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Gaining with growers – lessons from a successful alliance of Western Australian farming system groups

Tracey M. Gianatti

C/- Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, University of Western Australia, 35 Stirling Highway, Crawley, WA, 6009;
Ph 08 6488 3410; Email: tracey.gianatti@uwa.edu.au

Abstract

The Grower Group Alliance (GGA) project began in 2002 to enhance the value of agricultural research, development & extension through stronger linkages between grower groups, researchers and industry. It now consists of a network of 15 grower groups, 6 research institutions and over 15 agribusiness companies. Information communicated through this network reaches over 2400 growers across the WA wheatbelt. Core grower group members of this network have well established management structures, are business-like, and have a diverse and relatively stable financial base.

In this paper, the key factors contributing to the success of the GGA project over the past three years are examined. Input was gathered from a range of sources, including consultation with grower group executive officers, feedback from the GGA “Industry Research” Forum (a meeting of all the GGA grower group, research and industry partners) and personal experience.

After three years of operation, the single most important success factor of the project is that it began and has remained a grower group driven initiative. This gives the project a clear purpose in all its daily and strategic operations. As a result, groups in the GGA network have achieved far greater outcomes working together than operating independently.

Three key learnings: (1) A clear purpose is paramount for the successful development of partnerships between grower groups and industry; (2) The creation of space for two-way interaction allows personal networks to expand and sustainable partnerships to develop; and (3) Starting small and tangible gave the project quick runs on the board. It connected the grand vision to the local level of the member grower groups and made it inclusive.

Key Words

Grower group, interaction, communication, participation, collaboration, capacity.

Introduction

Over the last ten years, there has been a rapid increase in the number of grower-led groups across Australia engaging in research and extension. The formation of many small grower groups in Western Australia was catalysed by the ‘Decade of Landcare’ initiative which began 1990. The groups were community based and applied local knowledge, together with support from government agencies, to focus on sustainability issues at a farm and catchment level. As these community groups progressed, they increasingly became a focus for government and non-government agencies as channels for the provision of information, funding and services to the community, and for gaining feedback from it (Chamala, 1995).

Over time, the most successful groups were those that took responsibility for planning, implementing and monitoring their own activities. Growers began to have more control over the information they needed and the way it was delivered. There was a move away from linear ‘top-down’ approaches from scientists to farmers, towards extension methodologies that emphasised information flows, adult learning principles and participation by stakeholders (Marsh & Pannell, 2000).

Background to the Grower Group Alliance

In 2001, a number of locally focused grower groups in Western Australia recognised that extension and adoption of research within the grains industry could be improved. They felt that new innovations could be better communicated to growers and that important research, in many instances, was not applied to its full potential. The groups came together and applied to the Grains Research & Development Corporation (GRDC) with a proposal to form a network of grower groups, research providers and agribusiness companies throughout the wheatbelt of WA. With funding from the GRDC, six grower groups and six research institutions (Table 1) formed the Grower Group Alliance and appointed a full-time coordinator.

Table 1: Core grower group and research institution members of the Grower Group Alliance in 2006.

Core Grower Groups

Research Institutions

Facey Group

Department of Agriculture, Western Australia

Liebe Group

CSIRO

Mingenew-Irwin Group

CRC for Plant-Based Management of Dryland Salinity

Fitzgerald Biosphere Group

University of Western Australia

WA No-Tillage Farmers Association

Centre for Legumes in Mediterranean Agriculture (CLIMA)

South-East Premium Wheat Growers Association

Western Australian Herbicide Resistance Initiative (WAHRI)

The aim of the project is to enable growers to access the latest information and research, which will allow them to make the best possible decisions for their farming businesses. It provides the opportunity for collaborative projects between grower groups across the state. By working together, it allows the groups to maintain their local focus, yet also operate with a ‘critical mass’ to take action on a range of issues which they would not have been able to do individually.

