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Building rural capacity: a case study of WA mallee farming groups

Jeremy Lemon

Agriculture WA, Esperance Agricultural Centre, PMB 50, Esperance, WA 6450


Farmers are under increasing time constraints having to choose carefully any off farm events they attend. They rapidly loose interest and stop attending meetings of groups if their needs are not met. Group activities associated with extension programs may be the optional events that are not high on their list of priorities.

It is critical to the success of any producer group that the issues tackled by the group, the frequency and times of group events are set by the participants. Group planning is a component of the activities that can resolve most of the group focus and function issues clearly. It is critical to develop relevant programs in conjunction with the participants to ensure success.

A regional farmer learning project, Mallee Information Exchange, has worked with several farmer groups in the WA mallee areas as the main vehicle for extension. This farmer led project has provided insights into working with low rainfall producer groups.

In order to attract the commitment and participation from as many producers in an area as possible a flexible approach using a range of extension techniques is required. To maintain the interest of all group members, some modifications of good extension methods are needed. There are a number of features of successful producer groups, well documented in many studies, and observed in the successful groups associated with the Mallee Information Exchange project. Local organization of a group and its activities ensures not only relevance but a sense of grower allegiance to support the local community group.

In this paper I describe the events leading up to regional extension project in the mallee area of WA. The success and failure of several producer groups is explored. The role of extension in successful group planning is described together with an example of applying Continuous Improvement and Innovation. Finally I describe the features of the successful groups and the future contribution to regional change. These mallee learning groups provide an opportunity to observe extension theory and the limitations imposed by groups of busy people working with limited time.


The Western Australian mallee area is located North of Esperance in the SE of WA. It is unique in WA with an extensive landscape of alkaline and limestone soils with medium to low annual rainfall of 400 to 325 mm. The area is remote from Perth, about 700 -800km, with limited service from agricultural agencies and researchers. It is relatively small by WA standards, one million hectares of farmland. The area has more in common with other mallee areas of Australia, such as Eyre Peninsula and the Murray Mallee of South Australia and Victoria.

A group of producers, the Mallee Agricultural Research and Extension Advisory Committee (MAREAC), representing the WA mallee areas in the Esperance Shire has been meeting for several years to foster research and development in the area. The MAREAC group was successful in attracting experts to the area for seminars and site inspections of local problems. They were not successful in attracting research projects to the area. The area has production issues relating to the alkaline soils and associated agricultural crops and weeds that are not common These issues don't attract a lot of interest from research agencies as findings relevant to this limited area can't be transferred readily to other areas in WA.

Figure 1: Letter M shows locations of mallee farming areas in Australia.

With assistance from Agriculture WA an extension project to link the WA mallee with other mallee areas was funded under the GRDC technology transfer program. This project ran from July 1999 to June 2001 and was directed by MAREAC. The project operated at three interrelated levels.

Ten issues of the “Mallee Exchange” newsletter were distributed during the project, mailed to all farmers in the target area. Its purpose was to create awareness of some the research projects conducted and sources of farming information available in other mallee areas and to encourage WA producers to obtain this sort of information for themselves. It also promoted the successes and activities of the local WA groups.

Producer learning groups were set up in the project area to identify issues, test new technology on a farm demonstration and paddock monitoring scale and plan group learning activities. Most groups adopted TOPCROP as a standard monitoring format but did not call themselves TOPCROP groups.

Individual producers were assisted to set up and monitor demonstrations and contributed to case studies that formed the basis for group discussion and articles for the Mallee Exchange newsletter.

Formation of groups

The MAREAC group was very pleased to have a senior Agriculture WA staff member as project officer. The officer was well known to most farmers in the project area, familiar with the environment and its issues and able to contribute to some of the technical information sought. Offering technical information to farmers keeps them interested in participating as some of their questions are answered regularly. The officer's credibility made group formation in the area relatively easy.

The success of any project needs to be assessed. The idea of developing an assessment tool was introduced to the MAREAC group and a logframe (Farrington and Nelson 1997) was constructed with the group to provide a monitoring framework for the project. Group consensus was reached for each of the logframe components by discussing each of the prompting questions in the matrix. The discussion was undertaken enthusiastically by the group. The logframe has proved valuable for monitoring progress and ensuring that specified data has been collected for evaluation.

At the beginning of the project, meetings were conducted with nine groups through the target area. These were mainly specific meetings to discuss the formation of learning groups associated with the project and collect an initial list of issues from each group. The issues list was open to any thing that participants wanted to include. This showed that issues were not related to any specific enterprise and included social, economic, resource management and production issues.

