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Barriers and benefits to saltland pasture production: extension research in agriculture

Anne Jones

Development Officer, Department of Agriculture Western Australia, Narrogin WA 6312 Email ajones@agric.wa.gov.au

Abstract

Farmers, in general, do not use saltland pastures, regardless of over 50 years of research and extension, demonstrated examples of successful saltland production, and the area of salt affected land steadily increasing. Extension staff have focused their messages on the benefits that these pastures can provide in reducing recharge and slowing the spread of salinity (environmental sustainability). Farming systems advisers have criticised this approach based on the argument that it does not promote the benefits of saltland pastures to livestock production and cropping rotations (economic sustainability). More recently, the Sustainable Grazing of Saline Land (SGSL) Project has taken this approach, but the rate of adoption remains low. The literature states that the barriers to adoption are primarily that farmers do not have the information, skills or resources required. The Community Based Social Marketing (CBSM) method tests those assumptions.

The CBSM process has proved to be a highly successful way of achieving behavioural changes in areas such as domestic waste management, energy and water consumption. Our aim is to apply the principles of social marketing to determine the barriers to the specific behaviours required to adopt saltland production, and to design a program to overcome these barriers.

Three key learnings: (1) an understanding of the barriers to adoption of saltland pasture production, (2) validation of the CBSM process, and (3) design of a pilot program to increase adoption of saltland production to WA wheatbelt mixed farming enterprises.

Key Words

Community Based Social Marketing, salt tolerant pastures, Sustainable Grazing of Saline Lands (SGSL), adoption, focus groups, salinity, saltbush.

Introduction

Project objective

The goal of the Department of Agriculture’s Farming Systems Project (FSP) is to improve the long-term viability of the agricultural industry in Western Australia through a farming system approach. The FSP analyses local issues, evaluated options for change and adds value to projects at the district and regional level. It relies on building relationships with industry bodies to affect industry change. The FSP identified livestock production from salt affected land as having considerable potential in the Narrogin District. As a result, the Project submitted a proposal to the Western Australian Sustainable Grazing on Saline Lands (SGSL) Committee to undertake research into the barriers and benefits to adoption of salt tolerant pastures. The results of this research will be used to design a social marketing program for the increased adoption of saltland pasture production practices, and contribute to the planning of the next SGSL Program.

Research area

The research is targeted to the Shires of Corrigin, Wickepin, East Brookton and East Pingelly. This area constitutes what is known as the Zone of Ancient Drainage section of the Narrogin Advisory District (refer Figure 1).

The Western Australian landscape is unique because it is so old and weathered. Salt accumulation in the soil has occurred from the breakdown of rock and from salt particles brought to land from the ocean via rainfall.

Inland areas of Western Australia have a high threat of salinity because of low rainfall (salts are not flushed through the soil) and high evaporation (which increases the salt concentration levels in the plant root zone). The area of the study was chosen partly because the landscape is characterised by large areas of low-lying flat land. Slight rises of the watertable result in large increases in the areas of land affected by salinity.

Figure 1. Location of the research area in Western Australia (maps courtesy of WA Department of Land Information and WA Department of Local Government and Regional Development)

Two other conditions make the research area of high importance to the Department of Agriculture and the SGSL Program. Firstly, the majority of the farming systems in the area are mixed cereal and livestock (predominantly sheep) enterprises – an important component of a project focusing on grazing. Secondly, the area has a considerably high proportion of the SGSL funded farmer network trial sites. Farmers proposed the research question and take an active role in managing and monitoring these trial sites. This provides an opportunity for building on existing relationships and increasing farmer participation in this and future projects.

Methodology -

Background to social marketing

Proponents of the Community Based Social Marketing approach (CBSM, 2005) propose that behaviour change is most effectively achieved through initiatives delivered at the community level, which focus on removing barriers to an activity while simultaneously enhancing the activity’s benefits (McKenzie-Mohr and Smith, 1999). The social marketing process sets out to rigorously identify the behaviours that will best achieve the desired outcome, and then provide strategies to deal with the barriers to that behaviour. CBSM tests and retests the assumptions that are made about why people behave the way that they do.