The Grower Group Alliance project has two key objectives. These are to:

1. Establish formal communication pathways between growers, researchers and the grains industry;

2. Develop collaborative projects with industry based on key research issues common to Alliance members.

The GGA project has always placed a high priority on maintaining independence. The funding is administered by a grower group, and growers have the majority vote in setting the strategy of the project. The project coordinator is employed by one of the core grower groups and is based at the University of Western Australia. This places the coordinator in closer proximity to the majority of agricultural research organisation headquarters in WA than if the coordinator was located in a regional area. This location also helps to develop research links beyond the relatively well-developed relationship between the state Department of Agriculture and grower groups. In its three years of operation, the project has developed a strong profile within Western Australia and will consider involvement in any opportunity that adds value to its grower member activities.

Communication Processes

Regular and improved communication between Alliance members has been a very tangible outcome of the GGA project. Communication is largely associated with the following three relationships:

(a) 1) Between growers and researchers/agribusiness

As a direct result of the GGA, grower groups, research agencies and agribusiness are now formalising contact via personal, written and electronic communications. This has been achieved by the GGA compiling and distributing a list of grower group contact details and their interests to researchers. To link growers with researchers, the coordinator investigates the scope of research being conducted to inform growers about any opportunities for collaboration.

2) Between grower groups

At the beginning of the project, many groups were unaware of the activities of other grower groups around the state. Through its communication efforts, the GGA has broken down the barriers of distance and uncertainty between the groups. This is an ongoing activity and is achieved by the sharing of: group profiles and objectives; newsletters, website details, and trial results booklets. Most importantly, face-to-face meetings of groups now occur at regular intervals.

3) Between grower groups and the wider industry.

Communication with the wider industry is achieved through written articles, presentations by the coordinator, and a fortnightly calendar of events. Articles are written by GGA grower groups to profile their activities and extend their research results to a wider audience. This is based on the principle that growers learn best from other growers. Case studies are utilised to illustrate how research has been successfully implemented on-farm. Articles are published in the Farming Ahead and Australian Grain magazines, National Farm Groups’ Manual (GRIST), grower group newsletters, rural media and GRDC Ground Cover Magazine.

Collaborative projects

Collaborative projects provide a multitude of benefits to all parties. Grower groups benefit from increased research being carried out in their local area. Research agencies gain benefits through grower groups delivering results not only to their members, but also to an audience well beyond their local region.

When a new collaborative project is developed, many prospective partners are unsure of the best way to engage grower groups. In response, the GGA defined three broad categories where grower groups can be involved in research, and the expectations at each level. These are:

1. Small scale testing (e.g. single farmers participate in a project)

2. Minor role within a larger project (e.g. group conducts farm scale demonstrations)

3. Co-development of research (e.g. grower group and research agency develop and implement new ideas together).

Distribution of grower group profiles help researchers to understand potential partners. A key event to catalyse new projects was the establishment of the annual GGA “Industry Research” forum. It allows researchers and growers to develop personal relationships, share their research priorities, and make plans for future collaborative projects.

Capacity Building

The project coordinator has an important role in capacity building through the continual motivation and empowerment of GGA members to take action. Each year, a specific program of training for the staff, executive committee and farmer members of each grower group is developed. The training may be technical/agronomic, business oriented or extension focused. The GGA project is able to provide the critical mass to source presenters and funding, and adapt course content. A recent example of two training topics for executive officers were planning extension events and evaluation techniques. For growers, three precision agriculture "Guiding Your Soils Further" workshops were developed and run collaboratively by the GGA, Department of Agriculture, and WANTFA.

In addition to formal training opportunities, the project provides informal support on a daily basis to seventeen grower group employees. This is particularly useful for grower groups with new staff members as it helps smooth the transition period. The coordinator acts as a kind of ‘corporate memory’ for the groups which is essential due to short employment contracts and the inexperience of many group staff. At training days, executive officers are encouraged to share their experiences with group operational issues, staffing arrangements and organisation of group events. There are no formal presentations and the participants effectively ‘train’ each other. In doing so, it creates a support network for grower group staff across the state. The coordinator acts to ensure that a network is created that maintains itself without the coordinator being its hub.

