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Effective farmer groups for defining best practices for sustainable agriculture

Sue Kilpatrick1, Liz Bond2, Rowena Bell1, Jacqui Knee2 and Greg Pinkard2

1 Research and Learning in Regional Australia, University of Tasmania, Locked Bag 1313, Launceston 7250, Email
Department of Primary Industries, Water and Environment, Tasmania, PO Box 46, Kings Meadows 7249, Email


Practitioners and farmers are practical people. They are likely to be more comfortable with a process that develops monitoring tools and benchmarks for natural resource management than a process of group development and social capital formation. Yet the two are intrinsically linked. Policy makers and extension workers need to understand the link, and how to use a knowledge of social processes when designing the more concrete process of developing and implementing best practice monitoring and benchmarking with groups.

This paper reflects on the experience of establishing and working with farmer groups as they go through a process of identifying environmental issues, setting and monitoring environmental benchmarks and identifying and implementing sustainable farming practices to meet the benchmarks.

Media summary

An understanding of how people build social capital as they work in groups to set and monitor environmental benchmarks will assist with implementing sustainable farming practices.


Learning, farmer groups, natural resource management, participatory action research


Natural resource management (NRM) is a complex area. There is an imperfect scientific understanding of natural systems and how best to manage them (National natural resource management policy statement 1999). Many players (including land owners, local government and State government) have overlapping responsibility for managing our natural resources.

There are differential outcomes of adoption of NRM and production-related innovation. While non-adoption of production-related innovation affects only the non-adopting farmer, failure to adopt beneficial environmental practices threatens the livelihoods of future generations of Australians (Vanclay and Lawrence 1995). Thus there is an obligation for the state to intervene to ensure that natural resources are managed in a sustainable manner. In recognition of this, in Australia, there is a continued trend of increasing numbers of extension (facilitator) positions in natural resource management areas at the expense of extension positions in production areas (Coutts 2002).

This paper first reviews factors affecting the adoption of new practices then considers farmer groups as facilitators of change and best practice processes for facilitating change, including in NRM. It goes on to review approaches to farmer participation in sustainable natural resource management before describing and evaluating our experience of establishing and working with farmer groups as they go through a process of identifying environmental issues, setting and monitoring environmental benchmarks and identifying and implementing sustainable farming practices to meet the benchmarks. Our experiences have been gained from the project, ‘Implementing Best Practice in Sustainable Agriculture’, which was funded by the Natural Heritage Trust.

Factors affecting adoption of new practices

Awareness of possible new practices is not sufficient to ensure their implementation. Factors affecting the adoption of new practices in agriculture relate to the characteristics of the new practice and to farmer beliefs, values and social systems (Barr and Carey 2000). Technical and financial considerations have been identified from a multitude of studies (e.g. internationally by Rogers 1995, and in Australia by Guerin and Guerin 1994). They include:

  • financial advantages of adoption,
  • complexity of the new practice,
  • compatibility with existing practices
  • ease of trailling new practice
  • observability – how easily results can be seen and measured.

Behaviour change involves more than technical and financial considerations. Values and attitudes must change before behaviour changes: it has to seem ‘right’ to act in a new way. Others, neighbours, family, ‘experts’, all have an influence on what seems ‘right’. There is evidence that farmers who are active in ‘networks’ are more likely to make changes to practice. Rogers (1995) concluded that early adopters have greater social participation after examining studies in agricultural and non-agricultural settings in developed and developing countries. Korsching, Stofferahn, Nowak and Wagener (1983) found that Iowa farmers who are involved in farmer and community organisations were more likely to adopt conservation practices. Thus, farmers who participate in agricultural and community organisations are more likely to adopt innovations because, not only do they become aware of a wider variety of new practices, they also have opportunity to test and change values and attitudes.

A large body of research indicates that “adoption of conservation farming is increasing but not as quickly as is necessary to guarantee a sustainable agriculture” (Gray el al. 1998, p. 35). This is despite evidence of “sophisticated knowledge of the practices promoted by government agencies even in those circumstances where landholders adopt a cautious and timed approach to their implementation” (Lockie 2000, p. 15).

