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State Focus – Improving Farmer Practices through Coordinated On-Farm Testing.

A. McCutcheon

Department of Primary Industries, PO Box 3100 Bendigo Delivery Centre, Vic 3554, Email


Numerous research messages are generated, interpreted and then communicated using a range of extension approaches. This is necessary to provide Victorian farmers with opportunities to learn about and apply practice change. However, usually there is little interaction between research, extension and the farming community on how to successfully encourage adoption of technology on farm and in rural communities.

The Victorian Department of Primary Industries (DPI) grain extension staff and neighbourhood farmer groups have cooperated to develop a coordinated on-farm testing program termed ‘State Focus’. This participatory approach program addresses a single agronomic issue through a consistent series of on-farm testing across the state, using large on farm plots using farmers’ machinery and the nearest neighbour statistical design. Through a collaborative process, research, extension and farmer stakeholders are directly involved in the program. The State Focus objective is to validate research outcomes and technology at a local farm level to encourage adoption and practice change by farmers to improve sustainable crop management practices.

This participatory extension approach over the last five years has allowed agronomic issues to be addressed, provided an excellent vehicle for creating awareness of new technology, delivery of targeted messages and the development of production benchmarks. Farmers have been engaged in learning processes leading to a quicker rate of adoption of research outcomes for improved crop management. Researchers and industry have improved messages and identified new opportunities. Overall this program illustrates the effectiveness of a participatory approach that enhances communication and relationships within the grains industry to improve farming system practices.

Media Summary

The Victorian State Focus program evaluates research outcomes and technology using farmer equipment to encourage farmer adoption and practice change and provides feedback and opportunities to researchers and industry.

Key Words

Participatory research, on-farm testing, extension, farmer groups, practice change


In the past agricultural extension used technology transfer or advisory approaches to encourage farmer adoption and practice change however this led to limited farmer understanding and practice changes in farming systems (Cary 1993). The main reasons as suggested by Carberry (2001) and McCown (2001) being that farmers were unlikely to adopt a new strategy based solely on acclaimed benefits and the uncertainty of research outcomes applications under local specific conditions. To overcome the gap between research and farming system practices the concepts of farming systems research and farmer participatory learning extension approaches emerged three decades ago (Cary 1993, Lawrence et al 2000 and Carberry 2001).

Participatory extension approaches involve stakeholders in the production of knowledge that guides practice by utilising the experiences and situation of the stakeholders (McCown 2001). There are many different levels of participation ranging from passive participation where stakeholders are just informed of the process to interactive participation described by McGill and Beaty (1995) as a continuous process of learning and reflection by stakeholders, supported by colleagues, with an intention of getting things done. Through action learning, individuals learn with and from each other by working on real problems and reflecting on their experiences. This definition is consistent with Kolb’s (1984) experimental learning cycle Action – observation-reflection-planning-modified action.

An example of an interactive participatory extension approach is the State Focus program developed by the Victorian Department of Primary Industries (DPI) grains extension staff together with neighbourhood farmer groups1 in 1999 which has continued in various forms ever since. The program was inspired by farmer groups wanting local, farm based opportunities for addressing agronomic management issues, evaluating technology, developing benchmarks and sharing knowledge and experience (Ainsworth and Sounness 1996; Sounness and Ainsworth 1999). Victorian researchers and industry wanted DPI grains extension to provide opportunities for the delivery of messages and new technology and to interact with farmers (Ainsworth and Sounness 1996; Sounness and Ainsworth 1999). Also there was a need to improve the coordination of extension activities within the Victorian grains industry as often activities competed for dollars and resources, duplicated messages and did not necessarily facilitate practice change (Ainsworth and Sounness 1996; Sounness and Ainsworth 1999).

The State Focus program addresses a single agronomic industry issue with a consistent series of on farm testing across the state to validate research outcomes and technology at a local level on a large scale to encourage farmer adoption and practice change and research feedback and opportunities. Like other participatory extension programs (eg Lawrence et al 2000, Hood and Shearer 2001 and Foale et al 2004). The aim is not to ignore research understanding but to help farmers integrate research insights and their own experience to improve management practices. This paper describes and discusses the participatory learning process and outcomes of the State Focus program.


