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Extension in a changing rural landscape – a review of Agriculture Development extension in Victoria.

Yvonne Orlando

Practice Change Platform, Department of Primary Industries, PO Box 103 Geelong Victoria 3220.


This paper reports on the results of a review of Agriculture Development Extension in Victoria. The paper aims to generate discussion within the extension community about our present practice and how it can best adapt to the changing shape of rural and regional Victoria. A number of significant trends are driving changes in the context for rural extension in Victoria. Extension delivery needs to respond to changes in the social landscapes of rural areas; a greater diversity of service providers; a triple bottom line policy environment; and the increasingly complex nature of the “community of interest” for agriculture development. To determine how agriculture extension service can respond to these changes an Extension Review was conducted. The Review provided DPI Victoria with a better understanding of the current context in which extension services are operating and an overview of present agriculture extension practice. The Review examined 27 agriculture extension projects using three key frameworks: the continuous improvement cycle; Coutts et al (2005) five models of extension and an examination of the effectiveness and equity of each project. Recommendations from the review addressed four main areas – improvements to extension practice, staff development, building on current practice change research and the development of new practice change approaches.

Three key learnings: (1) A stronger focus within DPI on utilisation focussed and within project, as well as end of project, evaluation strategies will better enable changes to be identified, understood and managed. (2) The strategic development and use of strong and diverse networks with land managers, industry representatives and a broader “community of interest” will enable issues and changes to be quickly identified and addressed. (3) Extension can respond to current changes in the social and policy environment by delivering more services through interdisciplinary projects that integrate natural resource management, productivity and sustainability outcomes at the landscape level and form stronger links between policy development, research and extension.

Key Words

Evaluation; extension practice


A number of significant trends are driving changes in the context for rural extension in Victoria. Extension delivery needs to respond to changes in the social landscapes of rural areas; a greater diversity of service providers; a triple bottom line policy environment; and the increasingly complex nature of the “community of interest” for agriculture development.

To determine how agriculture extension services can respond to this change an Extension Review was conducted within the Victorian Department of Primary Industries (DPI) in 2004. The Review was conducted to provide DPI with a better understanding of the current context in which extension services are operating; an overview of present extension practice in areas of Agriculture Development and to nominate opportunities for improvement of these extension services.

This paper is based on an unpublished internal DPI report titled A Review of CAS Agriculture Development Extension. The paper outlines the methods and results of the Review and reports on mechanisms that have been established to implement the recommendations from the Review.

To understand the scope of the Extension Review it is important to be aware of the relationship, within DPI, between strategic investment decision making about agriculture extension and agriculture extension service delivery. The Agriculture Development (AD) Division of DPI is the major investor in agriculture extension projects. It is responsible for the Department’s investment management decisions in agrifood activities, in line with department policy direction. AD Division commissions research and development, extension and policy activity with the aim of achieving a sustainable and competitive agriculture and food sector. Agriculture extension is delivered by Agriculture Development Services (ADS) within the Catchment and Agriculture Services (CAS) Division. Extension projects are delivered through a Statewide, program led, place based service delivery model. The Extension Review focused on extension service delivery rather than strategic, investment and policy decision making.


The Review process included two main bodies of work which were undertaken over a 3 month period:

  • A scan of current and relevant literature relating to trends in extension practice and changes in the operating environment for agriculture extension in Victoria.
  • A review of 27 Agriculture Development extension projects across 7 areas (Meat and Wool; Dairy; Horticulture; Grains; Connected Communities; Agribusiness Development; Private Forestry).

A project reference group which included representatives from the research (agriculture and practice change), service delivery and policy arms of DPI, guided the Review process.

Extension projects were examined using 3 frameworks. Each project was investigated as to how it was planned, delivered, evaluated and improved; and the resultant changes made to projects through evaluative and reflective processes. Delivery mechanisms for each project were categorised using five models of extension as set out in Coutts et al (2005) – Group Facilitation/Empowerment, Technology Development, Programmed Learning, Information Access and Individual Consultant/ Mentor. An attempt was also made to examine the efficiency, effectiveness, efficacy and equity of each project. Time constraints dictated that the investigations around these 4 “E’s” were limited to examining existing data. For most projects data was not available to determine project efficiency or efficacy.