Reasons for reluctance to adopt conservation farming practices include the fact that there is “a wide variation in appropriateness of practices among farms. Each farm and each paddock on it can require different management” (Gray el al. 1998, p. 35). Other researchers (such as Vanclay and Lawrence 1995) have seen farmers as trapped by the effects of international markets and national policies. Practices required for sustainable NRM have technical and financial characteristics that are the opposite of those associated with ease of adoption that were outlined above (Barr and Carey 2000).

Personal beliefs, values, opinions and attitudes, and individual capacity and skills to assess options and make appropriate decisions influence adoption of NRM practices. But farmers and other resource holders do not operate in a vacuum:

They are influenced by values and institutions, which embody the norms, ways of doing things, conventions and ‘rules of business’ of the day, and these, in turn, determine patterns of natural resource use and management. Relationships and inter-relationships which stakeholders have with each other and the wider community, generally, reinforce these behavioural norms. Any analysis of behaviour must therefore, address the structure and operations of relationships and ways in which people operate in groups at all levels. This is particularly so given the many externality issues in NRM. Where particular externality issues are present, collective action, behaviour and attitude change, and sound relationships among stakeholders, will likely be a prerequisite for achieving socially optimal use of resources. (Synapse Research and Consulting and CapitalAg Consulting 2001, p. 2).

We need to be aware that farmers tend to underestimate the environmental problems they face individually, and as part of a catchment. Further, the processes generating the problems are often invisible and insidious so that farmers are not always aware of them (Vanclay and Lawrence 1995). This suggests farmers are unlikely to be equipped to identify problems and locate and implement appropriate management systems without tapping in to external expertise and assistance.

Development of effective groups

Kilpatrick and Bell (2001) studied Executive LinkTM farmer groups, groups widely regarded as highly effective in supporting fundamental changes to farm management practices. They identified a number of stages through which groups progress as they learn together. The groups build social capital as they learn together and develop as a group. The sequential stages of the process that must occur before group members can support each other as they make changes to practices are:

1. acquisition of a high level of personal self-confidence by individual members and a high level of interpersonal skills, including leadership skills;

2. getting to ‘know’ each other as individuals (history and future aspirations), developing shared values and trust;

3. coming to regard each other as credible sources of support and advice; and

4. commitment to fellow members, or being prepared to help each other out.

Research in agriculture suggests that learning in groups is effective for the majority of farmers. Recent studies confirm Kilpatrick’s (1996) finding that participation in education and group activities is linked to capacity to change (Lockie et al. 2000, National Land and Water Resources Audit 2000). Education and training in groups is able to influence change in three broadly defined ways:

  • by delivering new knowledge and skills,
  • by providing interaction with ‘experts’ (that is, facilitators, trainers or teachers), and
  • by providing opportunities for interaction with peers (that is, fellow training participants).

When farmers are surveyed about extension they report that a lack of practicality of the advice is one of their main concerns (Vanclay and Lawrence 1995), suggesting a need for real dialogue between farmers and extension workers. Participatory action research where farmers, researchers, extension workers and other stakeholders work and learn together in a group is effective in producing research outcomes that are adopted by participating farmers (for example Paine et al. (2001)’s study of New Zealand dairy and lamb supply chains). It should be noted however that there are some people who learn effectively independently.


Groups require skills in working together and leadership if they are to be effective. Skills in working together include communication, conflict resolution and group decision making. Coordination that is resourced with a sufficient allocation of time is emerging from research in agriculture and community development as a crucial factor for group effectiveness (for example, Curtis and Lockwood 1998, CRLRA 2000). Coordination is but one aspect of leadership.

There is an increasing recognition that leadership is more effective if it is shared among a number of players, who have complementary skills. Chambers et al (2001), for example, note that three leaders were instrumental in bringing about changed water use in a Murray-Darling Basin community; a ‘visionary’, a ‘strategist’ and a ‘facilitator’. Work at the Centre for Research and Learning in Regional Australia has identified a leadership process as projects move from the initial idea, through initiation of action and development, to management of the project and then assessment and evaluation, with different leadership skills required at each stage (Kilpatrick et al 2002, Falk and Smith 2003). The type of leadership that builds effective collaborative activity in partnerships or groups has been described as enabling leadership (Falk and Mulford 2001). Enabling leadership empowers others to take on a variety of roles, including leadership roles.