Outcomes and Learnings

In this section, lessons learnt from the past three years of operation of the Grower Group Alliance project are outlined. The lessons are illustrated with examples of project activities and their key outcomes.

A grower group driven project

The successful initiation of the GGA project is one of the few examples in WA where funding from the GRDC was awarded directly to a grower group. Prior to this, funds were generally awarded to state agencies who then worked with grower group collaborators to complete project milestones. Grower ownership of this project is now greater than when working with state agencies.

The grower groups involved have become responsible for addressing their own issues through the use of a participative and inclusive delivery mechanism that allows each group to plan the project aims and activities, and then deliver the outcomes to their members. The project operates within the framework of a “group facilitation-empowerment” model as described by Coutts et al (2005). The philosophy of this model is that rural industry participants are best served by allowing them to define their own problems and opportunities, and seek their own avenues to address them. It is “based on a pragmatic understanding that it is the people in a specific situation that are best able to understand and act on issues directly concerning them”.

To manage the GGA project, a Reference Group has been established which consists of six grower representatives, six executive officers, and one person from each of the six research institution partners (see Table 1). The Reference Group meets twice a year to discuss the strategic direction of the project. During discussions, the grower group majority is able to make recommendations and direct the project activities to ensure the project remains relevant to its grower client base. Outside of meeting times, the GGA coordinator receives feedback from growers through the executive officers of the core grower groups.

The grower group executive officers are a vital link in the operation of the project. They provide the GGA coordinator with updates of grower group activities occurring in their region, communicate the results of their group’s trial and demonstration programs and pass on requests from grower members for new information or opportunities. The GGA coordinator is then able to share this information with other members of the network. Researchers and agribusiness use the GGA coordinator as a ‘portal’ to access grower group members for feedback on a variety of issues.

As the profile of the GGA project increases, the number of requests for grower feedback has increased exponentially. Executive officers can not keep up with the demand and growers do not have time to respond, especially during peak labour periods through the year. As a result, the GGA has streamlined this process by introducing an “Expression of Interest” (EOI) form. Potential collaborators who have new products to trial or can offer project opportunities for grower groups are encouraged to complete an EOI. Often, the willingness of collaborators to fill in the form indicates the level of importance they place on engaging with a grower group.

Clarity of Purpose

At the beginning of the GGA project, a clear and agreed purpose was created through consultation with representatives from all grower group stakeholders. The growers also decided on the strategic and operational directions of the project. Having clearly defined problems that are understood by the membership contributes to the success of farmer-driven groups (Campbell, 1992). Once the purpose was established, tightly focused outcomes and objectives for the project were identified. These were developed to be achieved within the initial two-year time frame.

The purpose and outcomes of the project are reviewed each year and if necessary, renegotiated with grower group representatives at the annual GGA Forum. This is an inclusive process that ensures individual groups know and understand the benefits of participating in the GGA project. In addition to the shared purpose, there is an ethos of encouragement, trust, inclusiveness, respect, support, and review. There is a united expectation that these influence how the project operates and makes decisions.

Create space for two-way interaction

The GGA consciously creates space for two-way interaction rather then just “pumping more down the pipes”. It does this is in a variety of ways, but principally by encouraging networking to occur between GGA members. Networks and networking have always been a big part of agriculture and rural communities. In this age of people ‘drowning in information’, networks are becoming more important as a way of finding and filtering information and gathering expert opinion on any matter (Colliver, 2000). Many networks based on long personal relationships are weakening, particularly as the influence of new players emerge eg. grower groups, and as staff turnover and rate of change in organisational structures increases.

The GGA network is strengthened through visits by the project officer to all fifteen member grower groups at least twice each year. Staff and grower representatives from the groups meet once a year in person at the GGA Forum. In addition, grower groups visit each other on bus tours during Spring to pass on ideas and experiences from one group to another. A tangible result from GGA groups working together is the organisation of two successful study tours to interstate and overseas destinations with participants drawn from several different grower groups.

