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Is there a role for extension in regulatory change? A channel automation case study

Lisa Cowan, Helen Murdoch, Chris Linehan and Geoff Kaine

Dept. of Primary Industries, Practice Change Research – Tatura, Ferguson Road, Tatura 3616. Email


Channel automation in irrigation regions is currently seen by the Victorian Government as an innovation to achieve environmental water savings that will provide economic, social and environmental benefits to the state of Victoria. To test these assumptions channel automation was piloted on a channel system in northern Victoria. There were mixed reactions by irrigators to the new technology, with some irrigators publicly voicing negative feedback about its implementation.

A greater understanding of the specific impacts of channel automation and irrigators’ reactions to these impacts was sought by the Victorian Water Trust to ensure full advantage was derived from channel automation’s roll out. As such, Department of Primary Industries’ Practice Change Research team was approached to conduct social research to investigate the impacts of channel automation on irrigators. It was considered that this research could be used to inform an extension strategy, which may increase irrigator acceptance of channel automation and aid in the rollout of this new technology onto other channel systems.

We found that this was a regulatory situation, or forced change, and irrigators’ reactions were based on the impact channel automation had on their farm circumstances as well as their perceptions of fairness of the regulation. In this study, we classified irrigators into segments based on the impacts of channel automation and irrigator reactions to these impacts. This paper explores the role of extension in this situation, including the potential benefits of addressing each segment separately and the potential risks of addressing them collectively.

Three key learnings: (1) Whilst extension and regulation are sometimes viewed as mutually exclusive instruments to achieve practice change, this channel automation case study provides an example of the potential role for extension in assisting irrigators adapt to the impacts of this regulatory change; (2) The extension needs of irrigators impacted upon by the regulatory change in this case study differ depending on the type and magnitude of impact, and an extension program that targets these different needs may have more success in achieving its outcomes; (3) Extension organisations may wish to consider their role in particular regulatory situations in terms of the effect their involvement may have on their long-term relationships with landholders.

Key words

Regulation, irrigation, social research, multi-dimensional extension strategy


The automation of open channel systems has been seen by the Victoria Government as a key innovation to achieve environmental water savings, as well as provide a range of economic, social and other environmental benefits for the state of Victoria. To test these assumptions, a channel automation system was piloted in 2002, on the Central Goulburn 2 (CG 2) channel system in the Shepparton Irrigation Region of northern Victoria (Luscombe 2004). In the pilot, manually controlled regulating structures (in channel) and Dethridge wheels (supply point outlets) were converted to automated, FlumeGateTM technology (Luscombe 2004). The pilot also included an upgrade of the telephone irrigation water ordering system, which provided immediate ordering confirmation and contributed to a reduction in delivery time from four days to one day from ordering.

Irrigators on CG 2 were told in a series of public meetings about the benefits of channel automation. These included less variable flows, shorter ordering time and faster irrigation. In particular, irrigators were told that no one would be worse off. However, once implemented there were mixed reactions by irrigators to the pilot. Some irrigators were supportive of the new technology while others publicly voiced negative feedback about its implementation. It is generally not well understood by Government why individual irrigators reacted the way they did.

Extension and regulation can sometimes be seen as mutually exclusive instruments to achieve practice change. In this case study, however, the Victorian Government believes that there is a role for extension to assist landholders in adapting to any impacts resulting from the channel automation regulatory changes. Given that further implementation of channel automation is planned across the northern irrigation system, the Victorian Government is interested in developing an extension program to assist irrigators in adapting to the new technology, which may increase irrigator acceptance of channel automation and aid in the implementation of this new technology into other channel systems.

As a first step to identify the role extension may play in the introduction of channel automation we sought to understand the reactions of irrigators on CG 2 to the pilot. We hypothesised that we could use the Kaine (2004) framework as a basis for classifying irrigators into segments in terms of the factors driving their responses to channel automation. This classification would then provide a means of considering the role extension might play in facilitating further implementation of channel automation.


Kaine et al. (2005) suggest that changing farming practices is ‘highly involving’ because such changes can be expensive, novel, risky or highly expressive of self-identity. Kaine et al. (2005) argue that in such circumstances farmers follow complex decision making. This means farmers will spend time and effort to ensure any change they implement better meets their need. As farmers have spent time and effort to make a decision they are able to logically explain criteria they sought to ensure their need is met. By understanding the different criteria landholders were using to fulfil a need, Kaine et al. (2005) suggest we can classify landholders into segments.

To identify the changes the introduction of channel automation imposed on irrigators and to identify the criteria irrigators used when choosing their response, we conducted semi-structured interviews, which allowed for conversational, two-way communication while maintaining focus on the topic (Linehan and Kaine 2004). We chose semi-structured interviewing because it uses a partially-guided approach that extracts relevant information whilst allowing flexibility to probe for details or discuss issues important to interviewees.

During each interview, we employed a laddering technique (Grunert and Grunert 1995) to systematically explore the meaning of an interviewee’s responses in order to understand the logic of the individual’s cognitive process in reaching a particular decision. To put it simply, laddering is a series of ‘why’ questions (eg. Why did you do x? or Why did you not do it some other way?) that enable the interviewee to logically guide the interviewer through their thought process. Laddering works well in this research because irrigation in agriculture is a highly involving process and therefore invokes complex decision-making.

