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Participatory extension by Subtropical Farm Forestry Association: For smaller tree growers, by these growers, with all stakeholders

Martin Novak

Subtropical Farm Forestry Association, PO Box 1320, Lismore,
NSW. 2480. Australia.


This paper examines the role of participatory extension provided by the Subtropical Farm Forestry Association (SFFA). Some background with regard to the association is included. The historic development of SFFA extension is outlined by way of an introduction. The paper details the most effective methodologies used over the past few years including the evaluation of: an advisory service, the association newsletter, field days, seminars, farm forestry courses, a financial assistance scheme, participatory monitoring using university graduates and undergraduates and the SFFA Farm Forestry Manual. The cooperative approach taken by the association with regard to working with agencies, institutions, organisations and prominent individuals is discussed.

The philosophy behind the SFFA advisory service is outlined indicating a participatory, holistic approach aimed at empowerment of all involved particularly the farmer or smaller landholder. The approach taken by the association in planning and implementing farm forestry extension in the region is shown to utilise a diagnosis and design approach, aiming at cooperative development with all the stakeholders, forming alliances which maximise benefits both at the individual level and between organisations while recognising all the values of forests and forestry be they social, economic or environmental. A key goal is to facilitate farmers and smaller growers becoming the principal players in farm forestry development.

The paper includes case studies, detailing Advisory Officers site visits and reports, and examples of Newsletters, the manual and other SFFA publications used to provide information to growers. Results of surveys and comments from SFFA members, committee and staff with regard to extension are included. Generally significant support was indicated for the approach taken by the association in participatory extension. The National Farm Forestry Program is shown to have been crucial to the effectiveness of SFFA extension. Four projects conducted under this program are shown to have participatory extension as one of two essential instruments in achieving the integration of farm forestry on farms within the region. The other is the use of financial incentive schemes, which is also briefly discussed.


SFFA extension has evolved from a long and diverse tradition of forestry and farmland management. The subtropical region of eastern Australia has supported a rich and diverse range of forest types and dependant life forms for hundreds of millions of years right up to today. This includes some of the most productive and dynamic systems that have existed as terrestrial entities upon the earth. The traditional local Aboriginal culture is an integral part of this.

It is this concentrated energy that has helped influence the keen interest of landowners in the region. All this has profoundly helped shape the association’s extension role to one, which aims at balancing environmental, economic and social values. Forestry is viewed as a continuum between production and ecology one cannot exist without the other. Hence it is evident that any extension role must encompass the interplay of interests that range from farm forest timber and other commercial production through to aesthetic and environmental enhancement. The approach the association has taken is one of accommodating diversity through participation.

Accommodating diversity through participation (SFFA photo 2000)

Over the past 8 eight years SFFA has had a turn over of over 400 members. Its current financial membership stands at over 200. This membership represents a diverse range of interests, from production through to conservation forestry with the majority being interested in both. (SFFA NL- surveys) The association’s extension service has developed in response to this interest.

The association and its Advisory Service recognises as its principal objective the role of facilitating the exchange of information and experience between members and other industry stakeholders. It is this participatory approach to extension, which is considered central to its effectiveness. In addition to this the broad range of methods used to implement this exchange, detailed below, are resulting in sound farm forestry development in the region.

In order to place the SFFA extension role into context it is important to recognise the lack of farm forestry extension in NSW. There is virtually no government agency extension. The National Farm Forestry Program supports a limited extension role, which has just been significantly reduced with the recent NHT down sizing.

It is also important to understand that without other government or industry initiatives such as effectively targeted incentive programs, what extension exists will not be utilised in the future. Despite the fact that farm forestry has been identified as having significant environmental, economic and social benefits, (Anon 1996) uptake is levelling out. The innovators and enthusiasts (Specht 1999) are involved but the bulk of farmers are caught up with trying to survive with their core farming activities and are not able to take the opportunity that farm forestry presents to them.

An additional threat to the effectiveness of farm forestry extension is the support of plantation forestry at the expense of integrated farm forestry. Tax driven investment into prospectus companies clearing native vegetation and buying up traditional farms (Northern Farmer Bulletin March 2001) is not what SFFA members and other community members have in mind when they turn to farm forestry as a rural diversification and environmental enhancement option.

