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Extension’s Big Bang and Genealogy: How long-run history can inform current and future practice

Jess Jennings1 and Roger Packham2

1Centre for Landscape and Ecosystems Management, University of Western Sydney, Richmond, NSW, 2753
Centre for Systemic Development, University of Western Sydney, Richmond, NSW 2753


The current investigation has utilised some of the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s historical methods. Specifically, Foucault’s notion of problematization has been embraced and applied to shed light on how extension has become what it is today. In addition we investigate to what extent and how a better understanding of the past can contribute to improving current and future agricultural extension, both in practice and as a profession in its own right. With these aims in mind the historical record and discourse relating to agricultural extension has been identified and analysed in Foucault’s genealogical manner. The findings are then assessed with regard to the progress of the industry-funded Profitable Pastures Project (PPP) that has actively and directly engaged dairy farmers in the processes of research, development and extension over the past two years.

Introduction and methods

This paper examines an industry-funded research project, the Profitable Pastures Project (PPP) through the genealogical approach of Foucault, and his notion of problematization (Kendall and Wickham, 1999). In simple terms problematization is Foucault’s approach to history whereby a particular problem, or issue is selected for investigation instead of an historical period. For example, Foucault’s own work cited problems such as: “How did the prison emerge as the major form of punishment?” (Kendall and Wickham 1999, p22). In the context of the current investigation, the question might rest as: “How did the current forms of extension emerge?”.

The paper will trace the development of agricultural extension, the emergence of tertiary agricultural education, and the legacy that has been left for today’s farmers. A number of problematic issues will be highlighted, together with how the PPP research is trying to address these through a methodology of Participative Action Research (PAR). The PPP has been operating for two years now, principally through twelve local discussion groups in dairying areas across the central and southern coastlands and west of the Great Dividing Range in NSW, Australia. Until now, these farmers have been subjected to traditional “diffusion of innovation” extension methods aimed at getting them to adopt innovations arising from experimental research programmes that may or may not suit a particular farmer’s context and situation. Foucault’s method will be shown to explain why this might be the case, and provides a rationale for what the PPP methodology is trying to achieve. The findings contribute to a discussion about how research, education and extension might better support both farmers and sustainable agriculture now and into the future.


The rise of farming

True farming systems — defined as “the establishment of an artificial ecosystem to yield a staple food supply” (Reed 1977, p28) — first emerged on this planet during the Early Neolithic period (ca. 3500-3000 BC) in northern Europe (Cowan and Watson 1992, p75). From this period onward it seems clear that farming has continued to evolve and develop up to the present day, and no doubt will continue to do so in future.

Agricultural extension necessarily emerged after the establishment of ‘true’ farming, but exactly when and what brought about its inception is unclear, or at the least, is straying into unchartered territory.

The term ‘extension’ and its use in the English language seems to have come into existence in Britain in the 1840s to describe the function of extending university research results to the community. The title extension was derived from an urge for universities to deliver their findings to society through formal mechanisms. It was first initiated at Cambridge University in the 1870s, and then replicated in other tertiary institutions (Van den Ban and Hawkins 1996). Despite this formal labelling of extension in the late 19th century, there is little doubt that significant forms of extension existed and had been continually evolving and developing since the 16th century in Europe.

Extension’s Big Bang — 17th century agriculturists and the printing press

The early 1600s witnessed the commercialisation of the printing press in England and other parts of Europe. The approximate 6000 published book titles (on any subject) that appeared during the 1620s in England exemplify the impact print media had in effectively creating the first opportunity for widespread information and knowledge transfer throughout all sections of society including agriculture (Porter 2000, p73). Of critical importance was the fact that the potential for broad-scale information transfer occurred for European agriculture with the commercialisation of the printing press. The validity and realisation of this potential was demonstrated by England’s experience, where over 20,000 published titles emerged during the 1710s and reached over 56,000 publications in the 1790s (Porter 2000, p73).

With its properties of translatability and transportability, the printed word provided the opportunity to rapidly disseminate information for the first time on an industry-wide basis, as well as within classes of farmers. National boundaries became less significant, not only in geographic terms but linguistically and culturally, as demonstrated by one of the earliest examples of an agricultural publication translated from German and re-published in English called Foure Bookes of Husbandry, by Heresbach, that also contained an extra 16 pages contributed by the translator, Barnabe Googe Esquire in 1577 (Ernle, Prothero, and Baron 1912, p99). In addition, print media enhanced the opportunity for multi-directional communication flows. This was primarily possible through written responses to published material that effectively established forums for debate and discussion about agricultural techniques and methods.