The coordination and logistics of the Victorian State Focus program is the responsibility of the DPI Grain Extension Program State and State Focus coordinators with assistance from DPI grain extension staff who work with farmer groups. An overview of the State Focus methodology is given below (McCutcheon and Evans 2003):

1. An industry issue to be addressed is decided. This involves meetings and electronic exchange with DPI staff, advisers, researchers, agribusiness and farmer groups. The issues are prioritied and discussed at length based on statewide applicability.

2. Research and agronomic messages are decided for delivery through the State Focus program. Relevant researchers and farming system groups are consulted and messages are prioritied according to statewide applicability. Core farmer group activities for delivery are decided with DPI extension staff and relevant researchers.

3. Each State Focus site is sown with conventional broadacre equipment provided by the host farmer, making plots at least 9m wide by 100m long. This improves on-farm relevance but means replication of treatments at each site is not possible. Therefore, the Nearest neighbour statistical design is used at each sites whereby every third plot is designated a control. Control plots are set up to reduce the effect of spatial variability and hence improve the estimate of the treatment effect (Dixon 2001). This method is a variation on the small block nearest neighbour design discussed by Dixon (2001). Across the state the control is a set treatment to allow state analysis to occur.

4. Farmer groups across Victoria choose if they are going to participate in the State Focus and modify or include additional treatments to address local agronomic issues (exclusive of the control treatment and 3-4 basic treatments).

5. A basic set of monitoring and recording is done at all sites. Monitoring protocols are developed with assistance from researchers and DPI extension staff. Farmer groups are involved in managing, monitoring and harvesting sites.

6. Researchers, DPI extension staff, farmer groups and industry are involved in data interpretation. Statements from involved farmer groups; researchers and industry are collected to provide a qualitative account of what happened. State report of results (including one page for each farmer group site) is produced by February of the next year using concise messages. This is given to those involved in the program but is also accessible to the public from the TOPCROP website

Results and Discussion

The State Focus program has operated successfully in Victoria since 1999 but during this timeframe it was found that the effort involved in the coordination and logistics of a State Focus program is considerable at both local and state levels for the program to be success. For this participatory program to work, planning needs to start early and communication between research, industry and extension staff needs to be good.

Farming Systems Outcomes

Through the State Focus the farming community has adopted research messages for the improvement of crop management practices. The main adopted messages and crop management outcomes achieved through the State Focus program over the last five years are summarised below:

1999 Malt Barley State Focus (Evans 2000)
Issue: Reliable production of malting quality barley.
State treatments: Schooner, Sloop and Gardiner barley varieties.
Sites: 18
Main message: Where soil nitrogen is over 100 kg/ha, nitrogen application needs to be considered carefully to achieve malt barley.
Main outcomes: Farmers are using nitrogen testing for malt barley paddock selection.

2000 Sowing Rates for Quality Wheat State Focus (Evans et al 2001)
Issue: Suitable target plant densities for modern varieties and management systems.
State treatments: District practice sowing rate, 50% of district practice sowing rate, 150% of district practice sowing rate and 200% of district practice sowing rate.
Sites: 30
Main message: Aim for target plant densities rather than specific seeding rates for wheat varieties. Seeder calibration, grain size, weed seed contamination, germination and emergence can cause large differences in plant densities for a given seeding rate.
Main outcome: Farmers modify seeding rates and calibrate seeders regularly

2001 Putting the N in CaNola State Focus (Evans 2002)
Issue: Balancing nitrogen application costs with potential yield and commodity price risk.
State treatments: Base nitrogen, farmer/district practice, point of no return (on dollar invested in nitrogen) and maximum yield.
Sites: 19
Main message: Current district practice is a good risk management strategy. Increasing nitrogen rates are associated with lower oil percentage and higher seed protein.
Main outcome: Farmers modify fertiliser application for canola crops

2002/03 Pulses in Depth State Focus (McCutcheon and Evans 2003)
Issue: Understanding soils to improve pulse and cereal agronomy
State treatments: Parafield and Excell pea varieties
Sites: 21
Main message: Soil characteristics and problems affect crop performance. Pulses are a more risky crop than cereals especially in a poor season.
Main outcome: Farmers gained a better understanding of how to manage their soils to improve crop performance and paddock sustainability.

Stakeholder Outcomes

Farmers - Willingness to learn and apply research/industry messages

The adoption of a change in practice is based upon sound knowledge (Hood and Shearer 2001). The uptake of research messages to change crop management practices by the farming community was a key benefit of the State Focus participatory approach. This is illustrated through the 1999 State Focus program, which led to an increased use of deep soil nitrogen testing for malt barley paddock selection.

