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Community-based extension to develop productive conservation

T. Kent

Project Leader, Farm Advance, PO Box 441, Bendigo VIC 3550

The background and assumptions underlying the development of the Farm Advance project will be outlined including brief comments on the constraints upon existing publicly funded rural research and education services and the probability of success in increasing farmers' participation rates in research and extension activities with our approach.

The farm advance project

The North-central region of Victoria is subject to the full range of land degradation and productivity decline processes. Dryland soil salinity, tree decline, wind and water erosion, soil structure loss, water-logging, soil acidity, rabbits and noxious weeds are all major issues.

Farm Advance is a rural extension project operating in dryland districts of the Avoca, Loddon and Campaspe river catchments in north-central Victoria. The long-term goal is the acceleration of adoption of economically and ecologically sustainable agriculture for the north-central region. The project was initiated by a group of farmers and business people seeking grater industry and community involvement in extension and research to accelerate technology adoption in the region. A representative Management Committee, supported by the banking sector and government departments has been funded by NSCP to employ a small project team, comprising a mix of farm-based and professionally trained staff.

The first phase of the project is to develop a network of small district-based farm management learning groups to give farmers better access to resources for improving management skills. The network, supported initially by local coordinators, provides a forum for continuing interaction between producers and agribusiness, research, advisory and education agencies to work cooperatively to develop management systems which address land degradation and farm productivity decline problems in the region. The second phase of the project involves development of a number of demonstration and experimental areas where research and development organisations will work closely with farmers in groups.

The project philosophy is based on self-directed learning and active involvement of farmers in information generation and application. The project takes a local and informal approach to group activities to encourage high rates of participation which in turn increases the likelihood of the widespread adoption of improved management practices needed to deal effectively with many of the region's land degradation problems.

The basic premises of the project are that: (i) most farm families have a genuine concern for the state of their land but lack or have not taken opportunities for developing an understanding of land degradation processes; (ii) better land management will not be achieved unless it is based on profitable farming practices and viable farms; (iii) farm families' actions are the key to reversing land degradation and their role needs to be recognised through structures which permit them to set the research and extension agenda; and (iv) the whole decision-making unit and the broadest possible cross-section of landholders in any district must be involved in the information transfer process.

The perceived irrelevancy of information or suspicion of intentions alienate a large percentage of potential clients of extension and research programs, contributing to low rates of adoption. By stressing the primacy of "client" over "institutional" goals, facilitating local ownership of problem-solving research and providing a link between resources and clients, projects of this nature can overcome problems that agencies face in delivering services to the farm sector.

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