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Show me the tool and I will give you the advisor?

Mark Paine1, David Shambrook2, Rob O’Connor2, Ashleigh Michael2, Cecilia Mezenberg2, Nadine Markham2, Kaye Hildebrand2, Geoff Drysdale2, Anne Crawford1 and Joy Coulson2

School of Agriculture & Food Systems, Faculty of Land and Food Resources, University of Melbourne
Target 10, Department of Primary Industries, Victoria


A project involving the Department of Primary Industries Victoria and the University of Melbourne aimed to identify practices that were effective for building relationships between advisors and farmers to address farming systems issues. Reports from seven case study advisory relationships were thematically analysed to identify the events, actions and reflections that underpinned effective advisory practice.

Three distinct stages were identified in the work of advisors with farmers. A working relationship between the advisor and the farmer was established in the first three months. In this stage boundaries were set around management activities to be addressed by the farm team and the advisor. A second stage involved intensive use of tools and information by advisors to evaluate alternative courses of action for the farmer. During this second stage advisors developed an understanding of the family situation and developed a relationship with the farm management team. The final stage combined a review process with planning activities based on farm system performance. Implications for advisory practice were identified at each of these stages.

Advisors are increasingly calling for training to use new tools to investigate system management options for farmers. While this need is well founded there is a corresponding risk that advisors will take their eye off the main game which is; making pertinent observations about system performance and its potential; appreciating management’s preferences and capabilities; and contributing to the formulation of ideas and possibilities necessary to offer a valued partnership to farmers. Advisors should not expect that tools will adequately substitute for the many routines that make up their everyday practice.

Three key learnings: (1) Advisors need to monitor the learning context of the advisory relationship. (2) Professional development activities need to ensure advisors are adequately equipped to manage early encounters with farmers, as a foundation to an ongoing advisory relationship. (3) Farm system performance reviews are an explicit opportunity for advisors to emphasise the importance of learning and professional development with farmers.


Advisory relationships, professional development, farm systems


This paper analyses seven advisory relationships developed over 12 months with dairy farm businesses. It provides a position statement on advisory practices relating to farming systems. The seven advisors were members of a development team working within the Department of Primary Industries Victoria Target 10 program. Target 10 is a dairy extension program that usually uses group based extension methods to help farmers improve their farm productivity and natural resource management practices (Boomsma, et al., 1999). The development work reported in this paper used one-to-one advisory practices. Advisors maintained learning logs and kept detailed records of each farm visit. A conceptual framework was also used to systematically reflect on their experiences with farmers and guide the writing of individual case study reports (refer also to Markham et al. 2006 – this conference). In this paper we provide a cross case analysis to identify common approaches used by advisors to describe advisory practices that supported improved management of dairy farming systems.

The primary audience for this analysis is advisory practitioners – first and foremost Dairy Extension Officers who work in farming systems projects. A secondary audience is investors (financial supporting organisations) and those who are responsible for the professional development of advisors in rural industries.


Declining returns over the past decade has led farmers to question the most appropriate farming system and consider making significant changes to their current situation, involving complex decisions around feed, land and labour management (Garcia & Fulkerson 2005). In providing support to addressing these questions and assist dairy farm businesses through changing community and environmental expectations, advisors require a more complete understanding of the farming system and appropriate interpersonal skills (social, organisational) to manage the farmer-advisor relationship (Paine et al. 2004, Nettle 2003).

In recent years, with the public sector focus on efficiencies in extension delivery and improved client focus, there has been less emphasis on the development requirements for advisors (Fulton et al. 2003). Furthermore, advisors’ competencies and demand for comprehensive farming systems understanding can be different to those required and developed previously through specialisation in specific aspects of the dairy farm system such as animal nutrition or soils and fertilisers. There is also the call to focus less on ‘tools’ and more on the personal relationship between the farmer and advisor, as this relationship (encompassing attributes such as trust, respect, shared knowledge) is fundamental to an individual making a decision to do something different on his or her property following intervention by the advisor (Boyd 2003). This paper focuses on the approach and attributes of developing this relationship for seven dairy farm advisors in Victoria.


Each of the seven farm advisors selected a case study farmer to work with around a farming systems decision or change. These case study farms were from both dryland and irrigated dairying regions of Victoria, and encompassed a variety of decision-making scenarios. Advisors maintained a ‘learning log’ to record the interactions and reflections on these interactions with their case study farmers as farm management plans were developed and implemented over a 12 month period. Individually the extension officers documented the process they had gone through when working with their case study farmers.