Data on each project was collected using two methods. A structured questionnaire was used to gather information from project managers and nominated staff. The questionnaire was completed in various ways. For most projects the Review team conducted face to face interviews with project managers and key staff to complete the questionnaire. The results were then written up and sent back to the project manager for clarification and additions. Some project managers elected to workshop the questionnaire with their teams. Project managers who were not available for interview nominated sub project managers to complete the questionnaires in written form. Data provided by project managers and their staff was supplemented by information from published and internal project reports such as previous reviews, project milestone reports, evaluations and annual reports.

Data collected was summarised and where appropriate analysed for themes. Two preliminary reports were compiled – one describing present agriculture extension practice and delivery, and a second presenting information about the changing context in which extension projects are operating and contemporary thinking about Extension theory and practice. These two reports formed the basis for a workshop with key practitioners, project managers and internal investors. At the workshop a comparison was made between the current situation and the changing context and options were developed for addressing any issues or gaps highlighted. These options were later refined into recommendations by the Review team in consultation with the project reference group.


Trends and drivers for change

The Review identified a number of key drivers for change relevant to future agriculture extension service delivery in Victoria.

Change in Victoria’s rural social landscapes

Future rural landscapes and the needs and requirements of private land managers influence the demand for DPI extension services. Rural social landscapes in many areas of Victoria are rapidly changing. Neil Barr (2003; 2005) has described four social landscapes in rural Victoria - Rural Amenity, Rural Transitional, Agriculture Production and Irrigated landscapes - and the social forces driving these landscapes on differing paths of change. Many areas which 20 years ago would have been recognised as agriculture production landscapes are now either dominated by rural amenity pursuits (eg lifestyle farming) or in a phase of transition to new forms of land use, such as a change from commercial grazing to hardwood plantation, cropping or lifestyle farming. Consequently the make up of agricultural businesses and characteristics of rural land managers in many locations is changing. This has major implications for the way DPI delivers agriculture and natural resource management extension services.

Service providers

Services related to public good outcomes, such as natural resource management and sustainable agriculture development, are increasingly being delivered by agencies and groups outside of mainstream government departments. These include catchment management authorities, community groups such as Landcare and the private sector. The Commonwealth Government is increasingly providing funding for natural resource management activities to regional bodies and community groups. This means that achieving outcomes, such as sustainable irrigation, is characterised by a complex network of service providers and policy instruments where successful interdependent relationships are critical. These relationships are not always easy as conflict commonly occurs between achieving private good, public good and business outcomes.

In these complex service environments there are heightened risks that government extension efforts may be duplicated or compromised if projects are not well coordinated, integrated or aligned with other service providers. An understanding of the service provider environment, and the tools and skills that are necessary to successfully operate within this complexity, will reduce the risk of failure and increase the potential impact of agriculture extension. Operating in this context highlights the importance of developing and maintaining robust relationships with other service providers and delivering through networks where there is the potential to amplify impacts.

Policy environment

The Victorian Government’s (2001) Growing Victoria Together statement sets out ‘a way of thinking, a way of working and a way of governing which starts by valuing equally our economic, social and environmental goals.’ There is a growing expectation that government–funded extension will deliver integrated ‘triple bottom line’ outcomes.

Traditionally AD extension has focused on delivering productivity outcomes while other DPI extension services have addressed natural resource management and biosecurity outcomes. In recent years AD extension has made major progress on delivering integrated services in an industry context. Productivity improvements are still a key motivation for commercial farmers to become involved in extension projects. The challenge is to develop innovative ways of delivering environmental and social outcomes within this industry productivity model while integrating natural resource management and sustainable production extension services at a place.

Community of Interest in agriculture development

Processors, international importers and retailers of agricultural products are demanding ‘clean green’ products in response to both consumer awareness and biosecurity risks. Increasingly, a crucial element in marketing agricultural products is being able to certify that products are safe, meet agreed quality criteria and have been produced using a recognised environmental management system (Macadam et al 2004).

