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Tony Dunn

School of Agriculture, Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga NSW 2678


The broad theme of this conference begs the question, "How can we (especially farmers) exert control over the environment in which we operate?" The focus of my talk aims to answer this question from a generalised farm perspective as distinct from that which comes from one particular farmer's experience. In a sense I describe a range of actions and activities that I have observed in the farm community that I believe exemplify the way forward. I will also discuss these observations in the context of the latest ideas about the function of research and extension.
My observations and ideas are based on qualitative rather than quantitative data. This is partly because my main research and teaching interest in agriculture is its people and the richness of their experience and ideas, and this is best expressed in qualitative terms. I believe this is valuable information, just as valuable as surveys that produce figures on who and how many people are doing this or that.

Defining some terms

Environment For the purposes of this paper the term 'environment' means the surrounding physical, biological, socio-economic and political conditions over which farm people have no control, but which does or can have an effect on the farm and its operation.

Control is the means by which a whole entity such as a farm maintains its identity and function according to its goals. In a more specific sense this is what managers and farm people do. Control is all about goals, monitoring, decisions, action and more monitoring.

Change introduces the concept of time and as such it is difficult to define in a general sense. In his book, "Future Shock", Alvin Toffler described what happens when people are overwhelmed by change, or fail to adapt to the future. In terms of control and the environment in a farming situation, this means that farm people try to identify things that are happening on or to the farm - both on the inside and from the outside! A common way of doing this is to compare what is happening now with last year, last week or even yesterday. Records and monitoring are the essence of this process.

The farm system (the general case) is the whole entity over which farm people have control. Often farms are described in a physical sense such as the land, stock, improvements and pastures. They are also described in a dynamic and biological sense by processes such as cropping, growing wool and various forms of reproduction. The aspects which make one farm different from another are its goals and boundaries, both of which are 'in the eye of the beholder'. Usually this is the manager, but it could also be an adviser or a student. Therefore goals and boundaries are crucial for the development of a 'systems view' of a farm. The latter says what is in the farm, and the former describes what drives it.

A farm system (the particular case) is defined by its goals and boundaries both of which are in the "eye" of the definer and controller. As such, it changes from farm to farm, over time, and from the perspective and purpose of the observer.

Qualitative data (knowledge) are descriptive information. They usually comprise words and diagrams to convey rich detail and experience, such as what people know and do. Qualitative methods seek information that is diverse and detailed. Such information usually conveys understanding about specific situations (or particular farms) rather than farms in general.
Quantitative data
are knowledge of a numeric and objective nature that can apply to a number of farm systems. The search is for facts, through simplification of the phenomena being observed, and seek to generate knowledge of a general type for application over various spaces and time.

With respect to the conference theme, it should be obvious that the question that I have been asked to address involves people and complexity - hence qualitative methodologies would appear to be a useful thinking and research tool.

I now want to explore some ideas of what controlling a system means, what opportunities exist to improve this process, and how research and extension workers can contribute.

Figure 1 shows a farm system emphasising its people's component and the process of management, especially goals, control and action.

Figure 1. The structure and process of control in a farm system.

The important points from the model are highlighted below in answer to two questions.

(i) What is in the model and why are these parts and processes highlighted?

• A farm consists of things, processes and people.

• Most of these are all within the farm boundary but some are partly within.

• The manager controls as many of the 'parts' and 'goings-on' within the farm as is dictated by his/her goals and skills.

• 'Things' are brought into the farm (i.e. inputs) and transformed into new products (outputs) which leave the farm.

• Inputs and outputs comprise material, energy, services or information.

• There are forces outside the farm that are not inputs but still influence or constrain what happens within. These are grouped under the term 'environmental factors' and can be various, for instance, social, political, climatic and market forces.

• The lines of linkage and areas of overlap are just as important to understand as are the structural bits like soil, plants and animals.

• The two crucial and difficult aspects to understand and depict are the forces that hold the farm together, make it work and determine where the limits lie. These are best summed up by the terms; 'goals' and 'boundary'.

(ii) What does the model tell us about control?

• The farming process and its control mechanisms are very complex.

• In a management sense a farm is essentially a human activity, but

• biological and physical control mechanisms are also occurring, and the manager needs to understand these.

• What is controlled is determined by where the boundary is drawn and this is in the mind of the manager.

• Change is inevitable because the system is a dynamic entity embedded in a dynamic environment.

