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An analysis of a field crop agricultural knowledge and information system

N.E. Delaney and P.G.H. Van Beek

Queensland Department of Primary Industries

PO Box 23 Kingaroy QLD 4610 and 2P0 Box 96 Ipswich QLD 4305

Summary. A group process workshop was used to examine previous communication within an agricultural knowledge and information system (AKIS) and the consequences of that communication, to enable planning for improved communication and production systems. While this process has been developed and used for several years within the Queensland Department of Primary Industries (QDPI), this paper describes the first time the process was used by the QDPI with representatives of several segments of an AKIS. The strengths and weaknesses of the method and possible modifications are discussed. Issues requiring attention to improve the AKIS operation are identified.


Information management within an agricultural knowledge and information system (AKIS) demands firstly an understanding of the existing communication pattern and its impact on agricultural production (looking back), and secondly, logical analysis of the relationships within the AKIS to plan communication changes to enhance the AKIS outcomes, and through these the production systems (planning ahead). Useful methods of AKIS mapping and review were devised overseas (1) and are being developed further in Queensland (2).

The aim of the workshop was to test this method and review the communication of information relating to the production of field crops in the South Burnett region of south- east Queensland. A better understanding of the AKIS is expected to assist the QDPI and others in improving the efficiency and effectiveness of their services to South Burnett field crop farmers. This is necessary to offset declining QDPI resources and to deal with the very difficult conditions local farmers are experiencing due to poor terms of trade and a succession of natural and other disasters.

The questions to be answered at the workshop were:

  • Who are the main groups of people (AKIS segments or elements) involved in the communication of relevant information?
  • How important is communication between and within each of these segments? Is that communication adequate?
  • What can we do to improve the system?


The authors conducted a workshop involving four farmers, three QDPI extension staff, two South Burnett College of Technical and Further Education (TAFE) Rural Studies staff, an agribusiness representative and a financial counsellor. Although representation from agricultural research, the media, banks and other agribusiness was sought, it was not available at the time required. While not ideal, the representation obtained was sufficient to balance any bias and give credible representation of producer views. Since producers are the principal QDPI clients and changes in their production decisions are the main AKIS outcome, their views are most important for the QDPI.

Participants started with a practice exercise based upon the local beef industry to ensure understanding of the process. Participants then listed the segments of the South Burnett Field Crop AKIS. This list was reduced to ten main segments, based on sets of skills or knowledge (e.g. research skills or marketing knowledge) unique to each segment and of importance to the AKIS. By placing these segments on both the vertical and horizontal axes of a two dimensional matrix, all 100 possible communication links between and within segments were represented by matrix cells. To reduce the task to suit the time available, the three least important segments were eliminated from further consideration.

The workshop was divided into two mixed groups. The groups were asked to rate the potential importance and actual frequency of use of communication in each link. Each group started at opposite ends of the matrix so neither group was under pressure to complete the whole task. The ratings were recorded on a large matrix chart using the rating scales in Table 1.

Table 1. Rating scales for matrix.

During the final stage of the process the two groups combined their assessments and identified links where improvement was warranted. This caused discussions about different views of ratings. The whole group then developed proposals for improvement of the links where communication was rated as both important and capable of improvement.

Results and discussion

The ten main segments identified were:

  • producers;
  • service industries (contractors, agricultural suppliers, seed companies, machinery and fuel suppliers, commercial spray applicators, transport and handling);
  • marketeers (private traders, co-ops, local end users, world);
  • extension (QDPI and private consultants); researchers (local and overseas);
  • financial services;
  • South Burnett College of Technical and Further Education, and other education;
  • media;
  • community groups (including `greenies');
  • agro-political (Queensland Graingrowers Association, all levels of government);

When constructing the matrix, the last three segments listed above were selected for deletion as the least important of the ten. This led to a 49 cell matrix for further attention.


The most urgent issue from the producer perspective was the quality of information from the marketeer segment. Prices need to be expressed as farm gate returns. The example of wheat price quotations was given. There was a request for more interpretive information on world stockpiles and other such price affecting information. The latter information is available at a price but few are buying it at present. The issue of better price reporting may prove difficult to solve to the satisfaction of producers. It is not just a matter of ensuring that farmers are aware of the farm gate prices. Farmers want the community to know the farm gate prices and not be misled by the gross prices quoted in the media.