The Grower Group Alliance project was created to improve the communication between farmers, researchers and industry. According to Colliver (2000), one thing that will produce faster evolution of sustainable farming systems is a better flow of ideas and information. Responsiveness to this communication is determined by being able to ‘match’ the available information with what members of the network want. This requires “an understanding of how different communities interact and communicate” (Andrew et al, 2005). The GGA coordinator works to gather information on the needs and interests of the different groups to improve the process of understanding. In doing so, the coordinator could be described as a ‘knowledge broker’.

Specific functions of a ‘knowledge broker’ in a rural setting have been described by Andrews et al. (2005). These are paraphrased below:

  • Accumulating and filtering information when required and being skilled at synthesising information from source to inquirer;
  • Facilitating collaborative arrangements between people from different background;
  • Understanding who needs access to what knowledge;
  • Bringing people together in communities of practice and fostering knowledge sharing through informal and formal networks; and
  • Facilitating innovative ways of exchanging knowledge between researchers and others.

To develop a culture of information sharing, the project coordinator and the grower group executive officers work to increase understanding in the research community of how grower groups operate and how to engage them in research projects. For example, a key message from the GGA has been that researchers who wish to include a grower group as a partner in a research project should involve the group at the project design stage, not contact them the day before a proposal is completed and the funding application is due.

An innovative way the GGA has developed to exchange knowledge between researchers and others is an annual “Industry Research” Forum. The first day is a ‘grower only’ day to discuss issues of group operation and priorities for future research. The following day, growers are joined by researchers and agribusiness to explore opportunities for collaboration in new projects. The forum provides ample time for people to interact, greatly increasing the formal and informal networks of participants.

Start small and tangible

In the beginning, the project concentrated on providing benefits at the local level with production of small and tangible outputs (Table 2).

Table 2: Examples of tangible benefits produced in the initial stages of the project.

Exchange of grower group contact details

Coordination of a calendar of events

Annual “Industry Research” Forum

Exchange of trial result books between groups

Exchange of grower group newsletters

Travelling grower workshops

Production of field day booklet covers

Training for executive officers

These were small things which made a big difference. Once groups began receiving information about each other, they realised that they were not in competition. Small benefits increased group confidence to share ideas with other groups. For the project officer, gaining some early ‘runs on the board’ was important to reassure project partners that the Alliance was a feasible prospect.

The two most successful activities are the calendar of events and the travelling workshops. The GGA calendar of events is designed to reduce the clashes between grower group and researcher events. The calendar is coordinated by the project officer and emailed directly to over 400 people (and forwarded to many more) each fortnight during the growing season. The travelling workshops are initiated and organised by grower group members and travel to five or six locations around the state. For each, the GGA is able to locate appropriate presenters, source funding and provide feedback on workshop design. The content is developed to be grower friendly, flexible to meet the needs of each region and generally includes a segment for a local agronomist/consultant to present regionally specific data. Topics address key seasonal issues such as cereal leaf disease and nutrient management.

The overarching structure of the GGA allows it to provide economies of scale for its grower group members in three main ways:

1. Source and deliver training for grower committee members and staff - Previous topics include corporate governance and evaluation of projects;

2. Leverage of funding dollars - A project with several grower group collaborators working together has a greater chance of receiving funding than a number of individual projects submitted by different groups;

3. Organisation of study tours - The GGA project has conducted two study tours assisted by its ability to involve growers from a range of groups across the wheatbelt.

Partnerships for research and extension

A key characteristic of successful grower-driven groups is their ability to build constructive partnerships (Campbell, 1992). Core grower group members of the GGA are extremely successful in attracting public and private-sector researchers, economists and extension agents to help address their local issues. The role of the GGA is to actively add value to these partnerships by linking groups to people with the required expertise. The partnerships formed allow groups to progress their locally driven research and development programs and are essential for growers to deal with the increasing complexity of farming systems in WA. They allow growers become “active generators of new knowledge applicable to their local context” Andrew et al (2005).

Improved networking and partnerships has led to benefits such as members of grower groups being consulted about their ideas for the future directions of research, and more specifically, what research and extension activities they would like to see conducted in their region. A change found over the three years of the project was that as the groups’ knowledge of research activities increased, they were able to make more informed decisions about which specific researchers they could approach to conduct work in their region or invite to present findings at grower events.