If you drew a picture of a particular farm depicting its main features, processes and people it would represent your understanding of the farm and its operation. If you also used similar drawing conventions as Figure1 it would help to share these ideas.

Up to this stage my purpose has been to explain the context in which I understand change and its effect on the farm. I trust that this introduction also provides readers with a way of understanding their situation, what the process of control is about.

Controlling Change - controlling the future?

I assume that the people at this conference understand the need to keep up to date with production technology within the farm boundary. In this paper, however, I concentrate on where you place the boundary of your farm system and examine the options for exerting more control over the input, output and environmental factors. Remember, the question of where the boundary is placed is essentially individual and very much related to vision.

At a crisis meeting that I attended in early 1991, 50 or so farmers decided to act collectively to get some control over their problems by doing something about:

• input prices ( they formed a buying group);

• output prices (they formed a marketing group);

• political processes (they met and told politicians about their situation).

Fitting the above actions into the farm system model, the activities can be seen as expanding the boundary outwards to gain input control, moving along the output marketing chain, or seeking to understand and influence political and regulatory mechanisms. For the purposes of this paper I explore three areas of boundary expansion in which I have some knowledge and experience:

• marketing

• community groups (including landcare)

• research and development (R&D)


There have been many attempts to gain more control over the output side of the farm system that cover all aspects of pricing, storage and market reform. More recently there has been a lot of farmer activity in forming marketing groups to achieve aggregated commodity parcels; controlled storage facilities; negotiated freight; contracts; and the generation of information and knowledge. Notable examples are the plethora of farmer cooperatives for grain, wool, cashmere and horticulture products.

Community groups

Marketing activity by farmer groups is a topic on its own and is beyond the scope of the paper, but there is a wide range of groups that aim to gain more control over the long-term viability of land resources and social structures. They are often called community groups because of their spatial and social arrangements. Landcare is the best known of these, and numbers about 1600 groups Australia-wide (Campbell, 1992). Every Landcare group has a unique set of goals forged from its membership, but most have one thing in common with other groups, that is, to gain control over land and water degradation processes on members' farms and related land. Other examples of community groups include neighbourhood support and rural counselling committees, rural women's groups, telecottages and a resurgence of the CWA, Red Cross and sporting clubs.

Research and development (R&D)

Under the R&D banner I describe an important development that most people would not associate with farmer groups. This includes a range of mainly farmer-initiated information sharing, management and research activities. Farm Management 500 and the Kondinin group, both of which operate in the Wagga Wagga area, are examples. Both groups (or their adjuncts) have recently developed research and extension functions by breaking into R&D corporation funding sources, and/or by establishing partnerships with government research and extension institutions.

Combining goals

Many people will be aware of how difficult it is to expand farm and community boundaries in an effort to gain more control. To successfully achieve this, the first thing that is needed is a bit of vision, although I use this term judiciously as I have seen farmers twitch nervously when they hear it! 'Mission' seems to have a similar effect. However, I felt that I was on firm ground when I saw a recent editorial in The Land newspaper which ran with a lead that stated:

"Farmers need more of 'the vision thing'!" (The Land, Thursday, July 15, 1993)

At the mental level, however, imagination and drive are exactly what is needed to fashion group goals and a vision for the future and a mission to which all members can believe and contribute.

I mentioned 'group goals' above - it is worth reminding everyone that group work is often slower and more difficult, but more often than not the result is better. Without goals and vision a group will probably not form in the first place but, even if it does, it certainly will not survive without them.

In a figurative sense, the formation of a cooperative or a landcare group involves taking some of each member's goals and vision and incorporating them in the group's goals in an identifiable form. Achieving this is the first step to gaining control over the function and direction of the new group. Often this is done by one or two energetic visionaries but, after a short time, depending on progress, fine tuning will be necessary to incorporate the inputs of all those who want to be involved.

Farmer Groups: the role for extension and research

There is an important role for research and extension workers to participate in farmer action aimed at dealing with complex problems. However, the processes of working together on an equal footing need to be established at the outset. The community level is where the most important work can be done because farmers and local people feel close to the problem and in control of their actions. Cooperative activity is possible with 'grass roots' participants especially where a 'shared and joint owned problem' exists - there are plenty of examples of how this can be done. In these circumstances it is important to achieve progress before bureaucratic structures start to dominate.

