A Dynamic Context: Farm Forestry Extension in Australia
1 ANU Forestry & CRC for Sustainable Production Forestry – The Australian National University, Canberra, ACT. 0200. AUSTRALIA. Email: Digby.Race@anu.edu.au
2 ANU Forestry – The Australian National University, Canberra, ACT. 0200. AUSTRALIA.
3 Department of Agricultural Science & CRC for Sustainable Production Forestry – The University of Tasmania, Hobart, Tas. 7001. AUSTRALIA.
Effective forestry extension implies a thorough understanding of the context of the many stakeholders involved in forestry and related disciplines. Since the early-1990s, forestry in Australia has undergone – and continues to undergo – considerable structural change. This includes change in the ownership, objectives, location, management, industries, and societal expectations of forestry. Small-scale integrated forestry, largely represented as farm forestry, is an expanding and important component of Australia’s forest industries. Farm forestry appears to have considerable potential to provide socio-economic and environmental benefits to rural Australia. Yet the context for farm forestry continues to be dynamic, with there a need to increase our understanding of appropriate extension concepts and approaches if we are to contribute to meaningful co-learning processes. In this paper, the authors briefly explore some of the major changes that have recently occurred in Australian forestry, review the principal extension approaches, and draw on international experiences to suggest ways that extension may be improved to meet the diverse and changing of forestry.
The forestry sector in Australia has undergone considerable change during the past two decades (Dargavel 1995; BRS 2001), with much of this change consistent with that occurring at an international level (FAO 1999). Of this change, some has had a profound affect on the role and way we practice extension. Of particular relevance is the emergence of ‘pluralism’ in forestry – with communities consisting of multiple stakeholders, holding multiple values, and seeking multiple outcomes from their forests. In many respects, today’s inherent pluralism in forestry means that it has never been more critical that we refine the art and science of extension.
The essence of forestry extension is now characterised by the need to foster partnerships – partnerships between growers, processors, governments, private organizations, neighbouring rural landholders, and urban communities. Extension holds the key to these partnerships becoming the hub for shared understanding, stimulating ideas and active learning as forestry continues to evolve. While some of these partnerships have existed for many decades, it is now important that they become meaningful partnerships of mutual benefit if forestry is to successfully meet the pluralist demands of the 21st century.
Recent reviews of the changes in forestry, both within Australia (BRS 1998 & 2001; C’wealth 2001; Curtis & Race 1998) and globally (FAO 1999; Desmond & Race 2000), provide a valuable understanding of the context in which forestry extension operates. Some of the important changes include:
There is increasing recognition of the social dimension of forestry and the need to accommodate a wide range of socio-economic objectives sought by multiple stakeholders in the continuum of forest policy, planning, implementation, management, harvesting, marketing and utilisation (FAO 1997). Accepting and managing the pluralism of forestry is not an easy task, particularly when objectives and deeply held values of different stakeholders are seemingly incompatible – such as biodiversity conservation and resource production3. In short, people view ‘successful’ forestry through different eyes and so assumptions about what others will embrace should be avoided (Race et al. 1998).
Forests are central to the livelihoods of individual families and whole communities, the economic prosperity of industries and authority of governments, and the health of local and global environments (C’wealth 2001). While many stakeholders have a similarly intense passion about their respective forest values, there can be a competitive motivation to influence forest policy and management. A major challenge for forestry extension in many parts of the world is to manage the tension between the polarised values people place upon, and seek from, forests. In this respect, forestry is consistent with other natural resource sectors. Put simply, the dominant tensions tend to be between:
private and public interests;
local and non-local interests; and
conservation and production.
In more concrete terms, forestry remains contentious – and therefore contestable – because of the uncertainty with:
The process for finding consensus or compromise is often complex and time consuming – suggesting extension approaches to be grounded in the trans-disciplinary nature of community development, incorporating elements of communication, facilitation, conflict resolution and building social capacity (Cernea 1991).
Before exploring the range of extension approaches used in Australian forestry, it is important to clarify what we mean when using the term ‘extension’. Within the context of this conference, we have chosen to use van den Ban and Hawkins’ (1996, p.9) definition that ‘… extension involves the conscious use of communication of information to help people form sound opinions and make good decisions.’ The Australasia Pacific Extensions Network also explains that extension is the ‘… use of communication and adult education processes to help people and communities identify potential improvements to their practices, and then provides them with the skills and resources to effect these improvements’ (APEN 1999, in Black 2000, p.493). Extension is more than simply providing information or slick advertising, it implies a genuine commitment to human resource development (Scoones & Thompson 1994).