Consumer and community awareness and concern about environmental degradation means agriculture is also under growing scrutiny from an environmental perspective. Increasingly, urban and regional communities, as well as rural non-farming residents, want to participate in some way in decisions about agriculture development that they feel may impact on their wellbeing (Macadam et al 2004). This trend, coupled with emerging transitional and amenity rural social landscapes in many areas of Victoria, means that people with diverse livelihoods and views may want to be engaged in some way in agriculture extension projects.

Where agriculture extension projects are aiming to deliver outcomes on complex issues there may be a need to engage a more diverse range of stakeholders (for example, along the whole supply chain or within a broader community of interest) than has traditionally been the case. These stakeholders may have diverse and even conflicting views about agriculture development. Processes are required to firstly define the relevant ‘community of interest’ and then design extension and engagement processes that enable the appropriate level and type of participation for these different stakeholders.

Delivering extension services in this more complex and changing context reinforces the need for:

  • Highly skilled (both technically and in terms of decision-making about and selection and implementation of effective mix of extension approaches) and well-informed staff that can manage and continuously improve extension projects to respond to changes in agricultural industries and rural communities;
  • More effective ways of working across traditional “boundaries” of industry, agency, discipline and various stakeholders in the community of interest;
  • Excellence in building and managing networks and relationships with various investors and service providers to achieve outcomes most efficiently and effectively.

Contemporary thinking about extension

A number of major trends in, and emerging areas of, extension science were identified as most relevant to future agriculture extension in Victoria:

  • the widespread use of participatory and group approaches which give considerable power in decision making to land managers and communities of interest (King 2003; Pretty 1997; Pretty 2002;Macadam et al 2004);
  • the importance of rigorously selecting a complementary mix of policy instruments ( regulation, self regulation, market based instruments and extension) to influence practice change and the role of extension in that mix (Johnson 2003; Johnson, F and Leth 2003);
  • the need for a mix of extension approaches to most effectively build capacity for change relating to an area of interest (Coutts et al 2005);
  • the shift in focus of extension from accelerating the rate of change to building the capacity of people and communities to manage change (Macadam et al 2004; Coutts et al 2005);
  • a new focus on community engagement in decision making (DSE 2004);
  • a recognition of learning as the most fundamental agent of innovation, management and continuous improvement; approaches to adult education and learning are being redesigned in light of views that knowledge is constructed by individuals from their own experiences and filtered through their unique worldviews (Macadam et al 2004);
  • a growing appreciation of the complexity of situations facing agriculture and rural communities, and of the need to apply systems/holistic thinking approaches to develop multiple pathways for change in these complex problems (King 2003; Macadam et al 2004).

Agriculture Development extension practice in Victoria

The Review provided an overview of present extension practice within 27 agriculture extension projects by examining each projects using the steps of the continuous improvement cycle – Plan, Deploy (Deliver), Review (including project effectiveness) and Improve.

Project planning

A variety of approaches were used to plan the extension projects reviewed. Planning decisions about the mix of extension approaches to be deployed within a project were largely made using professional judgement coupled with input from partners, investors and clients. Past evaluations, where available, were used to inform decision-making. Projects with the most rigorous project planning processes developed theories of action or project logics based on some form of social analysis (eg market research) to form a detailed understanding of client needs and drivers for practice change.

Generally improvements to project planning can be made with the use of more rigorous project scoping and design processes supported by some form of practice change and extension decision-making framework and relevant social information.

Project delivery

The results of the review of each extension project against the 5 models of extension (Coutts et al 2005) clearly show that agriculture extension projects in Victoria are using multiple delivery approaches to achieve their objectives (Table 1). Group Facilitation/Empowerment is the dominant model and tends to form the basis for integration with other complementary extension approaches. Technology Development and Programmed Learning models are also used widely and in conjunction with other extension approaches.

