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Seed and information support for farm forestry: Farmers as researchers

Tim Vercoe, Roger Arnold & David Bush

The Australian Tree Seed Centre – CSIRO Forestry & Forest Products, Yarralumla, ACT. Australia.


Farm forestry is an option available to land owners in a very diverse range of bio-climatic and socio-economic regions in Australia. The scope for development and refinement of species and management systems to suit this diversity of growing sites is too large to be tackled solely by traditional forestry research providers. Landowners and farm foresters can, and are, taking more responsibility for their own knowledge generation. With a range of support tools and some basic training and understanding of the scientific process, regional groups and individuals are contributing to general understanding of species performance and growth as well as providing the basis for sound decisions at local and regional level.

The paper outlines work done by CSIRO Forestry and Forest Products with farm foresters across Australia using funding support from the RIRDC/LWA/FWP Research and Development Corporations’ Joint Venture Agroforestry Program and the Natural Heritage Trust. It covers connections to breeding and tree improvement work done by the Australian Low Rainfall Tree Improvement Group for farm forestry in lower rainfall areas.


Farm forestry is an option available to landowners in a very diverse range of bio-climatic and socio-economic regions in Australia. In areas of medium to higher rainfall (>600 mm), commercial tree plantations are often seen to provide a feasible business option in their own right for landowners. In many lower rainfall areas (400-600 mm) in southern Australia, integration of tree plantings into farms is increasingly seen as desirable way to enhance economic and environmental sustainability of many agricultural systems (Vercoe and Clarke 1997). Thus new plantations in Australia are being established by an increasingly disparate groups of growers using widely varying knowledge bases.

This trend has created a need for both more targeted research, and effective transfer of new and pre-existing information. However, the scope of research required to service the needs of these diverse groups of growers and planting environments is too large to be tackled solely by traditional forestry research providers. In addition, many tree growers and co-ordinating groups are keen to develop their own knowledge base and reduce the time from research result to practical implementation. Land owners can build on this in sourcing the best genetic material and technology for tree growing endeavours in their local environments.

This desire by tree growers to become more closely involved in developing knowledge and appropriate genetic material was a key-driving factor behind the instigation of the Farm Forestry Seed and Information Support for Commercial Farm Forestry Project (FFSIS) in 1999. Its primary objective is to enhance the economic and environmental benefits of commercial farm forestry through assisting farm forestry growers and investors to select and make best use of native and exotic species for the available sites and products required. The project transfers existing knowledge, extends the knowledge base further in the areas of product testing, productivity modelling and genetics, and establishes the basis for land owner driven species and provenance testing.

The work is being done by CSIRO Forestry and Forest Products with farm foresters across Australia using funding support from the RIRDC/LWA/FWP Research and Development Corporations’ Joint Venture Agroforestry Program and the Natural Heritage Trust. The project interacts with a range of other research agencies through the Australian Low Rainfall Tree Improvement Group

The Australian Tree Seed Centre

The Australian Tree Seed Centre (ATSC) was established in the early 1960’s as an international centre for Eucalyptus seed and information. Since that time it has developed to cover a wide range of woody species of Australian origin and eucalypts now comprise only about half of the species handled by ATSC. Other multipurpose genera of importance now included as work priorities are Acacia, Casuarina, Grevillea, Melaleuca, Sesbania and Terminalia. Total seed stocks exceed 30,000 accessions representing more than 1300 taxa. ATSC’s primary objectives are:

  • to provide a focal point for the procurement and distribution of seed of Australian indigenous woody species for research in Australia and other countries;
  • to assemble and disseminate technical information on Australian woody plants suitable for wood production or in other roles; and
  • to scientifically examine genetic diversity of Australian woody species and undertake genetic improvement of selected species.

ATSC is part of Australia’s CSIRO Forestry and Forest Products. Associated with this is access to, and direct interaction with, a broad range of research results and capabilities across a wide variety of scientific disciplines. ATSC’s own current research programs include species evaluation using both quantitative and molecular techniques, species-site matching, provenance-progeny trials, tree breeding, seed orchard development, essential oils, taxonomic studies, isozyme evaluation, seed germination and seed storage requirements. The latter involves selection and genetic improvement and is a particular focus for ATSC. The Centre has traditionally had a strong international focus because of the large overseas interest in Australian trees. Work in farm forestry has provided an opportunity to repatriate information derived from international research.