Information packages, training opportunities and sources of funding can help overcome the barriers of inadequate awareness and skills, and financial limitations. Dr McKenzie-Mohr (McKenzie-Mohr and Smith, 1999), promoter of CBSM, suggests that there may be a range of social reasons that people do not adopt certain behaviours. A significant barrier may be the relative attractiveness of an alternative behaviour, whether it is one that is easier, habitual or common practice. Strategies such as securing commitment to action, providing social norms and breaking down external (institutional or infrastructure) barriers are ways in which these barriers may be overcome.

The CBSM approach has been used internationally for motivating people to adopt sustainable lifestyle practices. It has been used most prolifically to promote energy efficiency and recycling, usually focusing on simple behaviours such as switching off lights, use of recycling bins, and mulching gardens. The process is described in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Community-Based Social Marketing process as it applies to the adoption of saltland pastures project

Discussion – Progress and Prospects

Changing farmer practices is complex as it often involves the adoption of a system requiring a range of practices, rather than discrete behaviours. All of the practices required for a new system needs to be implemented simultaneously for benefits of any of the components to be realised. The adoption of livestock production practices from salt tolerant pastures is one example of a whole system practice change is required. As the usual application of CBSM is to promote relatively simple sustainable lifestyle behaviour changes, the challenge is in its application to adoption of a complex farming system. At the time this paper was written, the project had reached stage 2.1 of the process outlined above i.e, farmer survey. A literature review on the barriers to adoption (Step 1.1) had been done; three focus groups (Step 1.2) had been run and themes identified, the survey design completed and survey underway. This section discussion the experience and value of the process to achieve the extension aim of the project.

The literature review

Publications on saltland pasture production were reviewed in an effort to identify possible barriers and benefits to adoption. This information was later discussed in the focus groups to validate applicability to the target audience, and to explore the motivations associated with the barriers and benefits in this case (refer to next section).

The literature on adoption of saltland management practices focuses mainly on revegetation of saline land to reduce the rise of the watertable and minimise the spread of salinity. Very little literature was available on the adoption of saltland pastures for agricultural production purposes. Government policy, which provided funding in the 1980s and 90s for rehabilitation of saline areas for conservation and resource management benefits, may have created a paradigm that saline land should remain separate from the farming enterprise. This question was considered worthy of exploration in the focus groups. Some literature discusses the perceptions of professionals in the agricultural support industry about the barriers and benefits of saltland pasture management. There was little data on farmer’s perceptions of barriers and benefits to saltland pasture production. The literature review did, however, provide a range of themes for discussion in the focus groups.

Farmer focus groups

The social marketing process suggests that at least four focus groups are run – two groups of people who could be classified as ‘non-adopters’ and two groups ‘adopters’. An ‘adopter’ is defined as ‘someone who is practising saltland pasture production as a normal part of their farming business’. Thus, selecting farmers for the focus groups was a three-step process; 1) Identifying farmers in the area with significant amounts of saline land, 2) identifying those farmers who run livestock, and 3) semi-structured telephone interviews. Focus groups are a way of getting in-depth information from a small group of people on a particular topic. It is a tool often used in market research.(Greenbaum, 1993).

The WA Department of Agriculture database of farm properties with Areas of Consistently Low Productivity (AOCLP) was used to identify the target audience. AOCLP is not necessarily the same as salt affected land as low productivity may be caused by other factors. It is highly likely that salinity is the main cause of consistently low productivity within the research area, which makes the AOCLP list an adequate source of information for this project.

Other local staff were consulted to find out which members of that list would have livestock. Twenty five members were interviewed on the telephone to ascertain whether they fitted into the ‘adopter’ or ‘non-adopter’ categories and, based on their experience, were invited to participate in one of the focus groups. There was a mix of participants in terms of farmer age, farm size and location in the research zone. Wives, partners and sons were also invited to attend. There was an attempt to minimise the number of neighbouring farmers, so as to minimise the effect of negative inter-relationships affecting the responses in the groups. In a small target audience size of about 250, this is difficult and the technique was not entirely successful. The participants were, in general, open and respectful of others and their opinions.

Categorising farmers into groups of ‘adopters’ and ‘non-adopters’ is difficult in the reality of complex agricultural and social systems. The definition of an adopter as ‘someone who is practicing saltland pasture production practices as a normal part of their farming business’ is too simplistic. A farmer who has only just put in areas of salt tolerant pastures and is not grazing them yet would, under the definition, be considered a ‘non-adopter’). If they have overcome barriers to adoption, should they not be treated as an ‘adopter’? There is also the farmers who spend no time managing their saltland pastures and who only has them grazed opportunistically. Is he/she an adopter even though they may not be getting the best from the pastures? Is such a low input system just as valid for his farming system?