Enabling leadership requires attention to a number of tasks that foster positive learning, and so contribute to enhanced networks, relationships and collective action. These tasks can be ordered to roughly correspond with Kilpatrick and Bell’s (2001) sequential stages of group development.

1. Acquisition of a high levels of personal self-confidence and interpersonal skills, including leadership skills is facilitated by building each other’s self-confidence and identity shifts (assisting members to see themselves in a new light) and building shared communication.

2. Getting to ‘know’ each other as individuals (including others’ history and future aspirations), and developing shared values and trust is facilitated by building internal networks: ensuring that members know each others’ relevant knowledge and skills, and that there are shared values relevant for the purpose in hand (e.g. about sustainable management of some aspect of natural resources).

3. Having groups members come to regard each other as credible sources of support and advice is facilitated by building shared experiences.

4. Commitment to fellow group members, or being prepared to help each other out is facilitated by building shared visions, or systematically reconciling past shared experiences with desired future scenario/s (e.g. ensuring that farmer knowledge and experience is recognised, valued and linked to future visions for the resources to be managed sustainably).

The final task for enabling leaders is to build and maintain links between the group and relevant external networks. This task is consistent with Synapse Research and Consulting and CapitalAg Consulting’s (2001) point that sound relationships and the reinforcement of values and beliefs among NRM stakeholders is necessary for collective action to achieve socially optimal use of resources.

In summary, effective groups are developed by paying attention to each of these various stages of group development. Leadership by a number of individuals is required, along with attention to building individual’s self-confidence and group communication processes, visions and internal and external networks. A coordinator or facilitator, from either inside or outside the group, with time to devote to the group and its tasks is crucial for group effectiveness.

Practical steps for achieving best practice

Best practice is the formal and structured process of searching for those practices which lead to superior or excellent performance, the observation and exchange of information about those practices, and the adaptation and implementation of those practices into one’s own organization. (Meade 1994)

The generic elements within this definition are:

  • identification of problem/s that can be addressed by adapting or changing one or more management practice/s,
  • identification of current practices that currently impact on this problem,
  • identification of alternative management practices that may influence the problem and either remove it or lessen its impact. These practices can come from any source, local, regional or national, practical or through research,
  • alternative practices are assessed in their own context, ie, in relation to their own set of influences and/or restraints,
  • alternative practices are discussed with the managers and others (normally group members) who are also addressing a similar management issue or problem. One practice or one or more parts of several practices are selected as an alternative 'best management practice' for the identified problem,
  • perceived better practice/s are adapted and implemented into the new situation,
  • these new practices are then assessed in situ.

Benchmarks are measurement of an agreed factor as the basis for monitoring the effects of management changes. Murray (1997) suggests that we should benchmark or monitor the process rather than benchmarking performance indicators. In the context of NRM, performance benchmarking looks at the inputs and outputs of the farm system and indicates what needs to be improved. Process benchmarking looks at the ways in which the outputs are achieved (the how) and is used for making business improvements, or changes toward sustainable natural resource management.

The best practice process concentrates on what the group is doing, or in the case of NRM, how it is acting on natural resources. This is in contrast to discussion in the previous section about the social process of group development (how the group interacts with each other and outsiders), or how the group is interacting within the group and how the group is interacting with others. An understanding of both social processes and best practice processes for achieving change is necessary when considering the most effective approaches to develop a learning culture among farmers and other stakeholders for sustainable NRM.

Participatory research and evolution of effective NRM groups

There is an increasing awareness that participatory research has the potential to bridge the gap between the physical and social sciences (Land and Water Australia 2001, Carberry 2001). ‘Bottom up’ extension is a related technique whereby farmers are empowered and facilitated to use their own skills to determine the problems that affect them and find solutions (Vanclay and Lawrence 1995). Participatory action research and ‘bottom up’ extension can tap into farmers’ ‘indigenous technical knowledge’, or local knowledge of things such as weather cycles and vegetation growth (Vanclay and Lawrence 1995).

