Sowing the Seeds for Change: The use of networks to amplify extension programs
Department of Natural Resources & Environment, Victoria, Australia.
The creation of Agroforestry Networks has become an accepted feature of agroforestry extension practice in Australia. Such networks are in a position to strongly influence extension staff and the delivery of extension services within their region. Personal observation of one such network has found they can considerably improve the effectiveness of extension efforts. This paper discusses how these observations correlate with some current theories of adult learning and effective extension practice.
The 1990s saw a considerable rise in interest in farm forestry throughout much of south-eastern Australia. This interest was driven by several factors including the need to reduce salinity, improve water quality, increase farm diversification and improve stock shelter. Due to the high degree of perceived public good in the integration of trees into traditional farming systems, a substantial amount of public investment was made into farm forestry extension. This led to the wide spread appointment of extension officers and the funding of extension activities.
A significant feature of this period was the formation of “Agroforestry Networks”. These networks consisted of groups of like minded people keen to increase their knowledge and understanding of farm forestry, become involved in commercial tree growing and facilitate and encourage others to share this interest. Whilst some networks were short lived and some evolved and developed in different ways over time. For the most part these networks are still in existence some 10 years on. Unlike Landcare groups that were also a popular feature of the 1990s, networks are not based on small well-defined geographic areas such as a sub catchment or local community. In particular networks are very strongly focussed on the issue of farm forestry and information distribution as opposed to on ground works for a range of environmental objectives. Interestingly network members will often also be active members of a local Landcare group.
One such network is the Wimmera Agroforestry Network (WAN) which formed in 1996 and is located in western Victoria. Prior to WAN’s formation a number of extension staff were operating in the area promoting revegetation for a variety of public good reasons. As one of those extension officers it was largely up to me to determine what extension events were run including when and where.
The idea of forming an agroforestry network was suggested and facilitated by extension officers. It was seen as the logical “next step” and in keeping with practices in other areas. Whilst there may have been a vague notion that having a network might improve our extension efforts there was no in depth analysis of how or why at the time.
On its formation WAN very soon took on an independent life of its own. Members began selecting their own topics of interest and initiated events when and where it suited them. They have held field days, published leaflets, sought and obtained external funding and carried out trials and investigations. Whilst the network looked to me for technical support in organising these activities and readily accepted any input I made at meetings, I clearly had only one vote in the decision making process.
From the onset, WAN also determined to charge an annual membership fee of $20 per person. At the time this seemed quite high as most other networks were either free or had only a nominal joining fee. However the members argued quite strongly that this would give both greater credibility in the community, and minimise their dependence on the government for assistance with administrative activities. Despite my concerns about the level of this fee, each year the membership grew with very minor losses of past members. Currently it has over 70 members. Interestingly many other networks have since increased or introduced membership fees.
At first this gave me a strong feeling of losing control as I was presented with the choice of following WAN’s lead or working without their support. As the later seemed untenable I opted for the former. To begin with my concerns seemed verified as chiefly committee members attended field days and evening seminars. This concerned the WAN committee also, prompting them to conduct a member’s survey. The results surprisingly were that the bulk of members were most satisfied with WAN’s performance, and were more interested in receiving regular mail outs than in attending field days. For many the purpose of joining WAN was simply to keep abreast of agroforestry developments.
Since those early days I have developed a strong working relationship with WAN and have found that by working with WAN I have been able to greatly expand my contacts and reach a far wider audience. Furthermore there is evidence to suggest that these extension activities are now more effective and better linked to the target groups needs and wishes.
What is the role of the extension officer once a network forms? Have they become redundant? No! In fact they have a crucial role to play in supporting the network through obtaining and interpreting information, coordinating activities, liasing between agencies, and facilitating the development of the network as their skills and abilities evolve.
Let us consider the different approaches to extension found in Australia. These can broadly be divided into three categories (Hartley 1992). Without going into detailed descriptions of each category, I found that working with WAN effectively led to a shift away from the more traditionally used “Interventionist”, and towards the “Co-learning” style of extension. The “Co-learning model” of adult learning is where an environment of equals is formed that allows the extension officer and the farmers to learn together. Learning of this type is self-directed and generates a high level of ownership amongst the participants.
This process of adult learning whilst one of the most difficult for an extension officer to work with is the most powerful (Hartley 1992). Hartley also mentions that many extension officers feel uncomfortable with this approach because they are not “in control” of the situation. This comment tallies well with my own initial experience with working with WAN.
It has been theorised that as not everyone adopts innovations at the same rate it is possible to plot the percentage of people who adopt innovations against time. The result of this is nearly always a bell curve with a normal distribution (van den Ban & Hawkins 1988). By classifying people according to how far from the mean they vary it is possible to create a number of “adopter categories” (Figure 1, Rogers 1983).