We interviewed 14 irrigators on CG 2. Interviewees were selected using a snowball sampling technique (Sarantakos 1998). Using this technique, interviewees were spoken to and then asked to recommend other people to speak with (Sarantakos 1998). We wanted to ensure we had a range of views, so interviewees were asked to recommend other potential interviewees who may have had different experiences than themselves. Ultimately, irrigators who had a broad range of experiences with channel automation were interviewed from varying farm types, sizes and locations on the channel system. Interviewing continued until we achieved subject saturation (Sarantakos 1998), i.e. the point when we were no longer getting any new information from interviewees. We are confident that we achieved subject saturation after 14 interviews.

Interviewee responses were recorded manually by two interviewers, with the notes later transcribed and cross-checked. These interview responses were analysed using case and cross-case analysis (Patton 1990). Case analysis, a process used to ensure that each case (or interview) is logical, occurs as a discussion following each interview and again later, when the interview is transcribed. A case is complete when the interviewers agree that the written information is an accurate account of the interview. Once all cases were complete, cross case analysis is used to compare and contrast all of the cases to highlight themes and patterns throughout the interviews. The aim of cross case analysis is to provide results that describe common themes amongst the interviewees, in relation to project objectives.


The majority of CG 2 irrigators we interviewed believed when channel automation was introduced it would have little impact on their irrigation management, or would potentially improve irrigation management. Some changes were seen as positive for example, the upgraded telephone ordering system and reduction in time needed between ordering and delivery were regarded as favourable by most interviewees, as they enabled immediate confirmation of orders and increased the irrigator ability to modify irrigation management in response to the weather. However, most of these irrigators described a range of detrimental impacts they related to the implementation of channel automation and spoke of a variety of changes they had to make to irrigation management in an attempt to adjust to these impacts.

First, many irrigators identified incidents of technology malfunctions where flumes or channel regulators did not open or close. Interviewees suggested these technology failures had predominantly occurred in the first year of the pilot, and that most problems had been rectified, or incidents had decreased over time. Some interviewees felt these malfunctions did not have a significant impact on their business and were willing to wear the associated negative impacts as a part of the pilot process. Other irrigators suggested the effect of the technology malfunctions had a significant impact on their irrigation system, describing how they had experienced productivity loss and increased labour costs.

Most irrigators we interviewed on CG 2 found it took longer to irrigate following the introduction of channel automation. Interviewees attributed this to a combination of measurement inaccuracies in the new technology, a lower head of water in the channels, reduction in the size of the delivery structures, and fluctuations in flow rates. In response to decreased irrigation water delivery, irrigators ordered greater flows and / or ordered water for a longer period of time to ensure they were getting irrigation water to the end of the bays. Some interviewees also made structural changes to their farms in attempts to improve flow (eg. upgrading of on-farm channels and laser grading).

For some irrigators the introduction of channel automation resulted in the loss of irrigable land, as some irrigation bays became uncommandable when Dethridge wheels were replaced with flumes. Irrigators suggested the reason for this was one or all of the following: reduction in size of the delivery structure, differences in how each structure delivered water, reduced channel height, and the inability of flumes to measure accurately in some situations. Irrigators responded in different ways to land becoming non-irrigable, such as, taking land out of production, changing land use from permanent pasture to annual crops, selling land, or putting in lift pumps to enable them to resume irrigation.

Some irrigators felt their problems associated with the introduction of channel automation were not being addressed to their satisfaction and formed a committee to collectively deal with channel automation issues. A number of irrigators began protesting and communicating with others who they felt may be able to influence change (eg. politicians, Victorian Farmers Federation, Dairy Farmers Victoria, newspapers, other irrigation systems involved in channel automation projects).

Some irrigators suggested the delivery of water improved over time, as organisational and individual changes were made to deal with these problems. Even so, many irrigators still described reduced rates of flow after three years of channel automation, which they felt had resulted in their being disadvantaged, in comparison to other irrigators in the Shepparton Irrigation Region.

Based on the magnitude and type of impact channel automation had on irrigation systems, we classified irrigators into three segments (See Table 1). The first segment included those irrigators who believed the introduction of channel automation had little or no impact or a positive impact on their irrigation management. These irrigators believed the automated channel system did not pose any uncontrollable risk for their business.

The second segment consisted of those irrigators who believed that the introduction of channel automation had a substantial negative impact on their previous irrigation management. Some of the negative impacts experienced by these irrigators were short-lived, or were usually adapted to by irrigators through changes to their irrigation management or investment in works on-farm. The irrigators in this segment had adapted to a point where they believed that channel automation did not pose a significant threat to their business. That is not to say that irrigators in segment two were altogether happy with channel automation but rather they believed that they had regained control of their irrigation management.

