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Agricultural Extension in New Zealand - Implications for Australia

John Stantiall and Mark Paine

Massey University, Private Bag 11-222, Palmerston North, New Zealand, and University of Melbourne


The purpose of this paper is to outline the role of agricultural extension rather than to discuss the methods and tools used by extension professionals. Identifying the need for change, who wants the change, and who is funding it are key issues. This, in turn has implications for extension professionals, their role, their future opportunities and the way they promote themselves and their expertise. The post-privatisation changes of the former extension service in New Zealand are outlined along with their implications for Australia and Australian/New Zealand links in future.

Overview of current situation

In New Zealand there is no government-funded agricultural extension organisation, and only two agricultural organisations (Livestock Improvement Corporation (LIC) & Woolpro) currently have a national extension group. LIC have approximately 33 consulting officers and Woolpro have eight field officers. Outside these groups there is no single extension organisation with a critical mass of field staff focused on achieving change in rural New Zealand. Many organisations (e.g. Regional Councils, the Animal Health Board, various sector organisations), however, have a mandate or requirement to achieve change within New Zealand rural communities. Following the formation of Crown Research Institutes (CRI’s) and changes to Government’s policy and funding for research and development, there have been significant developments in science-community interface, with implications for extension. Some CRI’s now contract other organisations to provide a network of individuals with expertise to help achieve required changes.

Recent history

The 1970’s and 1980’s may be viewed as the acme of extension activities by organisations in New Zealand. During this period extension was approached on a team basis, with considerable variation between them – some teams had members specialising in different technical areas, and supporting one another, while others had only general advisors. There was an overall focus on service (business management – benchmarking, crop protection, plant protection, information gathering, climatic response management), as well as encouraging technology adoption to improve volume and efficiency of production on-farm. Government organisations like the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries invested in the professional development of staff through training programmes and the provision of specialists who supported extension officers in the field.

During this period the team members had links with researchers, and conducted and attended industry forums, field days, conferences and so on. Much delivery was one-to-one advice (no cost to the client), complemented by group activities. Extension followed a whole farm management and systems approach. Extension projects also included post-harvest, and supply chain relationships (i.e. quality and storage losses). Tasks within extension projects included the development and promotion of sampling and monitoring techniques and the development and use of computer models in farm decision-making. Natural resource management was not a big issue in the 1970’s and 1980’s, but is more so now, along with a greater recognition of the value of indigenous knowledge.

The extension organisation changed to a fee-for-service consultancy, which had impacts on staff roles and performance, administration and client expectations. In 1994 the Government ceased funding MAF’s Farm Advisory Service and gave existing staff the opportunity to become part of a newly established consultancy firm (Agriculture New Zealand). This process was phased-in from 1987 with the start of partial charging for services. Over this period staff numbers declined from a peak of 310 in 1987 to 120 in 1993 (Walker, 1993). Once extension was no longer funded, those setting up as consultants needed to run their own profitable business and their work became more business management-focussed for both themselves and their clients. Since these changes, the research institutes along with other government departments and government-funded organisations have been investigating different frameworks to compensate for the loss of this infrastructure and skill set for achieving policy goals with public-good outcomes in the rural sector.

One model is for an extension organisation to be part-funded by several bodies, and to carry out specific work on a project by project basis. This has happened by default in New Zealand, with some of the larger consultancy firms winning contracts from a number of funding agencies to carry out specific roles to: facilitate learning; facilitate communication and participation of stakeholders in user-driven R&D projects; facilitate community participation, planning and management of projects; and disseminate information or facilitate information flows. Each of these specific tasks is part of an overall strategy used by the funding organisation to achieve its goals.

A recent conference on knowledge systems in New Zealand demonstrated a high level of interest in the development of processes and structures for innovation and the management of change (Stantiall and McDiarmid 2000). The large number of Australian participants suggested there was a desire to learn from Trans-Tasman exchanges. It seems that the recent history of restructuring in both countries has led to a flourishing of research on innovation and change in New Zealand, with a complementary growth in the number and diversity of extension programs for managing change in Australia.

What are the big issues that drive the need for change?

If there is no need for change, then there is no need for extension. So what changes are needed, and who wants them?

Consumer demands, the need for continued market access, the downward pressure on commodity and food prices and societies expectations for the environment and animal welfare all require constant change in management practices. Retailers, wholesalers and processors (especially in relation to meat and milk) are concerned about product safety (human health) which now impacts on farmers more than in the past. Interest groups and society generally are more concerned now about animal health & welfare and environmental protection. In order to meet the cost of compliance with increased demands and to counter the downward trend in real prices, producers are continually seeking gains in production efficiency.