Although it was clear to the Review team that a mix of extension approaches was being used it was difficult to determine how project planners and investors were making decisions about the most effective mix of extension approaches or whether extension was the most effective policy instrument to achieve the desired outcome. Improving the capability of DPI to rigorously make decisions about the most effective mix of instruments and delivery processes was highlighted as a priority in the Review.

Project Evaluation and Reflection

A strong evaluation culture exists in agriculture extension in Victoria. All but 2 projects reviewed had an established evaluation process. The dominant framework for determining project effectiveness was through the implementation of evaluation plans based on program logic using Bennett’s Hierarchy (Bennett 1976). The dominance of the Bennett’s Hierarchy framework is a legacy of a past policy that recommended the use of the framework for evaluation of agriculture extension projects and DPI’s evaluation training program mirroring that recommendation.

Some projects teams had an obvious culture of evaluation and continuous improvement; others projects used more rudimentary end-of-project processes largely aligned to reporting needs. Projects with more sophisticated evaluation processes used market research and detailed surveys to determine what influence their projects had over on-ground practice change, and to attempt to define causal links between practice change and resultant changes in social, economic and environmental conditions. Other projects collected information about changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and aspirations, participation levels, reactions (during and post events), and activities without compiling direct evidence of practice change. Projects with well-embedded reflective practices used short cycle (for example monthly, quarterly or half yearly) reporting and feedback mechanisms to achieve continuous improvement. In these projects, learnings and evaluative information was integrated into project management though these cycles enabling projects to quickly respond to emerging issues or changes detected.

For the Review, effectiveness was defined as the degree to which the extension project achieved its desired results. All projects were examined for evidence of effectiveness however it was very difficult to make a comparison of effectiveness between extension projects, and between the effectiveness of Victoria’s approaches to agriculture extension and that of other states or countries. This difficulty results from the varied objectives of projects, the different contexts they are implemented within and the variety of indicators that are used to measure effectiveness. Some projects have attempted to measure their performance against interstate benchmarks and non-participants. For example, 43% of BESTWOOL 2010 members used advanced marketing methods compared with only 17% of non-members (Watson 2004). Other projects have used client surveys to measure their effectiveness against project objectives. For example, GrapeCheque has determined through telephone surveys that it is surpassing a number of its objectives, while focus groups have been used to better understand links between clients’ needs and project performance (Grills et al 2004;Dickinson and Grills 2003). Target 10 has used sophisticated models to determine productivity improvements and economic gains (Drysdale et al 2002; Drysdale and Walton 2003). Overall a comparative analysis of project effectiveness is not possible. Refocussing evaluation efforts towards such comparisons would provide minimal added value to DPI.

Improvements to the evaluation practice of agriculture development extension officers can be made with stronger focus on “fit for purpose”, utilisation focussed and within project, as well as end of project, evaluation strategies. Decisions about evaluation frameworks (eg whether Bennett’s Hierarchy is the best logic model to form the basis for your project and its evaluation) and methods can then flow from questions about the purpose of evaluation and how evaluation data will be used in line with that purpose. More focused evaluation efforts will better enable impacts and changes to be identified, understood and managed as evaluation data feeds into cycles of decision making a various levels within the Department.

Table 1: Approaches used for agriculture extension


Group Facilitation/

Technology Development

Programmed Learning

Information Access

Individual Consultant/


Target 10


Capacity of service providers

Dairy Effluent Management



Dairy Drought Recovery


Emergency response

Land Learn



Ag Train




Decision Support to Grain Industry (Topcrop)


Grain Crop Variety Improvement




Southern Farming Systems ( Grains)



Extension in R&D (Grains)


Agribusiness Development



Value Chain Development



Victorian Agribusiness Networks








Service providers’ capacity; media/




Crop Forecasting (Wine)


Train the trainer

Research to Practice (Hort)


Yarra Valley EMS (viticulture)



Viticulture trials


Private Forestry


Technology Transfer (Private Forestry)






NLIS—on-farm benefits (Beef)



Bestwool 2010


Merinos to Match




OJD Support



Towong Drought Emergency Response


Emergency response model

Main extension approach
Complementary extension approach
Minor extension approach

Project Improvements

“Within project” evaluation and reflective processes (rather than end of project) provided a basis for project improvement. These processes were used to bring about changes and improvements to the extension approaches being used within any one model (eg group empowerment model), to inform changes to a new model, to develop and trial new techniques within a model, to design new projects, to improve networks/relationships and to refocus the role of extension staff.