Participatory extension methodology

Over the past eight years the SFFA has developed a number of ways of implementing an extension program. These include, an advisory service, the association newsletter, field days, seminars, farm forestry courses, a financial assistance scheme, participatory monitoring using university graduates and undergraduates and the SFFA Farm Forestry Manual. (SFFA 2000) A participatory approach involving farmers, other landholders and other stakeholders, has been at the heart of the association’s philosophy and activities. In fact the association formation itself was based on this approach.

The association came into being as a result of outcomes of a series of seminar workshops involving 200 participants (DFSC 1994). The report of the workshops outlined the role of the association and instigated the formation. A similar seminar, one year later, also involving a similar range of participants numbering approximately 200 helped to set directions for the Advisory Service.

The seminar titled “Farm and Community Forestry: From production to ecology” enabled speakers and participants to examine key farm forestry issues at the time, and they identified a number of categories in order to provide a framework for farm forestry development in the region (Novak 1994).

At present the Advisory Service employs two officers who respond to enquiries in person and via telephone and email at the office at no charge. They also conduct site visits and produce site reports on a cost recovery basis. In addition they play a key role in the SFFA seminars, field days, farm forestry courses that are conducted in a collaborative manner. They play an important part in providing feedback to SFFA management, on the needs of the landowner clients. This information is also used to identify R&D priorities.

Advisory officers’ site visits generally occur on a regular week-by-week basis. The project funds (NHT), which support these activities, are limited; this results in delays in the preparation of landholders’ information and Site Reports. These reports are generally needed by landholders to incorporate into farm and business plans. These plans play a crucial role in landholders gaining tax incentives and generally in placing themselves on a sound commercial footing. They include a full property description, description of production enterprises existing and planned, legislative and tax considerations, options for plantation design and layout, site preparations, planting details, species recommendations, plantation maintenance, financial data and modelling.

It is clearly evident from the monitoring of plantings in the region that those farm foresters that have been active members of the association and utilised its services have had a high level of success in their endeavours (SFFA Newsletter, issue 36).

Unfortunately there is limited support by government and agencies for this type of participatory role. The grass roots organisations could and should play a much more effective role in creating a framework for integrated farm forestry. In fact if state and federal governments are serious about the development of a genuine national farm forestry industry and achieving the associated substantial benefits then a truly participatory approach involving farmers and other stakeholders is the only way (SFFA Newsletter Issue 37).

The association provides information to members also via publications including a newsletter; email bulletin, a manual and planner, Fact Sheets, Tree Profiles and seminar proceedings. These publications along with those from outside the organisation are an essential part of the SFFA extension role.

The Farm Forestry Manual and Planner for Subtropical Eastern Australia has been specifically designed to allow for the diversity of interests by growers within the region. In the manual prospective farm foresters are advised at an early stage to talk to others involved in farm forestry, neighbours and other landholders, nursery persons, consultants, and local groups and associations. Completing the Planner (SFFA 2001) assists the landholder to arrive at key decisions without limiting choice and design. Users are encouraged to identify potential benefits and available resources. Where a lack of knowledge and/or finances is a significant constraint the landholder is guided to identify at the outset any likely sources of assistance and to make contacts with those organisations. If, on the basis of the landholder’s own evaluation supplemented by the advice of others, the proposed project is favourable, the landholder is then encouraged to undertake the development of detailed plans and detailed recording process using the Manual and Planner as guide.

The conservative approach taken by industrial foresters has acted as a significant disincentive to potential farm foresters. Despite criticism from traditional forestry interests, SFFA has encouraged farm foresters in attempting innovative and unconventional projects, however this has always been balanced by facilitating exchange of other relevant information through the participatory extension process.

Feedback on the SFFA activities and publications has been highly supportive over the years particularly in the association’s ability to maintain an active and substantial membership while also maintaining a meaningful relationship and communication with other stakeholders.