Significant literacy rates amongst practicing farmers were a necessary condition to make the comprehension of printed material possible and effective. Other relevant factors required to make print media an effective extension tool included education levels, writing skills, postal services for the delivery of newspapers and journals etc., the existence of public libraries, the supply of agricultural writings, and significant publishing finances for paying the associated heavy taxes and capital costs.

Despite barriers to publishing, the number of agricultural authors that successfully contributed to the stock of knowledge by the 16th century in Britain at least, was significant and ever increasing. Not only did the quantity of publications effectively improve information dissemination but also their quality appeared to be of value to many farmers and industry. Across Europe agricultural literature that focussed on the improvement of farming was emerging, with authors such as Tarello in Italy, the translators of Cresentius, Heresbach in the Low Countries, Charles Estienne and Berbard Palissy in France, and Trusser and Fitzherbert in England (Ernle et al. 1912, p89).

The subject matter contained within many agricultural publications was to be of use to typical tenant farmers. One example was Sir Hugh Plats published suggestion of sowing wheat below the surface of the soil instead of broadcasting, which incidentally was reportedly discovered by “the accident of a silly wench who deposited some seeds of wheat in holes intended for carrots…” (Ernle et al. 1912, pg101)! Plats explained that adoption of this method would increase average wheat yields almost four-fold. Other publicised issues concerning improved on-farm practice resulted in the passing of Acts of Parliament. Notable amongst these were the promotion of harnesses when attaching ploughing equipment to animals instead of directly tying the machinery to the beasts tail, and even the barbaric method of shearing by “…pulling off the wool yearly from living sheep…” [Ernle et al. 1912 #40, pg104. A general survey of the issues upon which agriculturalists wrote includes preferred ploughing animals, ploughing machinery, weeds, sowing methods, pasture species, crop and forage species, cultivation methods, estate establishment and management, enclosure farming, fertilisation and soil conditioning, feeding regimes, breeding regimes and herd health.

Information and knowledge proliferation — agricultural periodicals and newspapers

So far this investigation has focused upon the origin of extension through the rise of published books written by agriculturalists. This aspect of the print revolution in agriculture is significant, but must be seen along side other forms of both print media and the social institutions that utilised them (in pre-industrial Europe). Print media other than books encompassed a wide range of forms, including periodicals, journals, published lectures, chronicles of societies, advertising and newspapers.

By the 1850s, the agricultural newspapers and periodicals circulating in Victorian Britain were considered by several sources to have been “a significant factor in hastening farming advances” (Goddard 1983, p116). Given the velocity and geographic depth of their circulation it seems hardly surprising that earlier claims (by 1810) promoting one of the major benefits of print media was that it overcame the isolation of farmers.

The proliferation of agricultural print media as an early form of agricultural extension contributed greatly to the emerging agricultural landscape up to the late 1700s. Perhaps a consequence of the ever-increasing quantity and quality of agricultural writings was the development of the conditions necessary for instituting agriculture within the tertiary university system and schools of teaching generally.

The emergence of tertiary agricultural education

Possibly the earliest proposal for the establishment of a formal educative agricultural institution came through Britain’s parliament in 1723 by Lord Molesworth (Richards 1985). However, the most significant development in British, and to some extent European agricultural education was the establishment of a Chair of Agriculture at Edinburgh University in 1790 (Richards 1985, p62). The first ever Chair of Agriculture was in Padua in 1764 (Beveridge 1991). The Agricultural Chair in Edinburgh simultaneously created an undergraduate course on agriculture, which attempted to combine the relevant aspects of knowledge and theory, from such faculties as medicine and chemistry, with practical applications to contemporary farming practices.

Dr Andrew Coventry’s (the new Chair) lecture syllabus was Discourses Explanatory of the Object and Plan of the Course of Lectures on Agriculture and Rural Economy (Richards 1985, p63). In the following decades various colleges were set up in conjunction with Edinburgh University, and the demand for agricultural institutions of varying types has basically sustained their existence to the present day. Today though agricultural education not only occurs through universities and colleges, but also in a plethora of independent and interlinked government departments, statutory authorities, non-government organisations and private sector organisations.

Results — how the past informs present and future agricultural extension

Several points can be made in analysing the above historical account. Firstly, the rise of agricultural print media since the 16th century in Europe can be accepted as a legitimate origin of extension practice, and simultaneously the naive beginnings of an agricultural extension profession – in essence, agricultural extension’s inception or ‘Big Bang’. This argument is supported by the fact that the function of agricultural authorship, that is the extending of information to farmers, necessarily divorced on-farm practice from agricultural research and learning processes.

Although on-farm research and learning continued to be performed by ordinary farmers subsequent to the rise of agricultural publications, the rise of print media generated an off-farm forum, or domain, for researchers to debate, discuss, dispute and promote ideas and opinions that ultimately constituted the framework for determining the ‘cutting-edge’ of agricultural development. The formalisation of this framework arrived with the institutionalisation of agriculture within the tertiary system. In short, the arrival of the commercially operable printing press represented agricultural extension’s Big Bang, and this metaphoric new universe has rapidly expanded through the proliferation of opinion, information and knowledge presented in agricultural publications that have experienced exponentially increasing velocity.