Bottom up extension and participatory action research involving only farmers and researchers are appropriate for setting environmental benchmarks to deal with what Williams and Walcott (1998) term localised environmental impacts; that is impacts attributable to the decisions of farmers, say from overgrazing or inappropriate cropping practices. Systemic environmental impacts are the consequences of decisions made by people in other parts of the system, such as contracting companies and local or state government, on issues such as harvesting times and methods, land clearing and water management (Williams and Walcott 1998). If systemic environmental impacts are to be tackled using a participatory approach, these other parties must also participate in the extension or participatory action research.

Pretty and Frank (2000) review international research into agricultural groups established to manage resources sustainably. They suggest that agricultural systems go through four stages of maturity in the progressive accumulation of three types of renewable assets: natural, social and human capital. Group evolution is an important component of agricultural systems. The stages in sustainable NRM group evolution are:

  • Stage 0: individualistic, use technology-derived solutions (modernist system).
  • Stage 1: early group formation, either in response to a perceived crisis or prompted by an external agency. Outcomes tend to be adoption of practices similar to modern ones, but with less negative environmental impacts. Examples are low-dose pesticides and zero tillage (reactive-eco-efficient-dependent system).
  • Stage 2: trust grows within the group, and rules, norms, and links with other groups develop. Group members see they have the capacity to develop their own solutions and experiment. New practices tend to conserve and improve soils and water (realisation-regenerative-independent system).
  • Stage 3: group members have acquired new ‘world views’ and ways of thinking, groups maintain external networks, have a vision and are dynamic and productive. Groups are capable of influencing other groups. Agricultural systems are likely to be redesigned according to ecological principles and there are substantial improvements in performance or outputs (active-redesign-interdependent system). This stage involves a ratchet shift for groups they are very unlikely to unravel or, if they do, individuals have acquired new worldviews and ways of thinking that will not revert.

Pretty and Ward (2001) list 15 variables that are indicators of where a group is in the stages of evolution. The variables are grouped into world views and sense making, internal norms and trust, external links and networks, technologies and improvements, and group life span. The typology represented by these stages suggests important relationships between group maturity and social capital, where social capital is networks and values or norms that enable people to work together for mutual benefit.

Pretty and Ward (2001) ask: Are groups endowed with social capital more likely to proceed to maturity, or, if social capital is a form of embeddedness that prevents change, will they stop at an earlier stage of the sustainable NRM group development typology? The above list of tasks for enabling leadership would point to insufficient external networks as one reason for arrested progress through the stages.

Pretty and Ward (2001) go on to ask: Does feedback occur between group maturity and social capital? If so, is it positive (e.g., success with a new sustainable practice spills over into success for others, or create new opportunities for cooperation), or negative (e.g., changes in worldview and technology could unsettle traditional practices, erode trust, and make existing networks redundant)? In other words, are some former group members left behind as others acquire new worldviews and new networks (changed social capital) in their progression through the typology stages of group evolution?

The issues raised by Pretty and Ward (2001) suggest that the quality of group facilitation and paying attention to the social processes of group development, discussed earlier, are crucial for a mature approach to natural resource management. Further, a learning culture that extends beyond the group should be developed by paying attention to external networks and reinforcing appropriate values and norms (Synapse Research and Consulting and CapitalAg Consulting 2001).

The evaluation of the ‘Implementing Best Practice in Sustainable Agriculture’ project analysed the project’s processes in the light of the features of effective social processes and best practice processes for achieving change identified in this review of the literature.

The ‘Implementing Best Practice in Sustainable Agriculture’ project

The project worked with four groups of farmers in Northern Tasmania over a period of between one and two years per group. Two project officers acted as facilitators, providing general agricultural knowledge input and identifying relevant specialists, experts and alternative management practices, as required. The project funded the services of experts, as required. They coordinated the activities of the group, initially intensively to assist group development, but with the aim of becoming less involved as the groups matured. Each group first decided the environmental or natural resource management (NRM) issue or problem they were going to monitor and benchmark. The process for developing and implementing best practice management in each group followed a similar direction but with different time scales for each step. The project officers guided the groups, drawing on a formal process for achieving continuous improvement and innovation that they developed, a similar process to that formalised in the resource book, The Better Practice Process by Clark and Timms (2001).