In the quest for succinct debate, there are four broad strategies or models for forestry extension:
Rather than accepting any single strategy, we argue that there is a role – indeed, a necessity – for a complementary suite of all of the above extension strategies if forestry is to meet the complexities of forestry today. While participatory ‘farmer-first’ extension strategies have grown markedly in popularity around the world (eg. Chambers 1997), these should not necessarily be adopted to the exclusion of other approaches.
When reflecting on agricultural extension, Black (2000, p.493) explained that the linear ‘top-down’ approach to:
“… extension was based on the assumption that new agricultural technologies and knowledge are typically developed and validated by research scientists, and that the task of extension agencies is to promote the adoption of these technologies by farmers, thereby increasing agricultural productivity.”
The notion that farmers were thirsty recipients of any scientific information and who operated in an intellectual vacuum had some currency even up until the 1980s. Furthermore, there was a common perception that farmers outside the group of ‘early adopters’ or ‘progressive farmers’ were to wait their turn as technological innovations diffuse down to the majority of producers (Rogers 1983).
There was also a time where the farmers who were slow to adopt new practices – the ‘laggards’ – were disparagingly believed to be personally inadequate, almost undeserving of the benefits of new technology, even though such practices may still be unproven, expensive, risky, difficult to integrate with existing enterprises or contrary to the values of farmers. Röling (1988) argued that the application of top-down diffusion theory has tended to reinforce existing social inequalities within farming communities, as those who benefit most tend to have greater financial and capital resources, and intellectual and social strength.
Farmers and other small-scale private landholders were not directly involved in forestry to any significant degree until the early-1990s. Until this time, Australian forestry was centred on straightforward contractual arrangements between State governments and industrial processors (Dargavel 1995). It was during the early-1990s when some of the more substantive changes in forestry began to take effect, such as those discussed above under ‘changing context’, that critical thinking about forestry extension emerged4 (Reid 1996; Race & Fulton 1999; Reid & Stephen 1999; Black et al. 2000).
During the 1980s, agricultural extension in Australia, as elsewhere around the world, underwent a profound shift towards participatory ‘bottom-up’ extension. Drawing on extensive experience in international rural development, Chambers et al. (1989), Pretty (1995) and others heralded a new era of ‘farmer-first’ extension. In the Australian context, this found expression most visibly in the Victorian, and subsequently National, Landcare Program5 – a movement based on strengthening community-government partnerships to address environmental degradation on private farmland at a local catchment (watershed) scale. Today, the Landcare network with its 4,500 groups and nearly 40,000 farmers is one of Australia’s most powerful vehicles for extension within rural communities. Agroforestry and farm forestry projects emerged around Australia under the wings of Landcare with the shared desire to increase the integration of trees with farming, and so adopted a similar approach. Again, firstly in Victoria in the early-1990s then later nationally, Regional Agroforestry Networks provided a social structure for group-oriented extension – whereby local groups of landholders could receive government support (eg. administrative assistance, newsletters, field days) to explore local opportunities for farm forestry from their perspective.
Participatory discussion groups tend to recognise that farming communities are inherently rich in knowledge and practical skills – of great value even with more complex and untested enterprises, such as farm forestry. Such groups implicitly acknowledge the value of farmers sharing ideas and information amongst themselves, rather than always relying on the information or advice from government agencies or other professionals (Carr 1997; Cary & Webb 2000). In particular, participatory discussion groups aim for members to take ‘ownership’ of both problems and solutions – ideally, creating viable farming systems that are adapted to the local context, rather than implementing practices that are generic across Australia.
With the increasing importance of small-scale growers in Australia’s forestry sector, our approaches to extension need to add value to, rather than replace, the considerable local or indigenous knowledge that farming communities possess. Furthermore, farming communities can have quite different, yet equally legitimate, perspectives to those within the formal scientific community towards situation analysis, monitoring progress and change, conducting and applying research (Millar 1997).