The range of improvements made to projects highlights the powerful effect “ within project” evaluative processes can have on improving extension service delivery. The benefits of evaluation can be enhanced through greater use of team and investor reflective processes, which integrate evaluation results into decisions about project improvement or repositioning.


The Review made 13 recommendations for improvements to the way extension service delivery can effectively respond to changes in rural Victoria’s social, economic and policy environment. The recommendations fall into 4 areas:

  • Improvements to extension practice including initiatives to improve learning across projects and portfolio’s, evaluation practice and the use of social contexting information to inform decisions about the mix of practice change and extension approaches used in projects;
  • Staff development – designing purpose built capacity building projects for extension staff that build on current levels of technical and practice change skills;
  • Building on current research in the areas of decision support for developing effective outcome oriented (compared to output) practice change projects; and integration of research, development and extension;
  • Development of new approaches to determine extension project beneficiaries and funders; engage a wider community of interest for complex value driven issues; work effectively within complex service provider networks; improve the capacity and resilience of DPI’s rural community of interest; and strengthen extensions role in providing community feedback to government.


Implementation of the Extension Review recommendations is being progressed in two ways. Firstly the recommendations have been incorporated into the Catchment and Agriculture Services (CAS) Division business improvement program – The CAS Service Delivery Review - and the CAS Business Plan. Recommendations are being implemented either across the whole Division or through projects with specific areas of the Division. Implementation of the CAS Service Delivery Review is being managed by a high level steering committee which includes management representatives from the research, service delivery and policy arms of DPI and key government investors.

Secondly the relevant program of the Agriculture Development Division (the Division which makes strategic decision about future investment in agriculture extension) is considering information from the Extension Review while formulating investment strategies and priorities for the future agriculture extension in Victoria.


Many rural areas of Victoria are changing rapidly from both a land use and community perspective. Government funded agriculture and natural resource management (NRM) extension services are being delivered into rural social landscapes where the traditional clients of “commercial farmer” and “farm family” may no longer be dominant. A number of government departments, government authorities community groups and consultants are delivering agriculture and NRM extension programs which were previously the domain of an “agriculture department”. At the same time sectors of the urban and non-farming community want to influence strategic decisions about the future of agriculture practice and its impact on the environment or their semirural lifestyles.

Agriculture extension teams in Victoria have a strong culture of evaluation and continuous improvement, which provides a basis for identifying and responding to these changes. To build on this culture and skills a greater focus on “fit for purpose”, utilisation focussed and within project, as well as end of project, evaluation strategies is required. The integration of regular team based reflective processes within extension projects and programs would enhance the ability of project teams and program managers to capture and utilise evaluative information for continuous improvement.

AD Extension staff have strong networks and relationships with commercial farmers and industry representatives which enables changes in rural industries and communities to be quickly identified. However with changes in the types of people now inhabiting rural areas and the heightening interest in rural land management from urban dwellers, extension officers may have to engage a more diverse range of stakeholders. Implementing more sophisticated processes to firstly define and understand the relevant ‘community of interest’ and then design extension and engagement processes that enable the appropriate level and type of participation for these different stakeholders will be required if industry, government and community outcomes are to be achieved.

Agriculture extension service delivery in Victoria can also respond to changes in the social and policy environment by delivering more services through interdisciplinary projects that integrate natural resource management, productivity and sustainability outcomes at the landscape level and form stronger links between policy development, research and extension. Integrated project development and delivery is a major challenge to extension practitioners in DPI with the structural separation of research, service delivery (including extension) and policy; and with a variety of government and industry investors who have varying processes and priorities.


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