It is also important to realise that all parties involved in cooperative research need to develop new skills and attitudes in order to successfully work together. There are many expressions of this point in landcare where, in a very real way, the social and communication aspects of the problem can become as important as the physical and biological aspects. It is also observed that groups often form around the latter aspects and it can be difficult to transfer focus to the human dimensions and many people do not have the background to handle the situation. It was on this basis that we conducted Rapid Rural Appraisals (RRA) of two landcare groups in the Wagga Wagga area (Dunn, 1993b).

The conclusion from this line of thinking is that as many people as possible with an interest in the issues of an area (e.g. extension, research and farmers) should get involved with one another and be prepared to work in a cooperative and democratic way. Landcare has been mentioned as an example of the activity, but all types of research can also be approached this way. In this vein it is worth considering Neils Roling's facilitation model (of extension) as a way of working together. Roling is a well-known international extension expert who frequently visits Australia and has recently commended the Australian landcare and the Indonesian Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programs as appropriate extension approaches (compared with Technology Transfer) for implementing more complex ideas like sustainable agriculture (Roling, 1993).

The approaches described above are useful ways to get started in 'bottom-up' research and extension, but the advantages can be lost when bureaucracies begin to dominate. Some critics would say that this has already begun to happen in landcare, and it is still only 4 years old. But the approaches mentioned above are only a fraction of the rethinking of extension that is occurring at the moment. Some of the ideas are described below.

'Farmer First': a process of researching

While this part of my paper is pitched more at the extension and research fraternity, I believe it will also be of interest to farmers to know that much of the new extension thinking emphasises what farmers know and do. In the context of the conference theme this has a vital bearing on anyone's capacity to contribute to improving agriculture and its environment. The extension literature in this area refers to local knowledge, indigenous technical knowledge or simply ITK. Recognition of the way in which ITK can contribute to research and extension programs has led to a bottom-up approach called Farmer-First (F-F) (Chambers, 1990). As well as providing a new way of working with farmers, F-F also challenges the accepted paradigm of change in agriculture: Transfer of Technology (TOT). Currently TOT mirrors the main extension thinking of R&D corporations in Australia and, hence, most agricultural researchers. It is a research model that suggests that technology adoption is the answer to all problems. It is acknowledged that TOT plays a useful role in spreading messages about relatively discrete technologies and marketing information that is relatively simple to adopt, and displays fairly clear cost- benefit advantages. Many of these technologies also apply mainly to short term production problems and undoubtedly each farmer must keep up to date in this area. It has been observed by some educators and extension thinkers that production is not the only problem, doing something with it (i.e. marketing) and long term issues of sustainability and socio-economic stability must also be addressed (Pearson and Ison, 1992).

In the broadest sense of 'change' I explore two aspects of 'taking control' that need to be pursued cooperatively by farmers, researchers and extension people. I believe that the principles and thinking underlying the Farmer-First approach are useful for all concerned. The two aspects are:

• farmer cooperative groups (farmer-initiated and including crop management, marketing and landcare);

• farmer-first research and extension needs (initiated by researchers) as a bottom-up participative approach.

Farmer-based action

In farmer-initiated group cooperation the need and action comes from a farm base and there are many examples which can be mentioned. Groups range through landcare and marketing to machinery syndication, crop check/monitoring and management groups that meet on a farmer and farm family basis. In all cases the aim of the groups is to pool resources (especially local knowledge and know-how), act together for the benefit of all members, and call in advice as needed. From my observations these groups stay together as long as members feel that group action is more effective than individual efforts. In terms of the conference theme this would mean that increasing control was being achieved over the farming environment. Undoubtedly there are also many 'hidden' benefits that can be realised, such as social contact, camaraderie and leisure activities that help to cement the primary group tasks. The presence and importance of social benefits, I suspect, are largely influenced by the wider involvement of all family members. Herein lies the potential strength and weakness for ensuring group longevity. On one hand it can be argued that people would see the value of reducing the social isolation that is apparent in rural areas which has been caused by less farm labour and declining rural villages. On the other hand the social, recreational and spiritual needs of farm people have shifted to the towns and rural cities. The dilemma is that, while people may get on well with one another in rural locations, there is not the time to add new group activities to the social calendar, nor is there the inclination to delete town/city-based activities.

The key to solidarity in all farmer-based group is, I believe, pragmatic and functional. That is, there is a need to understand the key tasks around which groups form and which are being performed better than they could be individually. It is important that all group members continue to believe this because, although group activities are often more pleasant and fruitful, tasks are often made longer and sometimes frustrating.