A thematic analysis of the seven documented case studies was undertaken by focusing on two questions:

  • What advisory practices were responsible for the development of relationships and management plans with farmers?
  • Do opportunities exist to improve practices in farming systems advisory work?

Common patterns of advisory practice were identified across the case studies using a coding process that analysed text fragments (ie. a phrase, a sentence or a paragraph) embodied in the case study reports. Descriptions were assigned to these fragments by constantly comparing recently coded text with text that was already assigned to a particular code (Glaser, 1978). Linkages between codes were identified when text fragments were shared (ie. a text fragment can have more than one code) or when reference was made on a causal or temporal basis to events or actions embodied in other codes. The way codes linked together formed a conceptual model of farming systems advisory practice. All events, actions and reflections were indexed to this model through the coding process. Memos and references were also linked through a software model designed for this type of analysis (N-Vivo™).

The case studies prepared by the advisors highlighted the diversity of systems and approaches that advisors encounter with farmers. Each case study was centred on the preparation of plans with farmers, monitoring progress against these plans and describing the adaptation process used by farmers to cope with unforeseen circumstances as the season progressed. Notable changes in the relationships between farmers and advisors were also observed as the season progressed.

Analysis across these cases enabled an identification of the principal routines that were shared in common by the advisors across diverse practice situations. These principles provide a basis for developing guidelines and packages when advisors are engaged in supporting the improved management of farming systems. The results of this analysis are reported as advisory practice routines.

The cross case analysis is organised around three distinct stages in the work of the advisor with the farmer. A period of up to three months was commonly required by the advisory relationship to establish a working context. During this period boundaries were defined around the planning and management activities that were to be addressed by the farm management team who were working with the advisor. A second stage involved intensive use of tools and information by the advisor to evaluate alternative courses of action within the planning process. It was during this second stage that advisors developed a broader understanding of the farming family situation and developed a more substantial relationship with the farm management team. The final stage combined a review process with planning activities based on achievements to date.

Results and Discussion

The first three months in advisory relationships

In initial meetings with farmers the advisors were searching for events or comments from farmers that opened opportunities for inquiry or signalled a need for information to be collected and processed. Over time the advisors formed an impression of the learning context that farmers were operating within.

‘I identified two issues of concern, growing crops on salt affected ground and a high not- in-calf rate of 15%. I volunteered to follow up on the crops suitable for salt affected ground and K agreed to look into information from the In-Calf Program to improve the In-calf rate.’

A number of issues and events will together make up this learning context. This combination of events provided a point of entry for the advisor to begin building a relationship with the farmer or the farm management team. Often this entry into the life of the farm business focuses on an area of expertise or specialist knowledge that the advisor has confidence to work on.

‘The family's limited pasture management experience and no experience of the temperate environment of Southern Australia drove my role in the learning environment to support C&M in establishing a brand new dairy farming system.’

Feed management issues were commonly used as a point of entry across the cases, given the experiences and knowledge base of the Target 10 group.

So how did the advisors use these points of entry to address change on the farm? Advisors developed a capacity for questioning and listening that together perform a number of functions. If the questions made sense to the farmer then they became engaged in a dialogue with the advisor, particularly if the question was framed in a way that indicated the advisor knew where to look for information about the farming system or its management. Listening required an active engagement with the farmers as advisors had to demonstrate some comprehension of farmers’ comments that in turn enabled the framing of a subsequent round of questioning.

‘While building a picture of the farm I found I was asking people focused questions such as, who is involved in the business? Who are the other family members?’

The location for this questioning and listening was significant to the emergence of an advisory relationship. The farm walk and the kitchen table provided ideal locations to establish a dialogue with farmers that focused on the identification of issues in relation to the setting and reviewing of goals. The farm location tended to expand the scope of work to be addressed by the relationship, while activities at the kitchen table tend to focus this work down to actionable areas that were amenable to the use of analytical procedures and tools.

‘Each systems’ farm visit included a farm walk, which was an excellent opportunity to assess the current on-farm situation. As we walked we discussed grazing management practices, nutrition of the cows, milk production and other issues that were impacting on the farm business and family at the time of the year. After the farm walk M, B and myself would sit down at the kitchen table to discuss plans for the coming months’.