An evaluation was undertaken to identify the features of the process used that were effective and those that were less effective; make recommendations about how external agencies can facilitate farmer groups to benchmark and monitor best practice for sustainable management of natural resources; and assess the extent to which the project met its objectives. This paper draws on the findings from that evaluation.

Mapping the groups’ activities

The activities of each of the groups at the various stages of the project were compared. The comparison was roughly chronological, starting with activities when the groups were initiated and finishing with activities related to the future of the groups. The purpose of the mapping exercise was to understand how the groups progressed through the project stages, which were identified to be: group initiation, selection of an NRM focus issue, identification of current practices and members’ knowledge, selection of measurement tools and benchmarks, monitoring, action and continuous review. Aspects of the activities and characteristics of groups at each stage were compared according to activities and characteristics that emerged from the data and the literature review as potentially significant in the progression of the groups (see Table 1), and so for their effectiveness in implementing best practice in sustainable agriculture.

From the mapping of the four groups’ activities and characteristics against the aspects identified in Table 1, it appeared that there was a continuum of group effectiveness. The continuum ranges from one group who have developed performance and process benchmarks and taken action to achieve these (Group A), to Group D, which was arguably not performing as a group. In between, Group B have developed some performance benchmarks but not yet acted to achieve them, and Group C have commenced monitoring and considered possible benchmarks. Group A is the only group to have influenced others and the only group to have developed external networks. They are the only group to have made or considered systemic environmental impacts, albeit to a limited extent to date. Systemic impacts are those that extend beyond a farm boundary.

Two questions emerged from the analysis.

  • First, how do the four groups compare to other measures of effective NRM groups? That is, is Group A a highly effective NRM group compared to other NRM groups in Australia and internationally?
  • Second, what are the characteristics of the groups that make them more or less effective and what has occurred in the groups (either before of during this project) to make them more or less effective?

Table 1. Aspects of groups at various project stages

Project stage

Aspects of group activities and characteristics

Initiation of group

Process of group selection

Motivation of members

Expectations of members

Make-up and size of group

Links between members at start

First meeting

Location of meetings and field/venue

Focus issue selection

Project officer meetings with individuals

Facilitated structured 'focus session' with expert facilitator early on

Type of early activities that helped build group in early stage

Participation in training activities

Selection of focus issue

Influence of other current projects in selection of focus issue

Member roles in establishing focus issue

Identification of current practices and knowledge of group members

Identification of current practices and knowledge of group members

Selection of measurement tools and benchmarks

Role of other projects and other institutions/resources in gathering baseline data

Role of members and others in selecting tools and benchmarks

Nature of benchmarks


Monitoring tools

How is the sampling done

Who does the interpretation

Group's ownership of monitoring process


Planned actions

Actions influenced by project

Evaluation and continuous review

Planned ongoing monitoring

Influence of group on others

Planned future group activities


How mature are the groups?

Pretty and Ward (2001)’s three stages in the evolution of NRM groups according to fifteen criteria provide a useful frame for analysing the level of maturity of the four groups in this project. Data gathered from the groups, the project officers, steering committee and technical and facilitator experts who interacted with the groups were analysed using Pretty and Ward’s criteria so as to compare the characteristics displayed by the groups.

  • Group A is the most mature group, displaying many characteristics of Pretty and Ward’s most mature stage 3, Active-Redesign-Interdependence, particularly in relation to criteria in the world views and sense-making, internal norms and trust and group lifespan criteria, but still exhibiting some characteristics of stage 2, Realisation-Regenerative-Independence, for example in relation to technologies and improvements. It is at stage 3 that groups are able to make systemic environmental impacts.
  • Group B made considerable progress in the 18 months since its inception, displaying many characteristics of stage 2, but still some of stage 1, Reactive-EcoEfficient-Dependence, particularly in relation to the external links and networks criteria.
  • Group C has just started the journey toward group maturity and effectiveness, displaying many characteristics of stage 1, and some of stage 2, for example a realisation of new capacities (one of the world views and sense making criteria) and sharing within the group (internal norms and trust).
  • Group D was the most recently established group. It does have a small number of stage 1 characteristics, but has many more of the characteristics of Pretty and Frank’s (2000) stage 0. Stage 0 is a modernist system where there is no value put on social cohesion, individuals tend not to be organised in groups, and there is not effective monitoring to value natural capital adequately.

