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Innovations in forestry teaching and learning: Lessons from the Australian Master TreeGrower Program

Peter Stephen and Rowan Reid

Department of Forestry, Institute of Land and Food Resources, The University of Melbourne


The Australian Master TreeGrower program is an eight-week educational program for those landholders that have made or will make a contribution to the development of farm forestry in their region. The program is run as a partnership between the University of Melbourne’s, Department of Forestry, the local organising body(s) and the landholders. The first Master TreeGrower program was run in late 1996 in the Otways of Victoria and since then over 700 participants have completed one of 35 programs across Australia. The program has been a tremendous success in building the knowledge, confidence and networks of those that participate. This paper reviews some of the reasons for the program's success.


With the financial support of the Myer Foundation, the RIRDC/LWRRDC/FWPRDC Joint Venture Agroforestry Program, The Natural Heritage Trust and the National Farm Forestry Program, the Department of Forestry has developed the Australian Master TreeGrower (MTG) Program. The MTG involves the presentation and coordination of a series of short regional outreach programs in agroforestry and farm forestry designed for leading farmers and regional extension agents with the provision of ongoing support.

From the first program held in late 1996 in the Otways of Victoria, a further 34 programs, with over 700 participants, have been completed around Australia (see figure 1). Further programs are planned until 2003.

Figure 1: Locations of Master TreeGrower Programs around Australia to June 2001.

Each regional MTG program is presented as a partnership between the Department of Forestry, a regional organising group(s) and approximately 20 landholders. Each program nominally involves a total of 50 hours covering 8 group sessions that are delivered over a 6 to 10 week period. The MTG program has no formal accreditation as an academic or skills based course and has no predetermined curriculum or examination.

In 2000 the program was awarded the $10,000 Allen Strom Eureka Prize for excellence in Environmental Education Program by the Australian Museum and in 2001 the Institute of Land and Food Resources Outreach Achievement Award. This paper reviews the program’s success and identifies the factors leading to this success.

What is success?

An evaluation program has been running consistently since mid-1997 in assessing participants’ experiences immediately and 12 months after the programs completion. This formal evaluation process combined with three, mid-term review workshops (held in 1997, 1999 and 2000) and observations and discussions with participants and regional coordinators indicate the program has been extraordinarily successful (see Table 1) in meeting the stated aims of the MTG program. Those aims being:

  • To help landholders recognise and critically evaluate commercial tree growing opportunities;
  • To encourage landholders to play a more active role in farm forestry development by providing knowledge that instils confidence;
  • To support regional farm forestry, agroforestry and landcare programs by providing a program that can be tailored to regional requirements; and
  • To encourage strong communication links between participants, extension officers, researchers and industry through the MTG program.

Table 1: Evaluation of participants’ responses to the MTG program on the final session of the program.


Question to participants at the end of the MTG program

Participant response


‘No Better’

‘A Little Better’

‘Much Better’

My understanding of farm forestry is now:




My practical ability in farm forestry in now:




I can now give advice on farm forestry that is:




My ability to evaluate opportunities in my region is now




My ability to develop farm forestry projects is now




My understanding of farm forestry interests of other people in my region is now




My opportunities for networking with other people in farm forestry is now:




Sample size in all questions: 407

What makes the MTG work?

Although success is dependent on the skill and commitment of the many coordinators, presenters and participants, there are clearly elements of the MTG program structure and delivery that attracts commitment and underpins success. The MTG program involves education, skills training, network development and leadership preparation. All these aspects are nested within the context of a committed philosophy, an adult learning approach (Knolwes 1990) and a uniform structure that reinforces the philosophy and learning principles. Combined each of these elements contribute to the success of the Australian Master TreeGrower program.

A philosophy that respects landholder’s motivations

The MTG program acknowledges the central role of the farmer as the principle decision maker and the one who is ultimately responsible. Farm forestry is therefore a result of a decision by a landholder to commit resources (land, capital, labour etc), either alone or in partnership, into the establishment and or management of forests on their land. The landholder’s motivations is therefore the basis for all MTG programs and without this as the starting point, the program will simply not be relevant to those we are trying to support.