The third segment of irrigators comprised those who felt that channel automation had a significant and permanent negative impact on their irrigation enterprise. These irrigators did not feel they were able to make sufficient changes on-farm to offset the impacts of channel automation, or felt they should not have to bear the responsibility for, and cost of, making changes to overcome the impacts of channel automation. The reaction of many irrigators in the third segment was to actively protest against the technology, both individually and as a group.

Table 1. Irrigator segmentation based on the impact of channel automation on irrigation management.


Impact of channel automation on irrigation management



Channel automation has little to no impact or positive impacts

Channel automation either caused little to no change, or a positive change in irrigation management.

Irrigators believed that channel automation did not pose any uncontrollable risk to their irrigation management.

Irrigators tended to react neutrally or positively to the introduction of channel automation.


Channel automation has significant negative impacts

Channel automation caused some significant problems for irrigators, however most irrigators were able to find solutions to these problems.

Irrigators were able to adapt their irrigation management to a point where they believed that channel automation did not pose any uncontrollable risk to their irrigation management.

Irrigators were not necessarily happy with channel automation, but most felt they had regained control of their irrigation management.


Channel automation has permanent negative impacts

Channel automation had significant and permanent impacts on irrigation management for irrigators.

Irrigators did not feel they were able to make changes to adapt to these impacts, or felt they should not have had to bear the responsibility for, and cost of, making changes to overcome the impacts.

The reaction of many irrigators was to actively protest against the technology, individually and as a group.


There is no doubt that private and public extension organisations have assisted irrigators across Australia to develop their proficiency in irrigation system management. Extension has provided information and support to develop capability in irrigators, in order to assist in implementing desired changes that achieve productivity and environmental benefits. However, in these situations the irrigators are seeking to alter their practice voluntarily. Irrigators will self select the extension activities and the organisations to assist them with the changes in which they are interested. Importantly, as the changes in these situations are all voluntary, extension is viewed in a constructive light by irrigators because it aligns with their needs.

In contrast, the introduction of channel automation forced a change to the CG 2 irrigation system. This has two major implications for extension. First there may be a need among irrigators for the provision of information, support and capacity development to respond on-farm to the changes in the irrigation system. Second, some irrigators will have less favourable reactions due to the enforced nature of the change and their perceptions of equity, responsibility and financial cost of the change. Potentially the role of extension organisations in this environment might not be seen as constructive by these irrigators as they may take the view that the extension organisation is supporting and facilitating the introduction of channel automation.

We can view these implications in light of the three segments we identified in this study. The introduction of channel automation had little or no change to the irrigation system of the irrigators in our first segment. Therefore irrigators in this segment are likely to be receptive to information that would help them operate with the new system more effectively. In addition these irrigators are unlikely to have negative reactions to the introduction of channel automation. This means the irrigators in this segment are likely to view the role extension would play as constructive because it aligns with their needs.

The introduction of channel automation meant irrigators in segment two had to make substantial changes to their irrigation system. This suggests there could be a role for extension in meeting the information needs of irrigators associated with those changes. However, some irrigators in this segment may feel the introduction of channel automation was inequitable. These irrigators may believe they have been unfairly compelled to change and that they should not bear the financial cost of change. If these irrigators see the extension agencies as aligning themselves with the institutions that introduced the change, then these irrigators may not always welcome extension staff. This might put the credibility and trust irrigators have in extension staff at risk.

Irrigators in the third segment have had their irrigation system altered to such a degree they believe their previous irrigation management is untenable and their enterprises are at risk. They are likely to be angry and upset because they see the risks of channel automation as being involuntary, uncontrollable, and non-beneficial (Robinson 2002, Wright 2004). These behaviours are akin to outrage as described by Robinson (2002). Robinson (2002) suggests outrage is a natural response when ‘people feel deprived of facts, unable to control their lives, and forced to bear the costs but not the benefits of change’. While it would appear that irrigators in segment three require a lot of support and capacity building, they are also unlikely to be receptive to any organisation they feel is aligned to the introduction of channel automation. Hence, observations made in regard to segment two apply even more strongly with respect to irrigators in the third segment.

The foregoing suggests there may be a role for extension in regulated situations such as those exemplified by the introduction of channel automation. However, careful consideration should be given by extension organisations to the benefits and costs of performing such a role.


The introduction of channel automation in December 2002 was expected to provide beneficial outcomes, or at least no negative impacts, for irrigators on CG 2. The irrigators we interviewed on CG 2 described a range of impacts, both positive and negative, that affected how they managed their irrigation water, though these impacts differed between irrigators depending on how and how significantly channel automation changed their circumstances. These impacts led to different behaviours expressed by the irrigators.

We classified the behaviours expressed by the irrigators into segments using the framework developed by Kaine et al. (2005). These segments provided insight into the role extension may play to aid irrigators with the introduction of channel automation. We found that while it appears that extension may play a valuable role in meeting the needs of irrigators with the provision of information and capability building, there is a risk that irrigators will align the extension organisation with the organisations that introduced channel automation. This might put the credibility and trust irrigators have in extension staff at risk and result in extension programs not being implemented by irrigators. Therefore, we recommend that risks need to be fully considered before an organisation plan and implement an extension program in a situation similar to channel automation.


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