The producers also perceived a need for more direct interaction between themselves and researchers as well as the continuation of contact through extension people. QDPI has been trying various ways of providing the link between research and producers. Industry consultative committees have been used with very limited success. Current thinking is to combine less formal methods with periodic workshops involving a wider group of producers than is feasible with an ongoing consultative committee.

Producers felt that the South Burnett College of TAFE needed to increase its communication with farmers, especially those at a distance from Kingaroy, to establish courses suitable for those farmers. It was acknowledged that this may not be easy but must be tried. It was indicated that farmers generally preferred short intensive courses rather than a series of short sessions spread over many weeks. They were also reluctant to travel long distances, especially for short sessions. The TAFE staff are following up these suggestions.

Another point made by producers was that they get far more information through the mail and mass media than they can process. Much of that information is not in an appropriate form. The identification of priority information, in addition to market information as identified above, and the form of presentation are issues for further investigation.

Opportunities to improve communication between farmers and some subsections of the agribusiness segment, and within the agribusiness segment were identified by the producers. There is potential for the QDPI to further investigate how this situation could be improved.

The process

This workshop was intended to test the AKIS technique as well as to obtain information on the South Burnett Field Crop AKIS. Splitting the workshop into two groups to rate the matrix added an extra dimension to the test of the process. Although the two groups worked together to identify the elements of the matrix, there were differences in the ratings they recorded. These arose from a difference in calibration and the diverse nature of some segments such as the service industries. The differences stimulated useful discussions.

Rating the matrix elements has an obvious direct value, but the main value comes from the discussions which the process provokes. The matrix further shows that any individual is only directly involved in a minority of the communication within the AKIS. It also indicates how messages can gain credibility with producers by being transmitted via multiple segments within the AKIS. For example, if similar market forecasts are provided to producers by service industries, marketeers, extension, financial services and the media, they are more likely to be effective than if the market forecasts are not well matched.

While frequency of communication proved to be helpful as a quantitative measure there was a need for some qualitative assessment as well. Some communication links warranting improvement were identified in this process. The quantitative frequency of communication rating showed its value in highlighting that at least one producer felt that once a year was adequate for contact with his bank manager. This view surprised others and led to a discussion on the need for communication between producers and their bank managers. Using a qualitative measure alone would not have exposed the divergence of opinion.

Selecting just one segment of the AKIS, such as producers, would allow most time to be focused on communication links involving that segment. An overview of the AKIS could be shown in less time and still give people an understanding of the AKIS technique. Time could be saved by presenting a list of segments that can be identified in the AKIS and just asking for possible additions or modifications. This would make the whole process more relevant and obvious to participants.

A group representing one AKIS segment could focus on the information flows to and from that segment in detail. For example, producers could better examine communication from service providers and look at the performance of subsections separately. These communications were identified as having some deficiencies despite an overall satisfactory performance. Producers also would benefit from looking at the information they present. People are usually more aware of the quality and quantity of information they receive rather than of that which they disseminate, while the latter can be equally important.

The AKIS technique was well received by those involved in this workshop, although the producer participants revealed in follow up interviews that for a substantial part of the day they had been uncertain of its real value to them. It proved to be a good framework for discussion and an aid to understanding the complexity of information flows. However, some adjustments could be considered to maximise the value of a workshop to producers or others who are less interested in information management within an AKIS than people from other organisations such as the QDPI. The impact of the process on the participants' perceptions of the AKIS and the joint identification of issues for attention are more important than the ratings finally produced.

The two main benefits to be expected from use of the process are:

  • Participants get a new perspective on the complexity of the communication links affecting their AKIS and are thus better placed to identify and correct future communication deficiencies on their own initiative.
  • Communication weaknesses are identified in the group process so action to improve information flows is likely to be better supported and hence more effective than unilaterally decided actions.


1. Roling, N. 1989. In: Extension Science: Information Systems in Agricultural Development, (Cambridge University Press: Sydney). Ch. 2.

2. Van Beek, P.G.H. 1991. A Systems Approach to Management of Research and Extension, In: Proceedings of Extension Conference on Knowledge Systems and Information Technology (Ed. D. Kuijper,) (Agricultural University: Wageningen).

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