A cooperative approach is taken whenever possible with most of the associations activities. Representatives of government agencies, other organisations and prominent individuals are invited to become involved with seminars, field days, course presentations and publication development. More importantly existing and potential farm foresters are the principals in the whole process. Membership of the association is mostly comprised of smaller landholders, as is the management committee.

Surveys, monitoring and data analysis

Surveys of members by the association reveal the values and interest of members (SFFA NL, Issue 9 & 31). A majority (61%) have an interest in landcare and environmental issues. 48% were interested in rainforest cabinet timber plantings, 41% the main interest was in commercial plantings. Generally the interest is in farm forestry rather than plantation forestry. These surveys assist the extension service to target its delivery and support member’s interest.

Table a: Estimated annual increase in actual dollar value ($/tree)




Acacia melanoxylon



Elaeocarpus grandis



Gmelina leichhardtii



Grevillea robusta



Lophostemon confertus



Toona ciliata



Rhodosphaera rhodanthema



Dysoxylum fraserianum



Dysoxylum muelleri



Geissois benthamii



Araucaria cunninghamii



Araucaria bidwillii



Agathis robusta



Flindersia australis



Melia azedarach



Eucalyptus grandis



Podocarpus elatus



Tables a and b use the rather fragmentary data available on current timber royalties to obtain estimates of the mean increase in market value for those species for which the information was available. Table a shows the actual estimated dollar values, and Table b shows the relative values derived from relative volume increments. Monitoring and data analysis has played an important role in involving landholders, students, academics and SFFA staff. It stimulates communication and results in significant information transfer. The following tables were produced as a part of a report on SFFA monitoring and data analysis and were published in the SFFA newsletter Issue 36.

As will be seen from Table b, Acacia melanoxylon is not quite such an outstanding performer as it appears from Table a. It was only grown at one site in the study, and that site performed relatively well. Also the differences in performance between species are somewhat exaggerated in Table a, again as a consequence of the different species mixes and the variability of sites. However, the actual dollar values may indicate what is possible for the better-performing species given favourable conditions. Table b does not use percentages, as previous comparison tables have done; instead it estimates the actual increase in dollar values with sites held constant (as far as the data permits).” (SFFA Newsletter Issue 36).

Table b: Estimated annual increase in value ($/tree) relative to Grevillea robusta




Elaeocarpus grandis



Gmelina leichhardtii



Acacia melanoxylon



Eucalyptus grandis



Grevillea robusta



Lophostemon confertus



Toona ciliata



Rhodosphaera rhodanthema



Geissois benthamii



Araucaria cunninghamii



Dysoxylum fraserianum



Agathis robusta



Dysoxylum muelleri



Melia azedarach



Flindersia australis



Araucaria bidwillii



Podocarpus elatus



Peter Westheimer farm forestry project: a Case Study

Case studies are used as a tool to demonstrate a range of options to landholders by SFFA. The following is based on a field day report written by Ken Dory an active tree grower and member of a prominent organisation in the region, The Big Scrub Rainforest Landcare group.

Peter Westheimer’s property incorporates a woodlot, riparian plantings and regeneration site. Peter’s 14.5 hectares has been divided into 2 management areas. The lower slopes of this natural amphitheatre has been agisted to cattle while the higher regions have been set aside for trees of one sort or another. Approximately 2 hectares of woodlot, 2 hectares of ecological and riparian plantings and 2 hectares of rainforest gully regeneration.

Peter’s woodlot was planted in April 1998, 2,000 trees of mixed species spaced at 3x3 metre spacing. The rows ran down hill so as to make tractor passes safer and were ripped. Peter reckons that this brought more rocks to the surface and may have been counter-productive. Originally Peter had contractors slash the woodlot but this became expensive so he purchased a Toro type ride-on slasher to do the job himself. Certainly the hillside looked immaculate with the close cropped grass, but I couldn’t help but remember Rob Kooyman’s comment about trees not being a forest while there was grass underneath. The trees didn’t look as if they were growing at their optimum and canopy closure seemed as if it was a long way away, but then again I was looking at 3-year planting.