The other obvious difficulty in selecting participants to the focus groups is the potential for bias in the groups. People who have tried a particular practice but believe that they have not been successful in that practice are less likely to want to talk about it. Yet, the experiences and thoughts of these people are extremely valuable to the project. This means, however, that it is also difficult to entice these people to attend a focus group where the topic of the conversation is about a practice that they have not adopted (or have dis-adopted).

The main question this experience raised was: “Is it really important to have separate groups of ‘adopters’ and ‘non-adopters’?” A benefit of interviewing them as separate groups may be that those seen to be more experienced in the group do not intimidate the ‘non-adopters’ into silence. On the other hand, the difference of opinion my lead to some interesting in-depth discussion. Having mixed groups also allows for a more marketable experience for all farmers. The farmers will get the opportunity to help and learn from others. Three groups with a mixture of ‘adopters’ and ‘non-adopters’ were run – one in each of the main towns in the area (Corrigin, Wickepin and Yealering). This made it easier for the participants to attend the focus groups as the distance that they needed to travel was reduced.

Mind mapping is a radiant representation of thoughts which helps to clarify complex concepts (Buzan, 1993). Figures 3 (a) and (b), below, shows mind-map representations of the main themes that the farmers discussed when questioned about the barriers, benefits and enablers. The main questions allowed the farmers to contribute their thoughts without being led to a particular topic. The participants brought up most of the barriers and benefits that were identified in the literature review. Many new relationships were formed through this process as farmers who would not otherwise have the reason or opportunity to talk to each other arranged to visit each other’s farms to show what they had done. It is not the aim of this step in the social marketing process to evoke a learning experience, but it seems a valuable benefit for the participants nonetheless.

Figure 3 (a) Example of a mind-map representing the themes discussed by the farmer focus groups on the topic of what enabled them to gain production from their saline land. Questions prompting this discussion included: "Think about the times, when you felt energized and inspired by adopting/trying salt land grazing. What was happening? What was it about you or others? Describe what made it energizing? What helped and what made a difference?”

Figure 3 (b) Mind-map representing the themes discussed by the farmer focus groups on the topic of what the barriers to gaining production from their saline land are. Questions prompting this discussion included: “What about a time, or times, when things weren't going so well - what got in your way? What hindered progress or stopped you going on with it? What did you or others do? What else was happening at the time?”

Conclusion

Things learned about the CBSM process so far include:

  • This is a rigorous process. Done properly there are a lot of checks and balances to make sure that the process achieves the outcomes that you’re after
  • Each step of the process requires a great deal of resources (mostly skills, time and money). I recommend purchasing time and skills wherever possible.
  • The process suggests having 2 focus group each of those who are and those who aren’t conducting certain behaviours. This has proved difficult for two reasons
    Those who haven’t adopted a practice that we wish to discuss are not as often willing to talk about it
    There is a very fine line between what constitute an “adopter” and a “non-adopter”. A non-adopter may be an adopter at an early stage, or it may suit him better to only adopt certain aspects of a practice (eg. Low input system)
  • It is important to be aware of the assumptions that you make throughout the process and how they may affect the outcome.
  • We are dealing with small populations of diverse characters. The contact that we have with the farmers for the focus groups and surveys will be a significant portion of the target population. This will affect the outcome and makes it difficult to evaluate the effect of the programs in isolation.
  • However, relationships play a huge role in influencing peoples behaviour. The interaction with farmers that this process provides will go a long way to supporting the adoption process.
  • We are dealing with complex systems and decision-making processes.
  • Participation in the focus groups by farmers leads to learning and action

References

Buzan, T (1993). The mind map book. London : BBC Books.

CBSM (2005) Community Based Social Marketing. www.cbsm.com. Accessed November 2005.

Greenbaum, T.L. (1993). The handbook for focus group research. Toronto: Maxwell Macmillan Canada.

McKenzie-Mohr, D and Smith, W (1999). Fostering sustainable behaviour: An introduction to Community-Based Social Marketing. Gabriola Island, Canada: New Society Publishers.

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