Wetenschap - 23 november 1995

Extension should focus on diversity among farmers

Extension should focus on diversity among farmers

Traditional research on farmers needs will never produce a reality that fits the situation of all farmers. The inevitable conclusion of this kind of research is that you deny diversity among farmers. Instead you have to look at a learning process that incorporates that diversity," suggests Australian extension agronomist Gus Hamilton.


Science no longer has the mandate to define solutions to farmers problems. It is that arrogance I want to fight. Anyone involved in agriculture will define a problem from their own perspective. As an extension worker you have to facilitate a learning and co-learning process between all actors involved," states Hamilton. On December 20th he will defend his PhD thesis, which he has written in the Department of Communication and Innovation Studies.

Hamilton works for an agricultural research and extension project of the State Department of Primary Industries in southern Queensland, Australia. The project focuses on fallow management by farmers in Queensland, a semi-arid subtropical region. Water is the limiting factor and therefore storing rain water in the soil prior to crop growth is very important. However, rainfall not only sinks into the soil but also runs off, thus causing severe soil erosion.

Hamilton explains that scientific research has shown that retaining stubble on the field between harvesting one crop and planting the next is the most effective way to store water in the soil and prevent erosion. This means not tilling the soil after the harvest and maintaining at least a third of the field covered with stubble. Hamilton continues, So it seems fairly simple. Science comes up with zero tillage in the fallow period. We go out and tell the farmers and bingo! Alas, less than 30 % of the farmers accepted this advice. The problem and its solution seems deceptively simple. Unfortunately, in the real world, the problem and its potential improvement are far more complex." The project decided to adopt a participatory action learning approach, which focuses on farmers decision-making and the role of information in this.

Status

According to Hamilton the status of information is an important factor in determining the impact it will have: Information from a neighbouring farmer will be regarded differently, than when exactly the same information is provided by an outsider." Hamilton discovered that certain tools, originally used for research, can be used for demonstration purposes as well. This allows farmers to develop a better understanding of the relationships between fallow management and the processes that take place with regard to soil and water on their farms. Hamilton continues, The team found out that these tools contained black boxes which, when opened, enhanced the farmers trust in the tool and the belief they had in the result."

Hamilton describes out how he came to this realization: I stumbled over it in the dark actually. I decided to take a rainfall simulator to one of the farms. The farmer saw what happened to his soil and he cursed and swore, went for a stroll, came back, looked again and still acted surprised at what was happening." Hamilton explains that if it rains a farmer does not go outside to watch a rain drop bounce on the soil and look whether it is running off or sinking into the soil, or what it is doing to the soil surface.

All farmers keep up-to-date rainfall records but these records are used for a comparison with rainfall in earlier years or for comparison with the neighbour's records. Hamilton developed an exercise to calculate stored moisture in the soil using farmers rainfall data. This exercise allowed farmers to gain a better understanding of their soil-water relationships over the entire fallow period on the basis of their own records.

Besides these examples of new applications for old tools, Hamilton's team eventually managed to start the development of new tools as well. One example is the Fallow Management Game, which is a computer based simulation game. This virtual reality farming enables farmers to identify the variables that would be useful to their decision making. The game is played by all persons taking part in decision making on a farm, including husband, wife and children who help, without upsetting the existing relationships.

Subtle

Hamilton points out that, for instance, the relationship between men and women in a decision making unit is extremely subtle. Both husbands and wives will say that the husband is the one who takes decisions. This might be true for the technical decisions," continues Hamilton, But I have yet to meet a single women who did not have a strong influence in the strategic decisions on the farm." Finally Hamilton discovered that the game, when played in groups, also facilitated discussion and exchange of information among the farmers.

Over a period of five years 75% of a total of 3000 farms changed to fallow management. The capacity of farmers to model their own farming practice is becoming more and more crucial. The outcome has been successful in this case but Hamilton is convinced that that is not the main thing. He smiles: Of course the funding agency welcomed this success but we could have had a good idea and disastrous results. But the project would still have been successful." According to Hamilton the learning experience for the extension team is equally important, although he met a lot of resistance from other scientists. Hamilton attributes this to a paradigm clash between positivist and constructivist scientists. He concludes in the report on the project: A key to success will be the training of staff about the various paradigms in use and in the skills needed to successfully apply a particular paradigm. Ideally this training should start during the formative period of a scientist's dev
elopment - at University."

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