There are many demands for change from many different places. Some demands flow back from the customer through the manufacturing companies and value chain to the farmer, while others come from governments or sector organisations. While some changes can effectively be achieved by regulations and price differentiation alone, others require more complex change that require new knowledge and skills and different attitudes towards supplying produce to a well-informed and demanding international market place. Processing companies and sector organisations employ their own staff to liase with suppliers where necessary to bring about change. If the government wants to achieve change, it may put in place legislation which makes the companies and/or sector organisations responsible for achieving those changes, and puts the cost of compliance onto them and their stakeholders.

Another area of change relates to the use of natural resources. Situations may involve several stakeholders or stakeholder groups with different goals. Increasingly, extension professionals are involved with community conflict over resource use because they have some understanding of the technical issues involved, they have a network of other technical and specialist professionals they can call upon, and they have a range of group, management and problem-solving skills that enables them to facilitate discussion and work through complex issues. In recent years, much of this work has been funded under the guise of research. Where this is not the case, those involved will directly employ consultants to help facilitate a solution.

What is Agricultural Extension?

A study of the literature generates a perception that the meaning of agricultural extension has changed with time and in relation to the social environment within which the author is operating. Definitions developed in the 1960s-1980s, tended to focus on what extension practitioners could do for their "clients" rather than for their funders:

"… a service or system which assists farm people through education procedures in improving farming methods and techniques, increasing production efficiency and income, bettering their levels of living, and lifting the social and educational standards of rural life"
(Farquhar 1962 cited in Scrimgeour et al. 1991 p. 2);

" …To educate farmers in the principles and practices of improved management systems"
(Walker 1982);

‘…a professional communication intervention deployed by an institution to induce change in voluntary behaviours with a presumed public or collective utility.’
(Rling, 1988, p.49).

These definitions indicate a changing perception about the role of extension –shifting from concerns about the individual farmer "client" to organisational outcomes and public benefits. Activities traditionally referred to as "extension" are the result of an organisation wanting to meet a policy goal, employing people who have the knowledge and skills to facilitate change, and providing the appropriate resources for them. The facilitators then use their knowledge and skills to put in place the extension programmes and activities, which will help to meet the funder’s goal (Figure 1). When there is no funding (by the New Zealand Government, for example) then there is no extension. Where governments still do fund extension, the nature of the policy being promoted and the government commitment to invest in that policy has changed. Extension may be used in conjunction with other policy instruments such as legislation/regulation or price differentiation.

Some organisations have specific goals to be met such as a processing company specifying the quality of farm produce, or the local authority specifying water quality standards. The extension activities that are conducted to meet these goals have a specific purpose, and the outcomes required are largely non-negotiable. This is extension being used to bring about a change on behalf of the funding organisation.

The notion of "farmer-first" or "bottom-up" change, on the other-hand, implies that the farmers require a change. It implies that there is an issue about which they want solutions. This is more of a research or a technological learning issue. In increasingly complex systems, individuals often want to develop their own solutions on their own farm, and as quickly as possible. In New Zealand, this is being addressed in part by the Foundation for Science and Technology (the body which invests the Governments research and development funds) working with sector organisations to fund their R&D priorities - rather than funding science organisations per se. Facilitating technological learning implies a more global, less easily defined requirement of individuals wanting to improve their productivity and profitability through improving their knowledge, skills and ability to improve and innovate. Extension skills are still required here, but the questions of who benefits and who pays are not so clear-cut.

Figure 1. Linking the facilitation of change to the funder’s goals.

In the past, extension organisations have often bundled together a number of roles, such as facilitating change, consultancy, data collection and disaster response. In the future, these roles are likely to become distinct, and could be contracted out to different organisations.

Discussions about the role and purpose of extension tend to neglect the issue of extension as a community in itself. This aspect of extension is more concerned with the way extension organises itself to represent its own identity and relates to other professions. Extension people align themselves with their own (technical) industry sectors like horticulture (or even more specifically viticulture), while also identifying themselves as extension practitioners (not scientists, teachers or social workers). Members of the extension community therefore have multiple roles. Extension requires a multitude of competencies to be a valued participant in collective efforts to manage change, particularly the ability to mediate between different professional groups, such as: education; policy; scientists; farmers; and agribusiness professionals. It often involves building bridges between and within professions and requiring a working knowledge of each of the different professions to actively facilitate discussion and reflection.

Organisations require change by others to meet their own goals

Organisations that fund extension or employ staff to carry out an extension function do so to achieve their own goals, as few can afford the philanthropic practice of funding the development of their "clients" or target group unless this contributes towards achieving their own goals. Hence, few, if any, organisations now have the "development of the client" (individuals, organisations ...) as the ultimate or even primary purpose of extension. Extension is focussed on instrumental gains to satisfy the outcomes specified by economic rationalism, compared to the old development of the client orientations of the past. These changes are part of a more global trend that assumed capitalism would provide the purpose as well as the means for development (Handy 1997).