But it is neither possible nor desirable to try and predict the range of motivations or their importance for landholders involved in farm forestry. Farmers grow and manage forests for a variety of reasons (Wilson et al 1995), but they are also motivated by personal aspirations such as “passing the farm on in a better state” or allowing for generational transfer without the need to subdivide the land or simple to work in a more aesthetically pleasing environment. It is clearly unrealistic to expect a range of "best bets" or "recipes" will suit more than a small percentage of farmers (Campbell 1994) and not only does the environmental landscape vary from farm to farm so to does the social and economic landscape. The importance of distinguishing between an approach that advocates particular farm forestry options and one that promotes good design is critical.

Therefore rather than trying to transform farmers into foresters, the MTG program argues that forestry must be adapted to fit into the culture of the farming community. Industry, government or community groups still have a legitimate role in advocating for particular outcomes or products, but those promoting these outcomes must recognise that their motivations may be quite different to those they hope to influence (Barr et al 1992). Therefore, rather than allowing stakeholders to use the MTG to advocate their best-bet options, the program encourages them to specify their own performance criteria and outline how they might reward (or penalise) farmers who do, or do not, meet these criteria. It is then a decision for the landholder on how this information is integrated into their farming business, but ultimately it is the commitment of the landholder and acceptance for their decisions that will ensure sustainable and successful farm forestry outcome.

The MTG program in assisting farmers identify, design and evaluate their own farm forestry options measures success against the landholder’s own personal performance criteria. Whether this results in an increased commitment to forestry (such as more trees planted) will depend on the individual circumstances and is not in itself an effective measure of the success of the program. But working with farmers and rural communities through this process can highlight research and development needs by exposing points of failure in the design or implementation of farm forestry systems that provide farmer satisfaction.

As extension agents we may be able to influence landholder’s decisions but we cannot control them. Pre-determined outcomes that ignore landholder motivations must be avoided to ensure that all opportunities that may be appropriate are considered

A commitment to learning based on adult learning principles

It is not uncommon on the first session of an MTG program to have a group of 20 of so farmers with a combined forestry, farm forestry or revegetation knowledge bank of over 250 years, varying degrees of formal and informal education, a general conservatism and wariness but enthusiasm. The principles outlined below (adapted from Knowles 1990, Vella 1994 and Fells 1999) ensure a positive learning experience for participants during the MTG program.

Principle 1: Build on local experiences, use and recognise individual and group knowledge

All participants in an MTG program will bring a wealth and diversity of experiences to the MTG program. It is essential that this knowledge is recognised, respected, and built upon throughout the program. Farm walks and business tours led by the participants are therefore an important element of the second half of the program as it not only demonstrates the importance of adapting forestry designs to suit individual circumstances but also allows the sharing of knowledge and experiences. Here participants (learners) also become teachers or ‘experts’ by telling their own stories and sharing their experiences and interests. This builds empathy, trust and confidence amongst the participants and increases the likelihood that relationships established during the program will be maintained.

Principle 2: Make the learning environment comfortable, safe and encouraging

Many of the participants come to the program with little formal education, are anxious about their own perceived deficiencies and particularly showing these in public and to their peers. A safe and encouraging environment, both socially and mentally is essential to ensure a positive learning experience. To help this the MTG program avoids formal University assessments, ensures as many sessions as possible are in familiar surroundings (such as farm paddocks) and presents a uniform program that other landholders have all successfully completed. In effect, the traditional view of a University’s authority and formality is kept at arms length from the program while still allowing credibility to be derived from an association with a formal learning institution.

Principle 3: Ensure that the learning activity meets the needs and relates to the problems of the group.

The Australian MTG program is appropriate for some, but not all. The MTG program focuses on those that have already or are likely to make a significant commitment to forestry, and develops a program around these participants unique potential to contribute to farm forestry development. An essential requirement of the program is for regional coordinators to meet with influential regional farm foresters during the programs development to ensure there is a demand and that the program covers regionally important issues. Also during the first session participants are asked to raise issues that they would like to see covered in the second half of the program. If the programs structure and objectives did not meet participant needs, landholders would simply vote with their feet.