Figure 1: Adopter categories (Rogers 1983)
If one accepts this theory, that farming communities can be divided into categories based upon their readiness to adopt new technologies with “early adopters” forming a relatively small proportion. It is then reasonable to assume that those inclined to join networks will also be early adopters. The network is therefore gathering the people most inclined to listen and adopt the practices you as the extension officer are trying to transfer. Networks are thus a useful filtering device to ensure that resources are being effectively used eg avoiding the message falling on deaf ears.
Does this mean we should ignore the majority of the landholder population and target only the 16% inclined to adopt? No. In the Wimmera we have found that we still need to target extension activities at the broader community. However the existence of the network allows us to better discern the early adopters from the greater population. This in turn has allowed us to develop two differing styles of extension targeted at the two groups respectively. Practical and personal activities leading to skill development and detailed knowledge enhancement are devised for the early adopters, in the network. Whilst simple generalised community messages aimed at awareness raising are aimed at the broader community. It has also been possible to discern a smaller group who could possible be placed in the “innovator” category. These are those network members who are actively involved in running and steering the network. These people have reached a point where they have taken on a training and monitoring role for other members of the community. It has been interesting to observe their development as they take on a large part of what had earlier been my own earlier role with the community. Thus allowing me to concentrate increasingly upon their continual development.
One might suppose that a drawback of this approach, is that only a small proportion of the community will ever adopt the practices you are seeking to have adopted on a broad scale. However, here again networks can assist the extension officer, who, by concentrating resources on this small subsection of the community is in fact increasing the infiltration of their message into the wider community.
Landholders place the greatest credence on new technologies already adopted and proven by other members of their community (Whale et al 1989). Even when people seek advice from an “expert” they typically seek to validate and evaluate it with close friends, neighbours or family. Often the extension officer is seen as a good source of technical information but not practical application, this is better sought from another farmer in the same district. As early adopters, network members are providing their local community, friends and family with this contact for verification. Rogers (1983) described networks as important interpersonal networks for conveying information about new ideas to decrease uncertainty about their use.
Figure 2: Learning (Petal) diagram (Phillips 1985)
Philips (1985) found that the degree to which farmers use people as a source of information depends upon the perceived social distance between them. From this he developed the Learning (Petal) diagram (Figure 2). Each group plays a specific and quite different role in assisting the learner and their development. The paid experts were used as sources of information whilst intimates provided validation and approval for the decision to apply the new information.
Extension officers in fact tend to be on the outer limits of the decision making circle for most landholders. This fact is often not apparent to the extension officer as there are often sufficient “early adopters” to occupy their time and create a perception of widespread community demand. Networks allow the extension officer to overcome this barrier in two ways:
- By sowing skilled and motivated landholders across the landscape, who in turn will provide a source of practical examples, validation and support to their local community; and
- By working closely with a small group of people for a length of time the officer may build relationships of sufficient intimacy that they can move inwards from the outer circle (Figure 2).
Thus by concentrating on the smaller group the extension officer is in fact gaining indirect influence of many times this number of people. These are people who in normal circumstances would not be receptive to their message. Furthermore they are creating the opportunity to increase their degree of influence over this same group so that the relationship should become increasingly productive from an extension viewpoint.
As earlier stated the understanding of why we formed WAN was somewhat limited. Since then I have had the opportunity to further consider the role of networks and form a better understanding of their place in agroforestry extension programs.
To summarise, the establishment of a network has allowed us to improve our agroforestry extension program in three ways:
- It has facilitated a move towards the use of the more effective “Co-learning” extension style;
- It has more clearly delineated our clients in terms of their readiness to adopt thus allowing better-designed and targeted extension programs; and
- But most importantly it has sown a large number of agroforestry practitioners amongst the rural community, who in turn will act as advocates and stimulate further interest amongst their immediate peers.
By understanding the theories of adult learning and extension processes it is possible to see how the development of WAN has not only broadened the scope, but potentially increased the effectiveness of our extension efforts in the Wimmera.
1. Hartley, D. (1992) Improving Adoption Rate. Dairy Horizons: The Challenge for Extension Conference Dairy Research and Development Corporation. Melbourne.
2. Phillips, T.I. (1985) The development of methodologies for the determination and facilitation of learning for dairy farmers. Master theses, University of Melbourne.
3. Rogers, E.M. (1983). Diffusion of Innovations. Third edition New York: The Free Press.
4. van den Ban, A.W. & Hawkins, H.S. (1988) Agricultural Extension. Longman Scientific & Technical.
5. Whale, W.B. (1989) Technology Transfer Revisited: Changing Practices. Source Blackburn, D.J. (Ed) Foundation of Changing Practices in Extension 1989 University of Guelph, Chapter 13.