The New Zealand Dairy Board, for example, requires quality milk, farm practices that will ensure continued market access, and improved production efficiencies. Even with deregulation, these are still fundamental requirements of the dairy industry, and the responsibility will simply shift to a different level (the organisation(s) responsible for processing and marketing the product) - probably the processing companies. Amidst the current organisational change in the New Zealand dairy industry, education and upskilling of farmers is seen as a key strategy to ensure the supply of quality milk, acceptable on-farm practices and a 4% annual productivity increase. The consulting officer extension group will be kept intact as part of the national "industry good", but their future method of operating has not yet been decided. Presumably the use of evaluation methodologies will become increasingly important for these types of extension groups as they attempt to evidence some link between their activities and change in the performance of the sector they serve.

New Zealand Dairy companies face the same issues as the Dairy Board in terms of milk quality, product safety and on-farm practices. They employ their own supplier liaison officers to help ensure compliance and advice where needed. In recent times, the biggest improvement in milk quality as a result of changed management practices has occurred when the financial penalties for not meeting the quality targets have been dramatically increased.

Natural resource management extension by the regional councils also aligns with the view that their role is to ensure that the legislation and their policies are complied with. Any development of the client is only sufficient to help achieve the changes required.

What are the opportunities for the extension profession?

Do extension organisations and practitioners themselves need to change in order to achieve change more effectively? An opportunity exists for those who are required to achieve change for their organisations, through the actions of others, to network and design a system of professional development. The challenge is to develop context-free skills in achieving change that can be adapted to any situation (individuals will bring their own particular technical knowledge and skills). As well as developing new skills, extension practitioners require a clear understanding of the environment they are working within, for example, "Who has the mandate and the ability (power?) to bring about change?" and "How are these required changes likely to impact the goals of individuals?" An international consulting firm established the 4% productivity target for the NZ dairy industry. This figure initially indicated what the industry requires to retain (or improve) its competitive performance. It has now become the extension challenge whereby the industry needs to collectively achieve this level of performance to remain viable in future.

Using a productivity target for a sector raises some interesting extension issues. Do we assume that what is rational for each individual farmer is the same as that for the industry as a whole? Are we adequately representing what is required in terms of change in the industry when we refer to a 4% productivity target? Experience to date indicates that the term productivity has been confusing to farmers (referring to a financial ratio) and tends to reinforce extension as a transfer of technology orientation at a time when participatory approaches are required to effectively facilitate change. Is extension the profession that is used to communicate to farmers the need for this target and to hold their hands as they strive to achieve it? An alternative approach would view extension as the profession that is a participant with others involved in industry strategy because of its unique position to facilitate change at every level of the industry, from farm management to industry planning. For example, Engel and Salomon (1997) refer to the role that extension performs in facilitating innovation for development. They used the concept Theatres of Innovation (in our example the New Zealand Dairy Industry) to design a comprehensive toolkit of methods and processes that enable the support of change for all participants in the theatre.

If extension is to play a more strategic role in rural industries and rural communities and thereby enhance their ability to manage change do we need any research for extension? Many extension practitioners say there is no need for research – just get on with the job. Yet, like most people, these same practitioners do their own research, though rarely document their findings. Learning independently can limit the possible rate of progress, and while there may be continuous incremental learning, the rate of change demands that there is transformational or generative learning (i.e. develop new paradigms) in order to make significant progress forward. The questions posed above will not be resolved by isolated, incremental and indiscriminate research endeavours of practitioners.

Extension is in dire need of a professional credibility among its peer professions like agricultural science and rural sociology. We contend that research on and with extension practitioners will be fundamental to developing this credibility. This research work needs to advance both theoretical and methodological understanding of extension. Most extension practitioners are critical of the Transfer of Technology model along with its counterpart the Adoption-Diffusion paradigm of innovation (Rogers and Shoemaker 1971). While we agree with many of the criticisms of the model we are concerned that there is little substantive work that enables organisations to use a more relevant and effective model for managing innovation and change. Considerable effort has been expended on participatory approaches but this has often stemmed from anti-science sentiments that does little to achieve a harmony among those working in Engel’s Theatre of Innovation (Paine 1997). We believe the time is right to undertake a comprehensive research program that is grounded in the rural environments of Australian and New Zealand to advance understanding of innovation and change. This work would set out to develop a pragmatic and theoretical framework that would assist in the analysis of needs, strategic planning, design and evaluation of innovation and change projects. Practitioners have often called for models other than the Transfer of Technology conception of these activities but are powerless to do more than voice their concerns. Their use of the term process to describe much of what they do when analysing, designing or evaluating their work provides some direction for this research.