The Australian Low Rainfall Tree Improvement Group

The Australian Low Rainfall Tree Improvement Group (ALRTIG) was formed as a result of a resolution made at the National Low Rainfall Tree Improvement Workshop held during 1998 in Adelaide. This workshop brought together twenty major stakeholders in low rainfall farm forestry and tree improvement. These participants were in general agreement that co-operative research is the path to rapid and efficient development of Australia’s low rainfall tree genetic resources. Subsequent to the workshop, a partnership consisting of state agencies and CSIRO Forestry and Forest Products was formed with support of the Joint Venture Agroforestry Program. Key species were identified, and the group’s activities commenced in August 1999. Work done by the group incorporates the results of trials on private land to increase the efficiency of the tree improvement process. Material identified and developed through ALRTIG has been provided to growers via FFSIS and information derived from farm plantings has passed back to ALRTIG via the same pathway.

Extension and Technology Transfer

The essential links between researchers and practitioners are generally provided by some type of extension and/or technology transfer mechanisms. Extension is generally associated with a classical type service where personnel specifically dedicated to extension work within a prescribed region making regular visits to growers/end users to provide advisory services (MacLennan 1996). Technology transfer involves communicating results of research to appropriate end uses/stakeholders in such a way that is can be understood and evaluated for a range of conditions (MacLennan 1996).

Neither ATSC nor the wider ALRTIG have the resources to provide traditional extension services as well as focus on their research. Instead many stakeholders are engaged as partners in the research and extension process. This has the benefit that boundaries between research, knowledge generation, technology transfer, extension and applied practice become blurred and an efficient flow of information occurs in both directions. Feedback occurs quickly and responses to key issues can be formulated quickly and tailored to particular situations. This can be a nervous process from the scientific perspective as researchers are inherently hesitant about releasing preliminary findings. However if the decision makers are prepared to accept the risks outlined by researchers and adopt a gradual and continuous approach to improvement there are benefits in both directions. From a research point of view, the implementation of results provides an additional refinement to ongoing research and interpretation processes while growers get early access to the latest information. This can be very significant with respect to the selection of genetic material for medium to longer term tree crops.

In the case of species and provenance selection on a regional basis, local groups can establish, monitor and establish trials to provide ongoing information on the relative performance and adaptability of different germplasm with minimal external assistance. FFSIS has provided seed, planting designs, training courses and monitoring tools to assist with this process. At any time the trials can be utilised for commercial production since they are carried out on private land and largely subject to the needs of the land owners. In the course of FFSIS, several trials have been ‘lost’ but the alternative of putting trials on Govt owned and/or controlled land can also result in trials being ‘lost’ to the people needing the information they contain.

Local trials on local land established and monitored by local land owners and extension providers confers an ownership of not only the trees but also the information embodied in the planting(s).

Integrated Collaboration

There is an extensive range of native and exotic species suitable for farm forestry but they need to be matched to sites which suit their climatic and edaphic requirements. Conducting field trials to assist such species/provenance-site matching is an important facet of the ATSC’s program. As ATSC and CSIRO FFP do not own any land, such trials need to be located on sites owned by other parties. However, rather than leasing or renting trials sites, ATSC has instead preferred to engage interested landholders as partners in the research process. In many of the trials, other stakeholders ranging from Landcare groups through to commercial forestry companies or state forestry organisations are also involved. Each collaborator in a trial makes a significant investment in it and the resulting benefits are shared on a mutually agreed basis.

Through such bi- and multilateral collaboration, ATSC has established more than 70 species, provenance and family trials with a total area of over 100 ha and involving more than 150 species in Australia. This network of trials has provided an effective integration of research, technology transfer and extension – not only are practitioners and end users partners in the research, they also become partners in the technology transfer process. In addition, this approach to conducting research has meant that practitioners and end users are also intimately engaged in the research planning process.

The role of scientists in the early stages is to ensure that medium to long term interpretation will be valid based on careful initial selection of appropriate trial material and the design of the trial planting. Assistance with the development of a monitoring program and guidance with measurement procedures are also important. With all these elements in place, longer term interaction between scientist extension workers and landowners can concentrate on interpretation of results.