Optimum canopy closure in a 5 year old mixed rainforest cabinet timber planting

(SFFA photo 2000)

Some discussion ensured about some of the factors that might be inhibiting the trees. Martin Novak enquired about the ripper tine used by the bulldozer. He believes that a large ‘winged’ type ripper is best at fracturing the soil structure and allowing tree roots to spread, avoiding possible root constriction and ‘blow-over’. Rob English ventured the opinion that the vast majority of blown over, in his experience, have had ‘J’ curved roots or other long-term root problems, there did not seem to be that many trees leaning over here. While the grass competition was discussed there seemed to be more agreement on the soil type being a problem. I’m not an expert on soils but visually this brown hillside pug didn’t look as good as Rob Kooyman’s level red soil site visited earlier in the day. Although many of the Blue Figs seemed to be doing best, the Silky Oaks appeared to be in trouble. From the group came four possible reasons for Oaks to perform badly. Poor form because of inferior selection, caterpillar grazing; ‘wet feet’ and glyphosate poisoning were all suggested. I suspect that I’ve seen all four in my Silky Oaks but the ‘bunchy’ or bonsai appearance of some of the leaves suggested glyphosate poisoning as a possible cause. On the edge of the woodlot was a small section that appeared to be doing quite well. This steeper section was too rocky to be ripped and so was hand planted. No ripper and better drainage but also the trees had been planted closer, perhaps as close as 2x2 metres. Moreover, the rocks had prevented slashing and the area was dense with regenerating Macaranga that were shading out the grass.

Peter received a Department of Land and Water Conservation grant to plant trees along a small creek that runs along the bottom boundary of the woodlot. Around 1,000 trees were planted last year and they seemed to be doing quite well. Although primarily rainforest trees there were also Cabbage Palms, Melaleucas and Swamp Mahoganies. Above the woodlot was another area of plantings, which Peter described as been totally ‘ecological’, that, with the riparian planting, constituted another 2 hectares of trees under management. Peter certainly had his work cut out for him, a musing that was verbalised by one of the group. Peter’s response was that he thought it a privilege to leave something of beauty for the future. On a more practical level, he believes that planting and maintaining trees, at 3x3 metres, costs around $10,000 a hectare. (SFFA Newsletter June July 2001)


Extension alone, no matter how participatory and innovative, cannot bring about a significant expansion of farm forestry. It must go hand in hand with a number of other strategies. A number of government programs such as the National Farm Forestry Program have played a key role in assisting the association in achieving its objectives. The Natural Heritage Trust has provided some of the funding, although the competitive selection process and the ability of government agencies to complete for the limited funds have created instability, particularly in NSW. In addition because of the interpretation and implementation of policy, farm forestry development has been slanted towards industrial plantations rather than true integrated farm forestry (Reid 2000). This places further pressure on the extension role.

A well-targeted farm forestry incentive program would go a long way towards addressing these problems. This has been further highlighted by the tragic collapse of the tax incentive investment schemes. There are a number of very good examples of successful forestry incentive programs in other countries. The Australian environmental programs are introducing cost sharing and incentives; they could be expanded to encompass integrated farm forestry. Only then can participatory farm forestry extension become truly effective. (SFFA 2001)


1. Anon. 1996, Commercial Farm Forestry in Australia: Development of a Strategy Framework, AACM International Pty. Ltd., Centre for International Economics and Forestry Technical Services

2. DFSC, 1994 Farm Forestry seminar and design workshop – papers and proceedings. Dorroughby Field Studies Centre an SFFA publication.

3. Novak, M 1994 Farm and Community Forestry from production to ecology SFFA publication

4. Reid, R 2000 Defining an alternative paradigm for farm forestry University of Melbourne

5. SFFA 2000 Farm Forestry Manual and Planner for Subtropical Eastern Australia SFFA publication

6. SFFA 2001 Subtropical Farm Forestry Association Committee July minutes Published September Newsletter.

7. Specht, A. and N. Emtage. 1998. Landholders’ perceptions of farm forestry in the northern rivers region of NSW. Report to Northern Rivers Regional Plantation Committee

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