As dialogue developed on-farm and at the kitchen table the goals for negotiation with the farmer became more evident, while the advisor also developed a better appreciation of the farmers’ readiness to make changes to their farm system. Goals were statements about intent. These may have had their origins in the use of simple targets, or come from general statements about aims. Infrequently the businesses were using formally prepared goal statements.

‘This activity has demonstrated to me how important goal setting is. In future when doing this type of work I plan to lead the farmer through a formal process of goal setting to provide clear direction.’

Goals that were negotiated in this way were a reason for advisors to re-visit the farm - they focused the interaction and provided a framework for monitoring the performance of the advisory relationship. For this reason the advisor maintained a cautious eye on the management team’s readiness for change as some members were more willing than others to make changes to various aspects of the farm system. The question-listen process was highly influential in these negotiations about goals. Time was often an important consideration as some decisions to make a change required a period of ‘incubation’ that allowed the farmer to reflect and contemplate the implications of change on their system. Time considerations also influenced the management of change from a project management perspective as some changes could not occur until some precursory events or tasks had taken place.

‘I discussed using millet with them using the DemoDAIRY research data. They decided not to pursue this option as it was relatively ‘untried’ in this region commercially and discussion group farmers had not used it successfully.’

We see that in this case study the advisor was probing for opportunities for change and gauging readiness for change using a question-listen process. Many goals were set for the duration of a season because of the project’s timeframe.

Many of these aspects of advisory practice continue through the later stages. Special attention has been paid to the first three months of the advisory relationship as it is a critical period for establishing the potential for changes to be made in the farming system.

In summary we see that advisors appreciate a farmer’s workplace as a learning environment within which the advisor is searching for points of entry that will enable a relationship to build around a commonly understood issue related to farm system performance. This enables the advisor to apply their specialist knowledge. An effective question-listen process is a primary determinant of how these issues or problems are formulated into goals that can be addressed by the advisory relationship. This process works itself out on farm and at the kitchen table – locations that in part influence the effectiveness of question-listen process. Other factors influencing the relationship include the farmer’s readiness to make changes and the timeframes available to make change.

Advisors need to monitor the learning context of the relationship. They need to critically reflect on their use of the question-listen process on-farm and at the kitchen table. Farmers’ readiness for change will itself change over time and goals may alter as new opportunities arise or if performance reviews indicate that the farm system is not tracking according to plan.

Getting it right in the first three months of the relationship makes life easier later for the advisor – but a failure to adequate assess the situation or frame the goals appropriately can be compensated in part through effective management of the next stage. Professional development activities need to ensure advisors are adequately equipped to manage early encounters with farmers and thereby make life easier for themselves and the farmers they are working with.

Technical knowledge and skills set the capacity for working with farmers on issues of shared concern. Skills and knowledge of relationship management principles will mobilise this technical capacity to achieve farm system performance targets.

What are the risks from poor advisory practice? These include the setting of overly ambitious or inappropriate goals which the farmer subsequently fails to achieve; a misinterpretation of the learning context that farmers are operating within resulting in mis-interpretation of information; and an under or over-estimate of the management team’s readiness for change. Some of these risks are relatively low in nature. For example, an inappropriate selection of the point of entry with a farmer will correct itself over time through the question-listen process, provided the latter is working effectively.

The active relationship

Active relationships between farmers and advisors began from their first encounter with each other. Therefore this stage was not seen as a linear progression from the previous stage. The early discussion highlighted the special significance that the first three months had on scoping and the setting of boundaries to work with farmers. Active relationships refers more to the planning and adaptation activities that are part and parcel of managing farming systems, that is, an ongoing evolving and dynamic partnership between the advisor and farmer.

Why did farmers choose to involve advisors in their management decisions? An expectation shared by many farmers in the case studies was to expand the management teams’ capacity for mapping out pathways towards goal attainment. This planning of actions, like the setting of goals (the latter being a part of action planning) ranged from quite specific tasks to the development of comprehensive plans that involved most aspects of the whole farm system.

‘Discussed proposed plan of running the expanded farm operation to include B and his wife K. It would be a 50% share arrangement. They will milk 320 cows initially.’

Development of relationships between advisor and farmer helped clarify the depth and scope of advisory involvement in the planning and review process. Relationships were characterised by constant change and tended to be multi-faceted and complex.

During our planning meetings M often referred to a hand drawn map of his farm. Using the available GIS technology in our office I organised for two poster size map outlines of his farm to be laminated. M was delighted and used one of the laminated maps to record day-to-day operational issues and events as they arose on the farm. The second laminated map was used to record his plans for the coming year. All that M was required to do was to record the planned start date and the task in the relevant paddock. This planning tool has made all the difference to M’s stress levels. He is now able to quickly and easily record his plans, so that he now doesn't have to carry them around in his head. Other members of this team now know what his plans are and they are better able to make worthwhile contributions to planning decisions.