Some of the landholders collaborating with ATSC in field trials could be considered farm forestry enthusiasts and opinion leaders. Such leaders can transmit substantial amounts of information and ideas to their peers and other practitioners and provide very effective lateral diffusion of research results (Muth and Hendee 1980).

Table 1. Collaborative field trials established in Australia with resources from FFSIS (CSIRO 2000)

Number of trials

Number of landowners

Total area

Number of collaborating landowners

Number of collaborating organisations

Number of seedlots

> 74






Figure 1. Map of trial site locations established with FFSIS

Formal and Informal Communications

The partners in the collaborative trials usually elect to form a management committee. These serve to oversee the trial management, application of outcomes and any matters arising in relation to the trials. Such committees meet formally and/informally on a periodic basis and facilitate the open flow of information.

To communicate with a wider farm forestry audience as well as those involved directly in the research process, staff of ATSC also participate actively in the biennial TreeFest, farm forestry conferences, selected Regional Farm Forestry Network meetings and Landcare/farm forestry field days. In addition to these, which address farm forestry and related activities specifically, staff also attend selected Agricultural field days. Even though the latter focus on agricultural issues, an increasing number of such field days are including or expanding their farm forestry content. Attendance at these events provides a valuable opportunity for ATSC staff to get feedback directly from growers whilst providing an efficient way to simultaneously communicate directly with a larger numbers of individual growers.

However, efficient technology transfer requires not only personal contacts but also reports in various forms of media (Muth and Hendee 1980). Recognising this, ATSC personnel frequently author papers and reports for peered reviewed scientific journals, popular forestry/farm forestry and natural resource magazines and newsletters. In addition ATSC publishes its own annual newsletter and also disseminates farm forestry information through its own web site ( ). This web site contains general information on ATSC’s activities and publications along with a facility for users to search for currently available seedlots. In the future this information will be expanded to include information of direct relevance to farm foresters and other small forest growers. This web site, which receives around five to ten visits per day by non-CSIRO visitors, is becoming a very useful means of disseminating basic information to growers with access to the Internet.

Through FFSIS, farm foresters have been trained in small workshops covering trial establishment and monitoring. This provides an opportunity to tackle greater detail with an audience taking responsibility for regional trial activity.

Manuals have been produced for both training workshops as reference materials. Through FFSIS, ATSC has worked with other organisation like Greening Australia to add value to their species trialling programs and to reinforce learning of trialling technology. FFSIS has supported the development of the TREDAT database as a means of storing trial and tree planting information in a common and comparable format. A register of trials is one of the early outcomes from this work.

Discussion and Conclusions

Muth and Hendee (1980) suggested that cheerleading is no substitute for truth and knowledge and therefore successful research must involve both credible practitioners and credible researchers. This is very much in line with ATSC's experience. Some of our most successful collaborative trials are those initiated with practitioners who have earlier established credentials as successful tree growers, usually on their own land, and who hold considerable ongoing enthusiasm and dedication for farm forestry. Cultural change to treat tree crops in the same way as other agricultural enterprises provides the basis for research and innovation at the farm level.

Feedback from the practitioners to researchers, based on the practical application and experiences, are integral to keeping the research relevant, applied of high quality. This ongoing dialogue is continually shapes plans for future demonstration plantings, species selection, genetic improvement and utilisation options. Growers can become independent for basic information needs as well as speeding up the processes and precision of experiments carried out by dedicated research agencies. The importance of maintaining a dialogue that sustains mutual recognition of the requirements of each group cannot be over-estimated.


1. CSIRO Forestry and Forest Products. 2000. Seed and Information Support for COMmercial Farm Forestry

2. MacLennan, L.A. 1996. Technology transfer at the ICFR. Institute for Commercial Forestry Research (ICFR); Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. ICFR Bulletin Series No. 7/96.

3. Muth, R.M. and Hendee, J.C. 1980. Technology transfer and human behaviour. Journal of Forestry, 78(3):141-144.

4. Vercoe, T. and Clarke, B. (eds). 1997. Tree performance databases and selection systems. Proc. of a meeting held in Canberra, 8-9 March 1995. CSIRO Forestry and Forest Products, Canberra. 57 p.

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