The GGA project has enabled many new partnerships to form between grower groups across the state. These may be informal and brief, such as the joint hosting of a workshop or field day, or more formal and long term. An example of a formal partnership is a three year project funded by the National Landcare Program involving five grower groups. The GGA alerted the groups to the funding opportunity, helped clarify the problem and the participants, and provided support for the writing of the proposal.

Marsh and Pannell (2000) state that “structures and processes that encourage co-operation and coordination in a commercialised environment are needed”. Over the past three years, the GGA project has developed a framework that allows growers, researchers and agribusiness to formally interact and network with each other on many different levels. Local partnerships allow each group to conduct their own program of trials and demonstrations. Regional partnerships between grower groups increase information sharing directly between growers. Results from statewide partnerships are distributed throughout the GGA network allowing all members to benefit from work conducted at geographically distant locations. The transparent operation of the network means groups are able to form partnerships and extract benefits from the network only when they choose to be involved.

Future Challenges

Future challenges for the GGA project include:

  • Limits on farmer member time – this is the number one constraint stated by growers that restricts their full involvement in GGA activities. The GGA is very aware that farming is a full time business and only seeks to involve itself in activities that complement existing member activities.
  • Delivering benefits to members – how much information should grower groups share with others in the network? Their key priority is providing benefits to fee paying members. By participating in the GGA network, will this ‘dilute’ benefits to members?
  • Future funding – this is an issue for both member grower groups and the GGA itself. Without funding to employ the project coordinator, many of the combined activities may cease to exist. The motivation and drive to get things done for the benefit of all the member groups would perhaps disappear. In addition, grower groups need strategies to secure their future in a world of shrinking sponsorship budgets and government funding.
  • Maintaining independence – many commercial companies sponsor grower groups. Many others would like to distribute their information through the GGA network. Groups now need to have a clear policy on the type of messages they distribute to their members.

Conclusion

After three years of operation, the single most important success factor of the Grower Group Alliance project is that it began and has remained a grower group driven initiative. Grower groups receive the funding directly, regular consultation with grower members keeps the project relevant, and executive officers inform the project coordinator about group needs and activities.

Contributing to the project’s success is a clear purpose. From the beginning of the project, a clear and agreed purpose was created through consultation with representatives from all grower group stakeholders. The GGA consciously creates space for two-way interaction rather then just pumping more down the pipes. It does this is in a variety of ways, but principally by encouraging networking to occur between GGA members. In addition to providing networking opportunities, the project initially concentrated on providing benefits at the local level with production of small and tangible outputs.

Finally, the GGA project has developed a framework that allows growers, researchers and agribusiness to formally interact and network with each other on many different levels. The transparent operation of the network means groups are able to form partnerships and extract benefits from the network only when they choose to be involved.

Acknowledgements

The Grower Group Alliance project is funded by the Grains Research and Development Corporation.

References

Andrew J, Breckwoldt R, Crombie A, Aslin H, Kelly D & Holmes T (2005). Fostering Involvement – How to improve participation in learning. Rural Industries and Development Corporation, Report N R05/105. Canberra

Campbell, A (1992). Group Extension Workshop. In “Proceedings of the 5th Australian Soil Conservation Conference 1990, Perth, WA”. Vol 1, pp 78 – 83.

Chamala S (1995). Group Effectiveness: From Group Extension Methods to Participative Community Landcare Groups. In: “Participative Approaches for Landcare: Perspectives, Policies, Programs” Ed. S Chamala and K Keith (Australian Academic Press: Brisbane).

Coliver R (2000). Working the Networks. Department of Agriculture, WA. Perth.

Coutts JR, Roberts K, Frost F, Coutts A (2005). The Role of Extension in Building Capacity – What works, and why. Rural Industries and Development Corporation, Report N R05/094. Canberra

Marsh S & Pannell D (2000). Agricultural Extension - a decade of change. Rural Industries and Development Corporation, Report N R00/066. Canberra

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