Five groups met two or three times but have not continued. It is valuable to review the list of reasons that participants have given for failure of the mallee learning group in their area.

  • Waiting for the leader to organize the next meeting.
  • Leader waiting for others to volunteer to help with organization.
  • No local leadership to run it.
  • Didn't address the things we were interested in.
  • Too busy doing other things, GST training.
  • We were only a small group and most of us are on state boards and panels (busy with other things)
  • Poor season sapped everyone's enthusiasm.
  • Not interested in TOPCROP monitoring.
  • A specific reseller company became involved and a lot of us don't trade with them.
  • Our TOPCROP provider didn't put the results together

With only one full time person the project could only support self managed groups. This has been a critical success factor for the project despite the failure of some groups. Four groups continue to function with strong local leadership, shared responsibilities for communication within the group together with defined goals and plans. Setting priorities and plans is a shared process with as many members as possible participating.

Group planning

Continuing groups have good plans reviewing or setting the group purpose and values. The planning was only undertaken with strong encouragement and assistance from the project officer. The planning time was limited to ensure as many people as possible participated. Most members would not allow more time than a half-day during this during a busy period after summer rain. One group organizer got no response to requests to attend a planning meeting when most members were busy with summer weed control. The same meeting 5 weeks later attracted 19 people. Many farms were represented by all the members of the business. Some businesses were represented by the women partners only. Women have active group roles in the groups that are performing strongly. As project officer, I frequently encourage and mentor women in leadership roles.

Good extension practice is that all members of a group participate in the planning process. Many producers are not enthusiastic about group planning activities but still want to be involved in learning activities. Some groups have a keen core of members who recognise the value of planning and are also willing to keep the activities of the group open for others to benefit. This modification keeps the planning process going in a group.

In the same meeting critical success factors for group performance were developed and a series of strategies and actions agreed to address each critical success factor. Items such as shared responsibilities and workload, better communication within the group were identified.

The performance of the groups as a result of planning has improved. All groups have a recorded vision and mission as part of a business plan. The activities that the groups are undertaking relate to the shared priorities. A range of activities has been undertaken or is planned which addresses the focus of the group. The workload is shared among more members with recorded and agreed responsibilities to ensure that the group tasks are not burdened on too few people.

Group activities

The groups are participating in a range of activities and learning methods. All groups have several similar activities. On occasions groups share a visiting speaker for joint meetings. This is made easier as the project officer is able to assist communication between the groups, informing them of other group activities and interests.

All four groups have farmer demonstrations conducted by the members. These are usually some new technique the group wants to investigate. Examples of these are summer weed control for cropping, new pasture species, new crop varieties, fluid fertilizers on calcareous soils, urea placement and timing, notill crop establishment, and gypsum for soil amelioration. The demonstrations are performed as a result of farmer inquiry rather than an agency program promoting anything specific. The demonstrations are conducted entirely by the farmers with some agency assistance with more detailed monitoring such as soil profile measurements.

TOPCROP is used by all the groups as a standard monitoring procedure. The paddock scale monitoring is used for benchmarking local crop production systems and comparing results from selected paddocks for review of current and new practices. Not all farmers want to participate in crop monitoring but as the groups have a much broader focus than crop monitoring, people who don't monitor are still welcome in the groups.

All groups have a field walk program for the growing season. Field walks are a popular activity with croppers but farmers themselves recognise that without a learning focus, field walks soon loose their appeal. Walks now contribute to the focus of groups as they include inspection of farmer demonstrations that are developed as part of the year's learning plan together with any scientific experiments conducted in the area by government or commercial agencies. The agency experiments are often set up in response to needs identified by the group. Rather than take the group ideas to the research agency, the project officer advises a responsible group member of who to contact and also advises the agency researcher of the group contact for this matter. With followup to see that contact has taken place, this ensures that there is more group ownership of the project and builds confidence in attracting outside expertise to the area. Local reseller agronomists are frequently invited to attend group activities to contribute their knowledge to the learning process. All activities, including these walks, are arranged by a different host business each time. This shares the workload within the group

Groups have been encouraged to run specific women's events mainly in the area of soils and agronomy. The women members feel they need to catch up on crop production basics to be able to discuss cropping in the whole group forum.

Discussion sessions and workshops are conducted to address priorities of the group. These are usually led by an outside expert to explore issues in detail. Topics covered at such meetings have included grain marketing, nitrogen cycling in this environment, selecting fine wool sheep using new fibre diameter measuring technology, local groundwater trends and rotation gross margins.

With the time constraints that producers experience, most meetings cover a range of subjects with several sessions and experts. The local person assigned advises all members of the meeting details and program. Members can choose the sessions that appeal most to them, not feeling compelled to attend all sessions or every meeting.