Latour (1996) has begun this exploration of process by testing the power of process philosophy to explain the science and innovation surrounding the development and uses of lactic acid by industry. Latour was pursuing a social study of science. Extension research needs to develop a framework that is capable of spawning innovations in extension methodologies that in turn will support innovative practices in rural industries and communities. We believe this need is so broad that practitioners (e.g. Extension and Consultancy) and researchers (eg. University and Research Institute) in both Australia and New Zealand could work together on a variety of projects that collectively contribute towards an improved understanding of process in relation to innovation and change.

Implications for agricultural extension in Australia

In New Zealand, when the Government ceased funding extension, there were no options - only a view that the job was a free consultancy service to help farmers reach their goals. Hence a consultancy organisation was established. Extension professionals in Australia are in a unique position to determine their future based, in part, on experiences in New Zealand. There are two distinct options, and the choice between them may have a significant impact on rural Australia. Those who believe their job is to help farmers and communities to achieve their objectives, and that this service is of value to those people, should set themselves up as a fee-for-service consultancy organisation. Those who believe that they have the technical knowledge and facilitation expertise and skills to help a funding organisation to reach its goals - should promote themselves as facilitators of change. They should market their expertise and ability to achieve organisational goals via changing other people's behaviour and practices. "Consultancy" and the "facilitation of change" both have their place, and if there is an opportunity, individuals should go with the option that suits them the best.

Governments, sector and research organisations will still require people with the skills to facilitate change, and preferably in an organisation that has a widespread network of well-trained field staff. This may mean that an extension organisation is part-funded by several bodies, and carries out specific work on a project by project basis.

Before there is any major dismantling of the extension system, there needs to be a thorough analysis of what changes are required in rural Australia, and by whom? This will provide a clear focus for extension agents, and determine the funding streams. Once this is established, the extension agents will be able to develop a strategy and programmes to achieve the required changes. It is likely that there will be some negotiation of both realistic outcomes that can be achieved within a given time frame and the resources required for the task. The near future is likely to bring many new opportunities - especially for those who enjoy change, enjoy being accountable for what they do and who are prepared to invest in themselves.

As discussed earlier, areas that still require change include systems to ensure food safety, product quality, animal welfare, sustainable land management and pest and disease control in plants and animals. Government (national, state, local), sector organisations and research institutions are all stakeholders in these issues. On the other hand, to combat the effects of the downward pressures on commodity prices and increased cost of compliance, producers are seeking gains in production efficiency. One way or another, government, sector organisations and research institutions are also stakeholders in achieving efficiency gains in the production sector. These changes are unlikely to be achieved without an extension service - but such a service may have a revised mandate, a new set of skills and a new method of operating compared to the past.

To promote the practice and profession of extension, extension professionals must be clear of the skills, expertise and networks that they have to offer, and that the purpose is to facilitate change in order to help achieve the goals of the funder. If the policy makers are not aware of what extension professionals can offer, then they may be less likely to use extension as a policy instrument. It will be necessary to identify those organisations who are or could invest in extension to help achieve their policies. There is also a need to provide opportunities for professional development and to promote the use of new skills, methods and approaches to extension, and support the development of innovations in extension. Australian and New Zealand extension practitioners have an opportunity to learn from each other’s experience and jointly construct an improved awareness of their professional options.

Summary and way forward

The New Zealand Government ceased funding agricultural extension. This changed the role and focus of the newly established organisation , which became a consultancy business. Not only did this change result in a loss of corporate knowledge about extension, but also there has been no government-funded organisation available to combine research and practice to develop new paradigms, methods and tools for achieving change. Hence the adoption-diffusion model remains the dominant paradigm of extension amongst researchers. What we lack is an adequate theoretical framework that enables more effective sharing of activities and concepts. As Lewin once said, ‘nothing is as practical as a good theory’. The diminution of extension in New Zealand catalysed research into exploring new frameworks for achieving organisational goals through the changed actions of some target group. Many practitioners in Australia appear to be busy "doing" extension but the context relating to the funder has been lost. We need to look at a way to link the two systems and learn from each other in a way that will benefit both – the research and the doing.

There is a difference, however, between the intent to work together and the formal conditions (organisational boundaries, expectations, competitive funding), which often make it difficult to happen. We have assumed here that working together across countries and professions is better than working independently. This assumption should itself be subject to critical reflection.

An important implication for Australia is that to cease funding agricultural extension is to lose an infrastructure and skill set capable of helping to achieve policy goals in primary industries and rural communities. While it is legitimate to devolve consultancy to the private sector, it is crucial to retain a critical mass of extension capability to achieve public-good goals. Finding the balance will be the challenge.


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  3. Latour B (1996) Do scientific objects have a history? Pasteur and Whitehead in a bath of lactic acid. Common Knowledge 5, 76-91.
  4. Paine MS (1997) Doing it Together, technology as practice in the New Zealand Dairy Sector. PhD Thesis, Wageningen Agricultural University, The Netherlands.
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