Pretty and Frank (2000) make the point that social and human capital are prerequisites for natural capital improvements where the NRM issues cross property boundaries. This suggests that our second question (what are the characteristics of the groups that make them more or less effective and what has occurred in the groups (either before or during this project) to make them more or less effective?) is particularly significant if we want to foster the development of effective, mature NRM groups.

Group characteristics and activities affecting their effectiveness

Group characteristics

Group A that had progressed furthest on Pretty and Ward’s (2001) group maturity continuum had worked together as a group on other projects and been involved in a number of community groups together. The members socialised together and shared a range of values, not restricted to those related to sustainable agriculture. Kilpatrick and Bell (2001) found that shared values relevant to the purpose of the group were a prerequisite for effective groups, and assist in developing a shared vision of where the group is heading. Group A had a shared vision for NRM and sustainable agriculture in its district. Group B spent some time coming to realise that the members had shared values about sustainable agriculture. This group knew each other socially before the start of this project, but had not worked together before. Group C that had not progressed as far on the Pretty and Ward (2001) continuum, also knew each other before the project, but did not interact to the same extent as Group B. Not all Group D members had met before the project. This continuum of ‘base-line’ member interaction and degree of shared values suggests that time, and activities specifically design to foster sharing and clarifying of values about NRM and sustainable agriculture, are necessary if new groups are to develop into mature NRM groups. Table 2 gives examples of activities and actions that helped the groups in the project in developing shared values re sustainable agriculture.

There is some evidence from this project that the size of the group is related to effectiveness, with smaller groups being more effective. For example, Group A was the smallest of the groups, with six members while Group C that had not progressed as far along Pretty and Ward’s (2001) continuum had 15 members. The important shared values, noted above, and trust are easier to develop in a smaller group.

Group process and activities

Simultaneous group and technical processes

The groups in this project have not only worked toward improving natural resources, or natural capital. They have also developed human and social capital, with the possible exception of Group D. Further, given that the development of human and social capital is a pre-requisite for improving natural capital, the group processes that have developed human and social capital are key to our understanding of how government agencies, communities and industry can act to facilitate the implementation of sustainable NRM practices.

The literature review described a set of four sequential stages that groups go through as they develop and build social capital (Kilpatrick and Bell 2001). The implementation of best practice for sustainable agriculture project also proceeded through a number of sequential stages from group initiation, through selection of monitoring tools to action and continuous review. It could be expected that the project groups would develop and build social capital over time as they moved through the project stages. What is the relationship, if any, between the stages of group development and social capital formation and the project stages?

Analysis of the data relating to the four groups shows that the project officers and the groups are going though two simultaneous processes. One builds technical competency in NRM and the other is the underpinning social process that allows the groups to make decisions and work collectively. Some of the activities and project officer actions with the four groups particularly assisted with group development and building social and human capital. They serve as examples of how the social and technical project processes can be linked. Table 2 draws on the four project groups to distil actions that appear to have helped the groups to develop in the direction of mature, effective NRM groups.

The data from the four groups suggest that a preliminary stage should be added to Kilpatrick and Bell’s sequential stages of group development. It is Foundation for building group relationships, and is a set of actions that can establish a good foundation on which to build the technical and social processes.

Table 2. Good practice actions and activities matched to project and group development

Project stage

Social process

Examples of good practice actions and activities at each group development stage

Initiation/ group formation

Foundation for building group relationships

Consider existing effective groups as basis for NRM groups.

Get a farmer to champion group and arrange initial meeting.

Limit group to 5-8 properties and 12 people. Involve whole farm management teams. Include a balance between degree of shared values and experience and some diversity. All should have similar enterprises.

Select a generalist project officer with NRM/agricultural knowledge and facilitation skills.

Individual visits in early stage help project officer get to know members values, experiences, history; helps design activities to develop self-confidence and getting to know each other.