Agribusiness observations confirmed farmers appreciation of this message for example, “Pivot has seen a 2.5 fold increase of deep soil testing this year (2000) which can be attributed to the 1999 Malting Barley State Focus.” Nigel Bodinnar, Pivot. pers Comm.). In a number of cases, individual farmers improved crop management practices during and after a State Focus program illustrated by "I found the trial invaluable in assessing varieties most suited to this area. My own barley performed the worst, so I will be changing varieties next year." (Farmer. 1999 State Focus) and “I was aiming for a seeding rate of 60 kg/ha but reckoned it was nearer 70…I can’t believe it’s 92 kg/ha, I will be calibrating the seeder annually.” (Farmer. 2000 State Focus).

The observations of the State Focus program and those from similar participatory extension programs such as Hood and Shearer (2001) and Foale et al (2004) supports Carberry’s (2001) suggestion that farmer involvement in the learning process makes technology understandable, relevant and accessible. The State Focus program through the direct active involvement of farmers in the assessment of research outcomes and technology led to a sense of ownership, a willingness to learn and therefore practice change occurred from informed decision making. This challenges the assumption that communication of information, as an activity, will lead to behaviour change in the recipient of the information (Cary 1993 and Lawrence et al 2000).

"The State Focus showed us that setting up on-farm trials is an excellent way to evaluate technology on our own farms." (Farmer. 1999 State Focus). Through experience with the State Focus program farmers have gained the confidence to evaluate technologies by adopting the State Focus approach especially the large scale and nearest neighbour statistical design. For example, there will be over 60 on-farm-testing trials in 2003, which involved or used the State Focus approach (Jones 2003). This supports Carberry’s (2001) suggestion that farmers rightly expect not to have research done for them, but rather that they participate in some manner.

Research and Industry -Strengthening the message

The lack of the effect of the local situation in research underlies the main obstacle to research adoption (McCown 2001). It was observed that the State Focus program overcame this barrier by enabling research to be communicated in ways that were meaningful to partitioners in real situations. This is illustrated by “The State Focus provided a great opportunity to get research messages across and to discuss malt issues and new malting barley varieties and their management with farmer groups." (Alan Bedggood, GRDC Southern Region Barley Development Officer. pers. Comm).

The State Focus provided the opportunity for discussion amongst farmers, researchers and industry at farmer meetings. On these occasions it was observed that productive interactions between researchers, industry and farmers enabled farmers to learn about the underlying research behind the State Focus and for researchers and industry to gain feedback on the research, the agronomic messages and opportunities for new research. This is supported by comments such as "The Victorian State Focus provided us with a good opportunity to publicise, further develop and field validate the DNA Root Disease Testing Service." (Dr Alan McKay, SARDI. pers. Comm.). The observations of the State Focus program supports Carberry’s (2001) suggestion that participatory approaches deliver the benefits of new science knowledge and improved farming practices as well as providing the opportunity to continually improve research process.

Grain Industry –Improving Communication and relationships

Typically researchers view transactions between research and the farming problem as largely someone else’s responsibility (McCown 2001). Researchers need to experiment themselves with participatory approaches to gain experience with and confidence that it can deliver against both farmer and research expectations (Carberry 2001). The State Focus program bridged the gap between research and farming systems practices through a participatory approach and showed researchers and farmers that there were benefits to being involved such as research adoption, feedback and improved crop management practices.

The involvement of researchers, industry and extension staff in the State Focus program over the last five years has led to enhanced relationships and networks, which have been utilised for other research and extension projects in Victoria. For example, cooperative malt barley project with PIVOT in 2001, canola disease survey in 2002 and managing resistant ryegrass in 2003. This interaction between researchers, industry and extension staff has contributed to improved communication within the Victorian grains industry, such as regular electronic exchange of agronomic information and a calendar of events. This occurrence supports Shultz et al (2004) who suggests that regular communication across multiple stakeholders enables expectations to be understood and met, the provision of feedback and the identification and management of problems and opportunities.


The State Focus participatory extension approach presents an effective way to enhance understanding and adoption of research outcomes and technology to improve farming systems practices. The success of the State Focus program includes the direct active involvement of farmers, clear research messages and the interaction of researchers, industry and farmers.


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