Continuous Improvement and Innovation

I deliberately adopted the processes of Continuous Improvement and Innovation (Clark et al, 2001) toward the end of the project to enhance group function. The range of issues that groups are covering demands a farming systems approach. An example is the transformation of one group, which had been relatively inactive, to now having shared focus, shared responsibilities and a specific plan for actions to meet their needs

The six steps of the better practices process were facilitated in a group tackling wheat protein. Some members of the group started a meeting with observing (step 5) the generally low protein levels of the past two seasons and asking why there were poor results. They conducted a brief survey between neighbours to observe that one producer using a long pasture rotation had higher protein than more intensive cereal croppers. They explored the differences between protein on different properties and paddocks to try and see what was making a difference to protein levels. This led to new questions and some ideas (step 6) about how to manage protein. This led on to developing the protein systems map as a situation analysis (step 1) to highlight the complexity of the interacting factors. The compromises between practices that increase protein (eg long pasture phases) but are less profitable, and alternative practices that lead to lower protein (increased cereal intensity in rotation) need to be carefully weighed up and integrated with personal values which are also a factor in the final decision on which farming system is adopted.

Figure 2: The six better practices steps in relation to a farmer group focusing on wheat protein

The protein systems map was developed in about 40 minutes but without the repetitive process of examining every interaction possible for the combinations of factors on the map. Impact and influence (step2) was examined by a led discussion rather than a structured scoring process which takes time and looses people less interested in planning. The map provided the basis for planning (step 3) a series of farmer trials and investigations that members agreed to undertake this growing season. Taking action (step 4) involves setting up the demonstrations and monitoring these using TOPCROP paddock recording sheets. These comparisons are the focus for a series of field walks during the

season when some of the observations (step 5) will be made. As a supporting activity, each farmer in this group has selected two paddocks with expected high and low protein which is the focus for this year's TOPCROP monitoring.

The cycle will be repeated as observations from this season's demonstrations and paddock monitoring are collated and discussed, conclusions made and new questions asked.

Long term outcomes

There are several outcomes of the Mallee Information Exchange that illustrate contemporary extension as a powerful vehicle for regional change. Reducing government extension requires greater independence in information gathering and management.

The project has built social capital through involving members from 50 farm businesses in effective groups exposing all members to and developing skills in group management and function. A leadership skills workshop was developed for leaders from these groups. The benefits of the workshop were seen within days as the leaders ran their own group meetings implementing new skills. The groups are now able to focus themselves for concentrating on what really makes a difference. They are able to articulate local priorities to attract interest from outside experts, even from interstate. Groups that failed to focus are no longer operating.

One feature of the groups is the desire to include as many producers as possible in the activities of the group. Concessions are made for people with limited literacy or are not in the forefront of technology. Timing of events is tailored to fit in with school bus runs. Groups do not insist on membership for participation, activities are open to anyone who wishes to attend. Some groups have a communication plan publicising their meetings and the outputs of their activities to encourage members from the wider community to participate. Women are actively sought to add depth to the discussions and for their complementary skills. Women are becoming even more involved with farming businesses as record keeping is increasing for the new tax system and for Quality Assurance programs. They have a keen desire to learn more about the operational aspects of the farming system.

Local learning events are arranged by local people. An example is a grain marketing workshop with national calibre speakers being invited to the local community and making the event open. Outside experts are invited to visit the area for on farm discussions and farmer meetings.

With the skills developed in the local learning groups producers are being sought for regional and state committees. While the representation is beneficial to the local area, it is frustrating at times when the energy of local talent is taken from the community.

Producers note that they are gaining confidence to share experiences in open groups, including their failures. They are gaining confidence to seek information independently from extensive sources but there is still some need for skills in interpreting information from unrelated areas. They are approaching complex issues in a more systematic and focused manner. A better understanding of monitoring and benchmarking allows them to be more certain of what is making a difference. There is a good integration of research, extension and development as producers increase their confidence to make observations, articulate these in discussions with researchers and other producers and form partnerships to tackle issues at a local level. New technologies, such as liquid phosphorous fertilizers, are being tested confidently by local producers.

The Mallee Information Project has created four active groups in the WA mallee areas that will continue to develop farming systems for their area and foster positive regional change.


  1. Farrington J and Nelson J (1997) Using logframes to monitor and review farmer participatory research, Agricultural Research and Extension Network, network paper No. 73.
  2. Clark R et al, (2001) Achieving and enabling continuous improvement and innovation, Proc. 10th Australian Agronomy Conference.

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