Principle 4: Ensure action and reflection and participants are involved in their own learning

There seems to be little doubt that adults learn by doing, but ‘doing’ is not the building of knowledge unless there is reflection. During and between all MTG sessions, there is always action and time for reflection. (The requirement for time and space (see principle six) is essential). The MTG program also employs an action learning style (Clark and Timms 1999) to ensure that all styles of learning (Honey and Mumford 1986) are catered for through a process of planning, acting, observing and reflecting. This also ensures learning is participatory and meaningful to the participant’s immediate requirements.

The emphasis is on the process of adaptation and learning as opposed to content and outcomes.

Principle 5: Have activities that involve, that are simulating, are participatory and are immediately applicable

The simplest way to ensure this is to focus on problem centred learning around real life situations rather than subject centred. Too often programs are based around linear notions of farm forestry development starting from the planning subject, then the planting subject, then the pruning subject and so forth. The MTG program bases all learning on problem solving, preferably in the paddock and preferably directly related to the participants immediate needs.

Principle 6: Allow time and space for reflection

This principle overlaps all other principles, because participants require time to feel comfortable in the group and time (and space) to reflect on what is being discussed and how the information will be incorporated into their immediate work environment. Importantly time is required to build confidence in both the group dynamics and knowledge being built. This is often seen in the ‘chatting’ at morning and afternoon tea, bus rides and discussion after the days events which are all important times for reflection and important for the development of the regional programs identity.

Principle 7: Build group and individual confidence by encouraging and rewarding

The use of the title "master" is recognition of the participant’s knowledge, experience and personal commitment and is used to link, encourage and reward. The small ceremony at the end of all MTG programs, with the awarding of the MTG ‘certificate of appreciation’ and MTG gate sign is an official acknowledgment of the participants potential and in effect rewards participants for their knowledge, enthusiasm and participation. For those participants that have little formal education this is extremely important. This is also an important way of formally linking participants together and the presentation of the MTG gate sign and hat helps in building a group identity and regional peer group of committed farm foresters.

Principle 8: Respect

Respect overlaps all the other principles and is an essential over arching principle of the MTG program. Landholders desire to be decision-makers and resist being treated as objects or something that can be used by others. The dialogue of learning is between two adults whose knowledge and experiences are equally respected. Trying to change a farmer’s culture does not generate respect.

“The way the course is structured by following the needs of the group was excellent” (Gloucester, NSW)

"The program was very flexible, each participant used it for their own needs” (Hunter, NSW)

"I thought it was a good program. Structured well and good format. Gave people information for people to go off and learn more. Gives me confidence to learn more on my own" (Seymour, Victoria)

"The whole program was very educational. Particularly sharing of experiences from each participant and field visits. The group, although a diversity of people was very safe to express oneself in". (Armidale, NSW)

A structure that supports the MTG philosophy and learning principles

The MTG approach to the diagnosis, design and evaluation of farm forestry opportunities is based on three steps:

1. Identification of farmer design criteria and performance measures for success (Session one);

2. Description of consumer product/service specifications, associated rewards or penalties, possible trading mechanisms and the manipulation of trees to achieve these specifications (Sessions two to four); and

3. The evaluation of possible design options against 1 and 2 including an assessment of risks, uncertainty and opportunities for negotiation (Sessions five to eight)

Because the program advocates a design process, rather than a particular outcome, participants quickly recognise that they must take responsibility for the process if they are to define appropriate farm forestry opportunities and effectively negotiate with consumers. The MTG framework that is used in all programs across Australia allows this to happen by mimicking the diagnosis and design process, as well as ensuring participant’s motivations are central to the learning experience and that participants are in control of the process. (A more detailed description of the MTG programs framework can be found in Reid and Stephen (1999) or at the MTG web site- )

Within the MTG structure there are several inbuilt mechanisms that ensure
participation, action and reflection.

Let them judge the market for themselves

Rather than expect farmers to share our confidence in future markets for forest products the program encourages farmers to make their own judgements and interpret the risks associated with their participation in forestry markets.

