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Focusing On Change: Utilising facilitated farmer groups as learning vehicles

Stephanie Andreata

Department of Resource Management & Horticulture, University of Melbourne, Burnley Campus, The Boulevard, Richmond, VIC 3121.

Background to Project

The Focus Farm Project (FFProject) adopts a farmer-oriented group approach as a learning vehicle for dairy farmers to observe change on several dairy farms. Each focus farm comprises - a farm family whose objectives and goals were outlined at the beginning of the project, a support group, (FFGroup- 15-20 local dairy farmers & assorted dairy representatives) and a facilitator. There are 6 focus farms currently operating throughout Gippsland.

My study focuses on the effectiveness of the FFProject as an extension program within the FFGroup and the local dairying community. I have utilised both qualitative and quantitative methods, featuring action research principles to investigate the project. This has included running a 'training small groups' program for FFGroup members to self-evaluate their projects, to-date.

A Purposeful Focus

The relevance of farmer groups as an effective learning vehicle for demonstrating innovation or change is the subject of much discussion in extension. Farmers are more likely to respond to innovation if they can visualise it and analyse the applicability of the practice and/or new technology for their farm.

An aim of my project is to provide key concepts that need to be assessed when considering farmer groups as community change catalysts within any extension program.

Changing the Focus

Key points identified through this investigation include:

  • Farmer groups are an effective way of sharing information and past experiences;
  • The FFGroups believe their reaction time to decision-making has accelerated as a result of their involvement because they are able to actively seek advice from local farmers;
  • Some community members are comparing their farm to the production of the focus farm within their region;
  • Community awareness of the FFProject is favourable, though direct commitment is limited, and
  • Community involvement from the onset of the project is important as it may influence implementation and up-take of the project.

Educational Importance to Extension and Conclusions: Focusing on Change

Appropriate planning with the local community and their involvement in the nomination of farmer groups is a critical factor in the effectiveness of the project as a learning vehicle. Early identification of a community's needs and requirements is more likely to ensure ongoing involvement.

From the farmers' perspective, farmer learning groups need to:

  • Ensure the farming network have a sense of ownership within the program (Farming Network/Community is defined as = 'Target group');
  • Create a bridge to the wider farming network with information relevant to their own farm and management practices;
  • Provide adequate publicity to keep farming networks up-to-date with the project's progress and achieved outcomes through various information outlets;
  • Have credible technological information as the framework on which further discussions including sustainability issues can be based;
  • Be assured that information supplied to farming networks is accessible in both use of language and levels of information provided, and
  • Focus on innovation and/or alternative practices to stimulate and motivate debate within a group or network, ultimately leading to a request for more information and activities thus initiating new learning cycles.


GippsDairy, the Gippsland branch of the National Dairy Research and Development Corporation (DRDC), funds both, my study and the FFProject. My supervisors, Dr. Ruth Beilin and Dr. Kathryn Williams, University of Melbourne.

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