Relationships are a formative and primary aspect of what it means to be human. It is therefore not surprising that advisors became increasingly aware of their part in a relational dynamic that developed over time. As one advisor reported early in the life of the relationship,

It was important to share information about myself as it improved the two-way communication.

And then later, he observes after reflecting on his overall case study experiences,

‘Engagement is extremely important; it's the way to build a working relationship with a farmer. I believe the engagement with these case study farmers has been successful, as I consider them as not only clients but also as friends.

Action planning provided a pragmatic and intentional focus to the development of relationships. Advisors played a pivotal role in these relationships by preparing options as part of goal negotiations. As discussions identified issues or general possibilities for action the advisor would undertake detailed investigations to assist the planning process. Various tools would be employed to enable these investigations. Often these tools would be more the province of the advisor than the farmer. When tools were employed on issues of high relevance to the farm business they could stimulate planning and actions that would have been difficult to catalyse without the use of tools. In some cases these investigations provided a basis for more considered discussions of various options and planning possibilities:

‘Today we started by going through the water and feed budgets, which indicated that growing more perennial pasture and increasing pasture consumption would be the more profitable option. However, this would result in the system being more exposed to the water market. The memory of the market in the drought year was still fresh, and this left a feeling of unease. Though they could understand that this is the better way to go, the memory of the $400 per megalitre caused hesitation. Therefore, I agree to do some homework, and would go through a risk analysis exercise on the exposure to the water market.’

Using tools like water and feed budgets tended to benefit from the establishment and use of databases. In most case studies frequent reference was made to the collection, collation and storage of data for ready access when planning or reviewing performance. Databases could expand the role of the advisor with farmers, but poor database management tended to distract the advisory relationship from the main concerns of the farmer. Regardless, most advisors discovered they become dependent on reliable records to focus their efforts. Data collection and the development of databases was an important resource to expanding the advisory relationship.

‘At the farm, we spent a lot of time gathering farm data - farm map, soil boundaries, test results, calving pattern, equipment and infrastructure, livestock numbers and the ‘behaviour’ of the farm to date.’

Well developed databases enabled more effective use of tools in the planning process but relied on a capacity in the relationship to integrate information. Advisors integrated sources of information to serve the farmers. This integration of information by advisors was strongly linked with the preparation of options, the question-listen process and changes in the learning context. Advisors also acted as catalysts to prompt farmers to access training. Farmers integrate information by making sense of various farm observations and listening to comments from others outside the advisor relationship.

‘[K] agreed to do a Taking Stock with the local Bonlac field officer. Also supplied figures to do a Margin Over All Feed costs calculation. K was getting keener on the financial side of the farm’s performance.’

This quote also points to the significance of other advisors on the advisory relationship. Other advisors included those who had a relationship with the farm management team and in some way influenced the way information was integrated and used in action plans. Several interpersonal considerations were also identified across the case studies. Advisers were required to manage tensions (or stresses) that repeatedly arose throughout the season when farm system performance went off track due to adverse events or when plans/ tasks were interrupted due to unforeseen circumstances.

Advisory relationships tended to take greater account of family issues in relation to plans as familiarity grew with the management team. Families provided an historical and social context which influenced the planning process, and which inturn was influenced by the implementation and achievements of plans. Consequently advisors found themselves operating in an environment of social interaction that had a high dependence on the emergence of trust and confidence between parties if plans were to be agreed and implemented. Trust developed as farmers enjoyed positive experiences with advisors, and was undermined by negative experiences if these were attributed to actions or recommendations by the advisor. In a reciprocal way, advisors developed trust in farmers who followed through on the details of plans, and in those farmers who engaged the advisor in discussions about poor performance.

‘Multiple visits to the farm has been a way of building trust, they know I will be back in about a month to follow up on any changes that have been made.’

Confidence was also a two-way street. For farmers it involved a growing belief in the advisor's technical knowledge and emotional maturity to engage with the key issues confronting the business and be capable of working with the farm and farm management team/ farm family to address these issues. For advisors it required a growing personal belief in their ability to take on new areas of work and succeed at this in partnership with the management team.