Hand over the “tools” of forestry

Monitoring growth and productivity is a key to understanding production systems and making management decisions. The MTG program includes the provision and training in the measurement of tree and forest growth so that farmers can begin making their own assessments of productivity in order to judge the likelihood of achieving production targets.

Share the principles of management

The production of forest products and services can be achieved in many ways. The design, management and methods used should be developed in a way that is appropriate for the individual’s own circumstances. Conventional forestry systems are based on well-founded silvicultural principles and by sharing these principles with farmers the program encourages them to consider and interpret new designs that meet their own requirements. In many cases these will look very different from those adopted by other producers of forest products.

Allow for multipurpose design

Land managers can’t afford to focus on single issues, they must manage their land for a balance of social, environmental and economic values. Multipurpose farm forestry, appropriately designed by land managers is encouraged and seen as legitimate in the MTG program, even though these designs may compromise single objectives or preferred outcomes set by land management or forestry agencies.

Don’t shy away from risks

Trees die, markets fail, science does not always have the answer. There are risks in farm forestry that must be understood by those that are committing their resources and time to farm forestry. Ignoring or hiding the risks doesn’t allow for a fully informed decision to be made nor does it allow for landholders to be accountable for their decisions. In these circumstances failures tend to be blamed on the extension advice, the forestry departments or whoever but rarely the landholder themselves. To fully learn means to be fully involved.

Ask ‘specialists’ to discuss not lecture

Expertise in areas such as land degradation, farm management, shelter, fire, silviculture, and other topics covered in each MTG program is provided by invited specialists. Rather than simply making formal presentations the specialists are encouraged to participate in discussion and highlight design principles in a way that is relevant to the farmers. It is critical that presenters acknowledge the problems and constraints faced by farmers and factors outside their “discipline” that might influence farmer decisions and project design. Engaging specialists in on-farm problem solving sessions with landholders has proven to be the most successful means of enhancing communication and learning.

“People with all the knowledge were so practical. You dread it when people come from Uni with all their waffle. There was nothing airy-fairy. They gave you all the negatives, they said how you wouldn't make much money, they said how it takes ages for changes in salinity. Nothing was biased” (Duranillin, WA)

"I really enjoyed it. It was a lot to take in and the fact that there is no infrastructure set up and that takes people's confidence away. There's one thing of getting trees up and getting them going, then a minefield of milling etc. It's important to feel that you've got some idea about it all" (Seymour, Victoria)

“I thought it was an excellent course. We are not going to be big forestry growing people, but learning how to integrate farm forestry with our agriculture was very useful” (Wellstead, WA)

The outcome — formal and informal networks

Participation in programs like the MTG is a “socialisation process” in which information is gained by personal contact with natural resource management professionals and other landholders (Mills et al 1996). Socialising with others having similar interests also reinforces the social and personal acceptability of becoming involved in farm forestry. Effective networks, be they formal or informal, ensure that individuals always have access to support as they work through the issues at their own pace - or as their trees grow.

Building effective networks takes time, which is why the MTG program is not delivered in a continuous block but rather spread over an 8-week period. But it is from these linkages that individuals will share knowledge, information and experiences that will allow for changes in behaviour and the reality of farm forests integrated into the rural environment for all their multiple purposes.

This effectively means allowing farmers to lead and this is what farm forestry is all about.

“The networking is where we get the ideas. It’s a new industry, many of us have been farmers all our lives but there is much to learn”. (Albany, WA)


The MTG program has been extremely well received by landholders and extension practitioners based on a number of simple ideas. It is a program that targets a specific audience for a specific reason and as such the MTG program should not be seen as the only extension or education approach, but rather an educational program to complement existing regional extension activities. Having said that, we believe that the principles outlined above can be applied to landholder education and extension programs across a range of land management issues.

Although the MTG program has changed over the years and will continue to evolve, its success is built on a principle of respect for the primary decision-makers, the landholders and their motivations in committing to farm forestry. Without this as a central tenet to the MTG program, the program’s success, if at all, would have been fleeting and another example of a landholder educational program that never really lived up to its heroic expectations.

“One of the best courses I've ever been involved with. An excellent course. The course was tightly organised and sent off really well. The best course I've ever done” (Busselton, WA)


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