Building self confidence and interpersonal skills

Gather information about the group members' understandings and practices, eg a survey

Selection of focus issue

Have a variety of activities early on that include some practical activities, eg looking at soil samples and mapping. Caters for a variety of learning styles.

Involve group in a training course. Even if not directly related to the core focus issue, will build group identity, develop some shared language, help members get to know each other, and satisfies members' needs to be doing something practical and applicable to their farm businesses. Can be used to build technical knowledge so that farmers' are confident in integrating their indigenous farming knowledge with technical knowledge.

Getting to know each other and developing shared values and trust

Consider current projects that have potential to provide data and expertise on an NRM issue of interest to group, but are not driven by these projects.

Facilitated focus session with expert facilitator to select focus issue. Not too much technical information.

Identify impacts of current practice

When identifying current practices, consider a non-threatening environment such as in the field.

Share information from survey at this stage.

Facilitation should be designed to give everybody a voice. Good technique is to list practices on a seasonal chronological basis, and decide where the risk is for NRM issue. Helps bring theory into practical context. Helps develop interpersonal skills and getting to know each other. Encourages group members to learn from each other and be confident that their input is worthwhile and valued by group.

Selection of monitoring tools

Role for project officer to locate technical information and expertise; cyclical process of locating and translating information in consultation with experts, refining, checking with farmers, consulting with experts again.


Monitoring is important to engage farmers’ interests as they see the impact of their management on an environmental issue and therefore can better argue what is best practice for their farm.

Project officer should look for opportunities to give members tasks and to build leadership roles in the group.

Role of project officer in motivating group, reminding about monitoring in a positive, friendly, non-threatening manner.

Seeing each other as credible sources of advice and support (self-directed group)

All participate in monitoring and learn to use tools.

Development of benchmarks and agreed best practice

Interpretation of comparative baseline data in a) non-technical language and b) in such a way as to emphasise practices that may have lead to the baseline measurements rather than just the figures themselves.

Sessions guided by expert facilitators can assist in developing critical analysis and problem solving skills.

Action to achieve best practice

Be prepared for individual members to adapt agreed group actions for their individual circumstances.

Evaluation and review

Commitment to group

Group becomes fairly self-reliant. Role for a project officer to access information and resources, and keep on task.



Consider seasonal factors in meeting times and for monitoring.

The stages of the simultaneous technical and social processes do not completely overlap, as can be seen in Table 2. Table 2 matches examples of actions and activities from the four project groups to the technical and social process stages. It should be noted that Table 2 necessarily simplifies the timing of the processes. Although both are largely sequential there are many times when ‘earlier’ stages are revisited. For example, getting to know each other and developing shared values and trust continues right through the process, and is still happening at the action and continuous review stages.

There was little activity to observe in the project at the evaluation and review stage, as only Group A reached this stage of the project, and perhaps because of the consequent small amount of data, the last two of Clark and Timms’ (2001) steps, performance assessment, and creation and synthesis, are combined into the evaluation and review project step.

Table 2 highlights the sequential nature of steps in the development of effective NRM groups. Attention to the detail of both the technical and group process stages is essential. Clark and Timms (2001) provide a structure for planning group activities and a useful toolbox for designing activities. The Implementation of Best Practice for Sustainable Agriculture project benefited from drawing on the six step action learning structure. Other action learning models designed for use with groups could have also have been used in this project.

Leadership roles in groups

Table 2 and the mapping of group activities (Table 1) suggest that the role of the project officer changes as the groups develop. This is seen most clearly in Group A, and there is some evidence of a change in Group B. In the early stages of group development the project officer acts as group leader. This is still the case with Group C at the end of the project. Some members of Group B expressed an interest in keeping the group together by initiating meetings and other actions. Group A is self-directed, coming together and making decisions on a range of issues not necessarily directed by the project officer. There is still a role for the project officer with Group A. It is one of coordination, liaison with external agencies such as agencies, particularly those involved in monitoring, and as a channel to technical expertise. This coordination role is under the direction of the group; it is an ‘executive officer’ role.