Nevertheless, Vanclay and Lawrence (1995, pp.125-6) caution that participatory group extension also has its limitations, with the:
“… reliance on farmers’ local knowledge to solve problems that are new to their experience, such as environmental problems, is unlikely to be successful … new problems, particularly environmental problems, may be best dealt with through a combination of new and traditional extension.”
Also, local community groups largely rely on consensus, and so can underestimate or ignore the diversity – and sometimes the considerable differences – within local communities. That is, farmers vary considerably in the extent to which participatory group-based learning suits their style of learning and local situation.
During recent decades the one-to-one advisory service has generally declined, with the perception that group-based extension is more efficient. Or at least, farmers should pay directly for one-to-one extension that is exclusively focused on private enterprise. However, where the technical advice relates to off-farm impacts, such as where farm forestry acts to control catchment-wide salinity or enhance biodiversity conservation, many argue that governments still have a responsibility to contribute to one-to-one extension. In recognition of the public benefits inherent in many aspects of farm forestry, the Commonwealth and State governments now support a range of farm forestry research and development initiatives, with several being in operation since the early-1990s (Race & Robins 1998). While one-to-one extension does occur through these initiatives, the most common extension approach is through localised participatory discussion groups, such as Landcare groups, Regional Agroforestry Networks or local chapters of the Australian Forest Growers.
In parallel with the various government forestry initiatives, there has been the rapid expansion of plantations financed by private prospectus and investment companies – most notably with blue gum (Eucalyptus globulus) for pulpwood in Western Australia, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania. In most cases, companies simply lease the land from farmers, and in turn employ their own forest managers. It is rare for farmers to be the principal silviculturist when in partnership with forestry investment companies, with the expectation that their responsibilities extending little beyond maintaining firebreaks and controlling pest plants and animals (Curtis & Race 1998).
While most farmers are reluctant to undertake formal, long-term educational courses such as those offered by universities (Black 2000), the opposite applies for agricultural and forestry professionals. A noticeable exception to this assessment is the Master Tree Grower6 program coordinated by Melbourne University, which facilitates participatory group-based learning for farmers with a committed interest in farm forestry.
Structured accredited courses that improve the knowledge base and enhance career prospects of extension officers prove popular. Courses meeting the needs of extension staff are those that analyse contemporary issues, focus on workplace problems and solutions, offer flexible delivery (ie. time & location), and encourage participation – with ANU’s new National Graduate Program in Farm Forestry meeting these requirements7.
The Commonwealth government has funded numerous extension projects via the Farm Forestry Program8 and research projects via the Joint Venture Agroforestry Program9 since the early-1990s. In addition, all State governments and some non-government organisations, such as Greening Australia10 and Australia Forest Growers11, have current farm forestry extension services (Race & Robins 1998).
State government natural resource agencies (eg. Department of Natural Resources & Environment in Victoria; Conservation & Land Management in Western Australia; Private Forestry Tasmania), Regional Plantation Committees and a few non-government organisations (eg. Greening Australia; Australian Forest Growers) provide the vast majority of farm forestry extension in Australia. Their general approach to extension largely relies on strengthening local partnerships between growers and industry, one-to-one support for farmers establishing demonstration sites, organising field days and seminars, generating articles for newsletters and media outlets, and occasionally producing CD-ROMs (eg. Private Forestry Tasmania’s Farm Forestry Toolbox; Agriculture Western Australia’s Agroforestry calculator). Using the latest communication technology, such as the internet, is likely to remain limited in its value for farmers for some time, as only 20% of Australian farmers have reliable access to the internet (Black 2000). More recently, farmers with farm forestry expertise are providing extension services – either to groups or one-to-one (eg. Jenkins Agroforestry Developments) together with a small but growing number of consultants.
Contrary to calls by some that farm forestry development needs a single extension ‘voice’, we believe that maintaining the mix of organisations and employing the wide range of approaches to extension is not only realistic, but is indeed preferable if forestry is to gain from its pluralism. In reality, rural landholders are far from being a homogenous social group – indeed, they are becoming increasingly heterogeneous – with clear indications that they pursue farm forestry for diverse objectives. In this pursuit, landholders seek information from those organisations and people whom they perceive to be credible, reliable and relevant to their context. In essence, farmers will prefer to liase directly with either industrial processors, State agencies, non-government organisations, research organisations12 or simply their neighbours – or a combination of these. Even when seeking information and advice from ‘outsiders’, they invariably verify such information through in-depth discussions with local farmers – making informal or formal local networks an important stage when developing farm forestry that is tailored to the local context.