With the rise of agricultural print media came the scrutiny of peer review of published works, which, through the creation of a dual audience, ie farmers and authors, contributed to the emergence of an essentially off-farm forum for developing and progressing ideas pertaining to agricultural practice. This thriving new domain of print media was formalised with the advent of tertiary level agriculture and has since evolved into a sub-industry of agriculture in its own right: research, development and extension (or RD&E in industry lingo).

The existence of the Asia-Pacific Extension Network (APEN) is itself evidence of extension maturing into a profession in its own right and also as an off-farm forum. APEN’s membership resides largely in the domain of off-farm, that is, APEN is not aimed at directly servicing farmers, but rather extensionists - who make their living not from physically farming themselves but by supplying the on-farm domain (farmers) with knowledge, expertise, management services, participative forums and skills etc from off-farm. The emergence of extension as an off-farm profession, along with the agricultural research and development sector, has caused the respective agenda for the on-farm domain and the off-farm domain to be separate entities that exhibit varying degrees of mutual independence and exclusivity.

A case in point — The Profitable Pastures Project (PPP)

The separation between on-farm issues and off-farm investigation, research and analysis is an issue central to the premise of PPP. Firstly, PPP has attempted to reduce the gap between farmers and the respective aims and expectations of agricultural research, development and extension. Employing a PAR methodology that emphasised participation of all stakeholders as worthy and equal co-researchers, be they farmers, scientists or other affected parties, has attempted to achieve this. This framework initialises any investigative or research effort with an understanding and acceptance that farmers are, at the very least, holders of important knowledge and wisdom that is of value to the research process, as well as the end-point of the research. Specifically, farmers have been recognised in PPP as ‘experts’ of extremely complex systems, commonly known as farms. In comparison, scientists and other professionals are respected for their ability to utilise the vast domain of scientific knowledge available to them and create new forms of knowledge. Under PPP, both farmers and scientists are considered equal co-researchers, and their interaction is ensured through the participative and dialogical processes of the action research method. In practice PPP has established twelve local discussion forums in which any relevant stakeholder is welcome, and in most cases purposefully invited by the group.

The earlier analysis outlined how the gap between ordinary farmers and authors and tertiary agriculturalists has led to the agenda of today’s research, development and extension being set largely without direct farmer input. In recognising this, PPP has made a concerted effort to involve farmers in the process of determining the agenda of issues for research that ultimately affect them. To achieve this, facilitated focus group meetings across all the PPP groups were held to clearly deliver the ownership of the processes employed to the groups themselves. This condition of ownership is seen from our analysis to be merely the return to a previous set of industry conditions that prevailed four to five centuries ago, in which ordinary farmers basically carried out their own improvement efforts on a local scale. With confident ownership by a group of its internal processes, there is no impediment for that group that prevents it from setting its own agenda, or from actively working towards meeting the needs and wants of all those involved. PPP is attempting to deliver ‘the best of both worlds’ by promoting farmer ownership of learning processes and agenda setting – as was the case in the Old World – as well as encouraging research that is conducted within the Modern World by the scientific community with respect to a mutually contextualised agenda with input from both on- and off-farm domains.

In addition to the ownership of the processes of research, development and extension, PPP is acutely aware of also ensuring that the groups are responsible for their actions and efforts. Although this may seem similar to ownership, there is a subtle additional aspect to the notion of group responsibility. Groups that are not responsible for their actions are likely to ‘pass the buck’ when it comes to failure. By providing each PPP group with $10,000 AUS per financial year, the groups are imbued with responsibility for those funds and what can be achieved with them. In the case of failure of group activities, genuine responsibility for this failure reverts to critical reflection within the action research cycle regarding the strategies and actions to be taken.


Through PPP farmers and their families are resuming the position of equivalently characterised farmers of centuries past. This is true in that PPP farmers are attempting to not only define issues for improvement on-farm but also to try solving them on-farm where possible. This does not mean they are limited to their own time resources and abilities to re-enact centuries old trial and error experiments, but instead they are empowered through their group forum to import the required expertise to achieve their goals. The combination of group ownership, responsibility and individuals’ participation ensures that agenda setting decisions and action strategies cannot be made without the final consent of at least the majority, if not the entire membership of stakeholder participants. In essence, PPP farmers have reclaimed some of the ownership, responsibility and agenda for learning and research processes at a local level, whilst simultaneously engaging with the established dairy industry institutions that constitute R,D&E in New South Wales.


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