The leadership in an effective group transfers from the project officer to group members as the group matures. The actions of the project officer in enabling and empowering group members to be leaders are crucial to achieving group maturity and so reaching Pretty and Ward’s stage 3 (Active-Redesign-Interdependent). These enabling and empowering actions occur right through the social group development process. The seeds are sown by actions such as designing facilitation to give everybody a voice which helps develop confidence, interpersonal skills and the group getting to know each other.

Effective groups share the leadership tasks. Again Group A serves as an example. Three leaders, each with a specific, well understood, role were identified from the six members. One person was an 'initiator', another was a 'driver', and the third keeps everyone on task. These are similar to Chambers et al (2001) leaders in a Murray-Darling Basin community; a visionary, a strategist and a facilitator.

Barriers to project and group processes

This section lists factors that may act as barriers to the project and group processes starting with factors that may prevent the individuals from coming together and working as a group on an ongoing basis. the section goes on to list factors that are barriers to the groups developing as mature NRM groups.

Factors that may hinder initial formation of group

The following factors emerge from the project and the literature reviewed as hindering the formation of NRM groups: as hindering the formation of NRM groups:

  • Reluctance to share information.
  • Lack of recognition by group members of the value of their own local knowledge and experience. This hinders sharing of information and identification of the impact of current practices.
  • Perceived difference in values, attitudes and motivation from neighbours.
  • Individuals have too many other commitments or priorities.
  • Perceived benefits of group not convincing.
  • Lack of comparable management systems and resource base with others.
  • Imposition of an issue that is not a priority for potential members.
  • Fear of regulation following NRM issue focus
  • Poor experience in past with groups
  • Individuals reluctant to change practices
  • Reluctance to engage with NRM issues
  • Lack of incentive to change, eg lack of positive price signals

Factors that hinder group development (internal)

The following internal factors emerge from the project and literature reviewed as hindering the development of mature and effective NRM groups:

  • Group burnout, through variety of factors including complexity and long time lines; this was a danger for Group A
  • Communication problems within group, as with Group C who were unable to coordinate monitoring.
  • Difficulty developing measurement tools and benchmarks due to the imperfect science of natural systems
  • Timeframe to build information base and measurement cycles, potentially a problem for Group B.
  • Emergence of other priorities, as for initiating member of Group C who dropped out.
  • Lack of commitment from all group members, as was the case for Group D.
  • Breakdown in using and reporting of monitoring tools to members.
  • Group size too large, as for Group D.
  • Reluctance of group members to take on leadership roles, as for Group C.
  • Lack of understanding or recognition of the problem by all members
  • Lack of skills to resolve conflict
  • Changes to farm enterprises
  • Dominance of one or a few individuals

Factors that hinder group development (external)

The following external factors emerge from the project and the literature as hindering the development of mature and effective NRM groups:

  • Inadequate or loss of support from agency providing facilitation and technical resources, applies to all groups as the project ends.
  • Impacts on resource issues by people outside the group who make decisions independently
  • Cost for implementation and other human resource factors
  • Introduction of new regulations
  • Change in commodity prices


A major factor in the effectiveness of the groups was the extent to which they developed shared values and visions in relation to sustainable agriculture. Having previously worked together and being part of the same social network assisted in developing shared values and visions. The activities of the group influenced their rate of development as effective NRM groups. Activities that were matched to the stages of group maturity as well as the technical project stages were the most successful. Having the group attend a training course early in the project is an important example of an activity that helped members get to know each other and develop shared values as well as acquire relevant technical knowledge and skills. Groups where members take on responsibilities within the group, including leadership roles, is important to group development and so effectiveness.

The groups’ activities were determined by project officer, except in the most mature group where decisions were made jointly with group members. Hence, the project officer was a major determinant of group development and so effectiveness. The dual development of technical and social processes identified in this project mean that a project officer with generalist agriculture and NRM knowledge plus good group facilitation skills is required. The project officer should look for opportunities to give group members leadership roles.

The Implementation of Best Practice for Sustainable Agriculture project benefited from drawing on a group action learning model, in this case Clark and Timms (2001) better practices process. However, the most significant lesson from this project is groups are going though two simultaneous processes. One builds technical competency in NRM and the other is the underpinning social process that allows the groups to make decisions and work collectively. Group activities must be designed to take both processes into account.


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