We discussed opportunities to increase income (possibly changing timing of calving). I suggested setting production goals and monitoring these in their second year on the farm, however was not confident to follow this through without up-to-date benchmarks and C&M did not pursue this direction.

Active relationships have been discussed in some detail because they embodied the essential elements of professional practice for advisors. In essence, this comes down to two domains of work. One area is focused on the action planning process, and the other on the developing advisor-farmer relationship of which they are part. Both of these domains have farm system performance as their central concern. The performance of both domains depends in large part on the question-listen process and the way tools are used to prepare options and negotiate goals with the farm management team.

This section opened with a question about why farmers involve advisors in their management decisions. We have seen that this behaviour is motivated by a desire to expand the capacity of the farm management team, but that effective use of advisors also requires the use of plans to focus activities in a way that supports goal attainment and in many cases expands into new possibilities for farmers and advisors to work together.

Opportunities existed during this stage for advisors to build off an effective question-listen process to [re]negotiate goals and monitor the state of the relationship with the farmer as this is constantly changing. The depth of relationships can expand (eg. a move from grazing management to employment relationships affecting grazing management) as can the scope of relationships (eg. moving from grazing management to address the relationship between grazing management, nutrition and reproduction management). Advisors need to monitor these changes in the status of their relationship and identify their personal technical learning challenges along with potential field research opportunities to implement in practice.

Action plans operate at two levels. At one level there are concrete planning and review cycles that are directly related to changes in the farming system. At a second level there are plan and review cycles that involve the professional development of advisors and farmers. This second level needs to explicitly identify the technical and social learning challenges that can be addressed through development programs or learning research initiatives.

Several advisors identified a need for tools (eg. budgeting and planning tools, benchmarking tools etc.) to enhance or expand their professional repertoire with farmers. Care needs to be taken that tools do not become a surrogate for the advisor. Tools are only as good as the operator. Advisors who have applied tools to diverse problems and issues as part of their routine work are usually better placed to evaluate their merits and are more likely to ‘use the right tool for the job’ rather than limit themselves to one particular tool (Hatteland, 1990; Nitsch, 1991). Use of tools and their attendant databases can involve a considerable investment in time and learning effort if advisors are to become competent in their use. Decisions around the selection and adaptation of tools are an important consideration for advisory teams as a whole.

Advisors must not confuse the use of tools and databases with the practice of integrating information, the latter being an experiential task that requires the advisor and farmer to work together to pool their knowledge, experiences, and observations. Tools assist but do not replace this activity. A far more subtle advisory exercise is involved in the development of options, negotiation of goals, decision making and performance reviews because advisors are navigating courses of action with farms amid tensions and family issues that all impact on the farm system performance. Advisors rely upon an expanding stock of trust and confidence to catalyse change in the management team as relationships develop.

So how did we go and where are we heading?

During the third stage the advisor and farmer worked together to review activities and set new courses for the business. This tended to occur towards the end of the planning period but may be present throughout the seasonal work cycle. Action plans provided a focal point for advisors and farmers to review progress through the season and reflect on their achievements. These reflective sessions were important learning events for both parties as they assessed why the farm system performed as it did through the season and what the implications of this were for the family business.

‘We discussed the year using photos taken and Excel calendar and remembering what happened. C. plotted his level of challenge/comfort during the year from June 04 until now. Hardest challenges were due to new experiences: large number of calvings each day, high number of calves to raise, compared to European experience could not spend the time they would normally, did not have an appropriate system set up for calf rearing; wet winter; spread calving meant only small numbers of cows bulling and very difficult to heat detect.’

Records and databases were important resources during these reviews. The development of effective databases enabled rapid recall of critical events to aid interpretation, and was recognised by advisors as being integrally linked with their knowledge of the farming system. It also avoided downtimes associated with information searches or that led to debates about the specific sequence of activities responsible for certain outcomes. Well designed recording systems depended on the advisor’s knowledge of what was critical to record and what could be ignored.

‘Having the ability to recall information or to record it in an efficient manner may be a way to reduce the time taken to work with farmer clients. Knowing what is important to record and what isn’t is a skill that again is gained by experience.’

Having good quality data on hand enabled an analysis of options that prompted inquiry at a new level of goal setting. Exploring these options using analytical tools was still a primary task of the advisor but the negotiation of goals moved to a more challenging or progressive set of targets.

‘It was interesting that during the discussion the farmers realised how to further improve profitability by increasing pasture consumption, even though they were already above the regional average. This became another option for the future.’