Research-based action

Several paradigms exist which turn research and extension models on their heads. While I am not advocating the replacement of Transfer of Technology by Farmer-First, I am suggesting that under certain conditions and for some problems, the latter approach is preferable. F-F and TOT extension paradigms are also called bottom-up and top-down respectively. While this may be a simplistic description it does give emphasis to the main differences in approach.

TOT is best exemplified by market and technology-driven farming with the emphasis on rapid adoption, a willingness to change and the identification of solvable production problems in a relatively well controlled farming system. The focus of TOT is usually at the single farm level and advocated changes apply within relatively short time spans - say less than five years. F-F turns TOT thinking on its head in the first instance - although it can also complement TOT approaches. The context of F-F is set in more diverse, complex, less productive, less controlled farming systems. It is more attuned to longer time spans, is more concerned about sustainable systems and gives primary recognition in researching activities to farmer knowledge and equitable rural social systems. It is concerned with problems and trade-offs that have to be made between the goals of farming and natural systems. It would also seem that people working from an F-F perspective are more concerned with issues associated with cooperative farmer action (with or without researchers and extension workers) rather than problems associated with single farms. Landcare type problems definitely fit the mould more than problems of productivity and economic output, although it is accepted that these are collectively important in a district or region.

While Farmer-First is a relatively new idea in Australian agriculture, I believe that specific bits of its philosophy and practice are not new to many agriculturalists. What is new, I believe, is F-F as a driving force and the suite of research and extension methodologies that accompany it, such as Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA), Focus Groups and the utilisation of qualitative research techniques. The challenge it presents for extension and research workers lies in acceptance, mastery and the blending of these methodologies and philosophies with traditional scientific approaches and institutional thinking on research and extension (Dunn, 1991, 1993a).


The rate of change will not slow. Technology, the information explosion and socio-economic adjustment pressures will continue to have an impact on agriculture and indeed on the whole of Australia. In this climate of change there is an awareness by farmers and rural families that a special set of strategies for survival is needed. No longer is it enough for individuals to keep up to date, cultivate progressive attitudes and get an education. Farms are increasingly complex because of the technological and economic inputs and the environment in which they exist. In this context I believe that cooperation and pooling of mental and social resources is necessary. After all, the environment in which we all operate is global, a situation that is difficult to manage.

Environmental and socio-economic problems cannot be improved within single farm boundaries, and families too have interests on a much wider scale that must also be nurtured. So group action and pooling resources would seem to be a sensible response. The question is, are 'groups' as such feasible and resilient enough to form the main structure and process of personal and community action?

For those of us servicing agriculture, who at this conference are likely to be in the fields of education, research, extension and agribusiness (including marketing), changes also need to be made in the way we operate. In this paper I have suggested that a more interactive relationship is needed, one which is based on a clearer understanding of the knowledge, methods and perceived needs of our clients. For some people, these ideas may not necessarily be new, but to transform them into wider application and institutional policy, some traditional ways of thinking and operating must give ground.

Several models of change have been described which I believe are relevant to helping agriculture take control of its future in a global environment. To get some control over the future in a coordinated way we all need to do some hard thinking, reflect on our experiences and share all of this with others. I believe that the models and approaches described in this paper can help us with this process.


1. Campbell, Andrew (1992). Landcare in Australia: Taking the long view in tough times. 3rd annual report, NSCP Canberra.

2. Chambers, Robert (1990). Farmer-First: A practical paradigm for the third agriculture. In Altieri, M.A. and Hecht, S.B. (eds), Agroecology and small farm development. CRC Press, Boca Raton.

3. Dunn, Tony (1991). Family farming and extension. In Alston, Margaret (ed) Family farming in Australia and New Zealand, Centre for Rural Social Research, Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga.

4. Dunn, Tony (1993a). Farmer participation in extension. Paper presented to: The Future of Irrigation in the Murray-Darling Basin conference, Griffith, August 10-12.

5. Dunn, Tony (1993b). Learning to use RRA and PRA to improve the activities of two landcare groups in Australia. RRA Notes No 18: 21-32.

6. Pearson, C.J. and Ison, R.L. (1992) University education for multiple-goal agriculture in Australia. Agricultural Systems 38: 341-362.

7. Roling, Neils (1993). Facilitating sustainable agriculture: Implications for extension services. Selected papers volume one, DPI Systems Study Group, Department of Primary Industries, Queensland.

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