportunity to network with other industry professionals was also seen as beneficial.
The panel sessions provided the opportunity for seven extension practitioners to share their experiences, which generated many questions and some good discussion. Some of the key take home messages were:
- The importance of walking the talk of extension
- Individual growers have individual motivations and the extension officers need to understand these to affect change
- It’s about supporting farms adopt incremental improvement of practices rather than radical practice change
- Talk less and listen more – building relationships is crucial as it is all about people
- It’s about the journey, learn together, always follow up and check in with growers
- Business are about families, so it is important to get to know them and what motivates them
- The value of peer-to-peer isn’t just for producers it’s also for extension practitioners to learn and grow together
- Embrace mentoring and being a mentee – we can always learn regardless of our age or experience
- Be curious, be present, be patient and do it with passion.
The forum also allowed participants to learn about implementing peer-to-peer learning in extension, where farmers learn from farmers. The participants’ perceived benefits of peer-to-peer learning included:
- It provides a process of strategy to support farmers implement change
- Greater buy-in can be gained from producers when they hear messages from their peers because they can talk the same language and trust each other more than they trust others
- There tends to be more openness in discussions
- Extension officers can see how this model fits into systems at a commercial scale as well
- This type of learning allows producers to challenge each other and work from within rather than drive it externally
- Producers keep each other accountable and motivated
- The approach allows for locally relevant and district appropriate solutions which should achieve greater success.
The participants discussed what is required to make this approach work. Suggestions include:
- Good facilitation skills for whomever is leading the group including capacity for ongoing support
- Common objective of the group would be required to ensure it is relevant and meets the needs of individuals and group
- Training to run these kinds of groups would need to be available for rural professionals
- Improved funding models (eg. Longer-term funding) would improve engagement with producers
- Good structure for the groups is essential including set guidelines and processes
- Smaller groups would be more functional allowing trust building
- Strong leadership would be important to make this work as well as a defined period of engagement and follow up support.
The forum also provided an opportunity to discuss professional development opportunities for the extension officers regarding generic extension skills, technical skills and mentoring. Participants discussed the importance of accreditation for extension practitioners and for training they participate in. The results here were very mixed, and suggested the need for further exploration of the best way to continuously improve the skills of extension officers.
The forum provided important updates for extension officers to perform their role, learning about current science projects and what’s new in Reef Evaluation for the water quality program including the proposed social indicators for improved evaluation and engagement processes.
Finally, most of the participants were supportive of a similar forum in the future; hopefully therefore we are in the process of helping assist and improve extension officers in their role to provide advice and better support our farmers.