It appeared that the farmers in the case studies did modify their readiness to make changes to their farming systems as a consequence of developments in the advisory relationship. This greater willingness to make changes required a considerable investment of time and effort by both parties to build trust and understanding in the relationship.

‘It was only towards the end of following M and L’s farm for 12 months that I felt confident with my understanding of M and L’s situation. I also felt that it had taken this period of time for M and L to develop trust and confidence in my recommendations.’

What legacies remain after all these advisory and farmer efforts to build and manage relationships that achieve higher performance from farming systems? These legacies appeared to be the particular skills, information and tools that were retained and embodied by farmers beyond the life of the advisory relationship. In a sense the revised goals and plans for the farm business were also a legacy to the farm business. One advisor concluded that the extent to which these legacies remain on farm is determined by a combination of tools, skills and data being available to address the issue or goal.

‘It is impossible to accurately characterise a farming system, its key drivers, issues, options and actions required for business development, without a) robust financial and physical farm management performance and budgeting tools, b) the technical and people skills to relate key performance indicators to on-farm practice and c) a collection of local, current performance data with comparable resource bases. Without such a tool, skills and information, a service provider can make no significant long-term positive contribution to dairy farming business performance. C&M wanted to analyse the productive effectiveness of their supplement use on-farm. This was impossible due to the absence of a contemporary financial or physical performance tool and a pool of relevant data.’

Reviews and critical reflections on farm system performance are one of the most explicit opportunities for advisors to emphasise the importance of learning and professional development with farmers. These opportunities need to be couched in the context of the goals that are being negotiated for the coming season. This stage is a time to pat the farm management team on the back for achievements – acknowledgement of progress being a springboard for a new round of planning and change. Legacies accumulated as a consequence of advisory relationships need to be explicitly enumerated to reinforce that working together is worthwhile. This enumeration supports effective planning as it provides a stock take of the skills, information and tools embodied by the management team to be applied in the next planning cycle.


This paper has investigated two aspects of the advisory relationship operation in farming systems situations.

Advisory practices to develop relationships and plans with farmers

Advisory practice can be described according to three interrelated stages in the relationship with farmers. The first three months of this relationship is pre-occupied with defining the learning context and searching for points of entry into the confidence of the farm management team. Advisors use a question-listen process to build relations out of field experiences with farmers. Advisors and farmers derive a degree of comfort in the routines and familiar surrounds associated with the farm walks and discussions around the kitchen table. This practice enables advisors to assess the management team’s readiness to make changes to their farm system and equips the advisor to become a participant in a goal negotiation process.

Second, action plans facilitate active advisory relationships as goal setting involves negotiations between farm management teams and advisors; enactment of plans is central to achieving goals; and performance reviews refer back to plans. Advisors are particularly active during this stage, preparing farming system management options as a contribution to the decision making process. The quality of work around the analysis of these options depends on the technical knowledge of the advisor and on their level of access to quality data. At times new tools need to be sourced, and new skills acquired to drive these tools when advisors deem their current repertoire limited. All this work is performed in the milieu of farm family interactions and tensions (or stresses) when adverse events are encountered or plans interrupted. Advisors are aware of the confidence and trust they develop with farm management teams to manage change.

The third stage reviews performance with respect to goals. The quality of the action plans has a direct bearing on the performance of reviews. Well developed plans are rich with learning opportunities that can be built into subsequent plans by both the management team and the advisor.

Improving farming systems advisory practice

The question-listen process is a vital aspect of advisory work. Here, and elsewhere, advisors are continually developing their skills in this area from field experiences. Routine exchanges of ideas, techniques and experiences among advisors at professional development events could stimulate refinements in this area. In particular, the way the question-listen process is being used to monitor changes in the status of the advisory relationship. Plans were vital to mapping out specific courses of action enabling a monitoring of progress towards goal attainment in the case studies. Considerable variation in the development and use of action plans suggests this is an area that can be improved if a more systematic approach were adopted by advisors. Technical knowledge remains a focal point for professional development. Advisors are increasingly calling for more exposure to, and training in, the use of new tools that will assist with the preparation of system management options for farmers. While this need is well founded there is a corresponding risk that advisors may take their eye off the main role of making pertinent observations about system performance and potential; appreciating management preferences and capabilities; and contributing to the formulation of ideas and possibilities necessary to offer a valued partnership to farmers. This risk will be realised if advisors incorrectly attribute to tools many of the routines that they perform in everyday advisory practice.


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