While supporting the mix of organisations involved in forestry extension, we also advocate that regional, State and national coordination of forestry research, development and extension is vital. The coordination by Regional Plantation Committees, State forums (eg. Private Forestry Council in Victoria; Farm Forestry Advisory Committee in Western Australia) and nationally (eg. the former National Farm Forestry Roundtable) appears to have been valuable in building cooperation and exploiting synergies between organisations that would otherwise have caused Australia’s collective investment in farm forestry, including extension, to be fractured and less effective. However, the process of coordination should not be used as a strategy to narrow forestry’s horizon or marginalise the extension effort of one organisation over another’s.
At an international level, there is a wealth of extension experience in forestry and related disciplines that Australian forestry would do well to be increasingly connected to. While it is impossible to summarise the breadth of this experience in this paper, some of the more valuable ideas that have emerged are abbreviated below (Chambers et al. 1989; Anderson & Farrington 1998; McKinley et al. 1998). Forestry extension tends to be most effective when it:
The inherent pluralism of forestry means our extension efforts need to recognise and reflect the range of values held by diverse stakeholders. At times, this will require us to leave the cloak of positivism behind, where answers or solutions are absolute – and be prepared to accept the uncertainty of naturalism, where solutions tend to be emergent and context-specific. Overall, we need to develop a rich mosaic of extension approaches to match the continuum of forestry – approaches that are contingent upon supporting people to make informed decisions, rather than simply adopt recommended practices.
Coordination of our collective investment in extension should be viewed as process for building partnerships and seeing forestry’s pluralism as an opportunity to engage more widely amongst communities about forestry’s contribution to the social, economic and environmental fabric of society. What will be of most value is extension that accepts forestry’s inherent pluralism, builds active partnerships and values an iterative co-learning process.
1. Anderson, J. and Farrington, J. (1998) Forestry extension: Facing the challenges of today and tomorrow. FAO: Rome, Italy.
2. Black, A.W. (2000) Extension theory and practice: A review. Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 40 (4): 493-502.
3. Black, A.W., Forge, K. and Frost, F. (2000) Extension and advisory strategies for agroforestry. Report for the Joint Venture Agroforestry Program. RIRDC Publication No. 00/184: Canberra, ACT.
4. Bureau of Rural Sciences (BRS) (2001) Plantations of Australia. BRS: Kingston, ACT.
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11. Commonwealth of Australia (2001) Australia’s Forests – the Path for Sustainability. AFFA and EA: Canberra, ACT.
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13. Dargavel, J. (1995) Fashioning Australia’s forests. Oxford University Press: Melbourne, Vic.
14. Desmond, H. and Race, D. (2000) Global survey and analytical framework for forestry out-grower arrangements. Final Report submitted to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations. ANU Forestry: Canberra, ACT.
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1 A recent ruling by the Australian Taxation Office that cast doubt over the legitimacy of tax deductibility for some forestry prospectus schemes appears to have reduced the enthusiasm for urban-based investors to invest in forestry, with a reduction in the national planting rate likely during 2001-02. In response, the Federal Minister for Forests clarified the government’s desire to support tax deductibility for commercial forestry operations (Oct. 2001). However, it is uncertain at this stage whether this will restore the level of interest by urban-based investors in forestry.
2 The recent report by BRS (2001) reveals that farm forestry may represent 5-20% of Australia’s commercial forestry resource. There is some overlap in interpretation of what is ‘farm forestry’ and ‘industrial plantations’.
3 Environment Australia has recently funded ANU Forestry and CSIRO to document the ideas, practices and lessons of Australian farmers who have been able to balance biodiversity conservation with productive farm forestry. Results from this project are expected by July 2002.
4 During the early-1990s in Victoria, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources chaired quarterly meetings of the 10-12 people practicing agroforestry extension under the auspices of the Agroforestry Extension Sub-committee (AES). The AES assisted to establish several Regional Agroforestry Networks and the supporting newsletter ‘Agroforestry News’ – now a national publication.