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Contemporary farm forestry extension or farm forestry temporarily extended?

Peter Stephen and Rowan Reid

The Department of Forestry, University of Melbourne


Farm forestry is an extremely complex social, environmental and economic ‘innovation’ that potentially has much to offer in the way of public and private outcomes. Since the release of the ‘2020 Vision’ in 1997, an industry driven framework to development and extension has been persuasive.

This framework is now being reviewed with a greater emphasis on regional and community development issues.

This paper reviews the impact that an industry driven framework has had on farm forestry extension and considers the expanding role for farm forestry extension under a broader rural development model.

Past farm forestry extension frameworks

Since the release of the ‘2020 Vision’ in 1997 (Ministerial Council on Forestry, Fisheries and Aquaculture et al. 1997) farm forestry extension services have been operating in an industry driven framework with the target of trebling Australia’s plantation resource on cleared agricultural land. The aim is to establish a “regulatory, cultural and economic environment conducive to plantation expansion’ (Stanton 1999) in an effort to develop an international competitive plantation industry that is “market drive and market focussed”. State governments (for example, Private Forestry Council 1998) and regional plantation promotional material (for example, Green Triangle Regional Plantation Committee 1998), philosophies and policy have mimicked the national industry target of ‘trebling the plantation area by 2020’. The trade off for those rural communities effected by this expansion is the promise of rural development through jobs and an expectation of greater returns from agricultural lands. Extension is clearly an instrument to enact government policy (Vanclay and Lawrence 1994 and Coutts 1995) and in this case to achieve an industry aim.

These simple, clear, unambiguous and apparently non-negotiable industry targets have seen an emphasis on the removal of the apparent impediments to plantation expansion (Alexandra and Hall 1996, Curtis and Race 1996 and Black et al. 2000). One of the impediments often cited is the ‘lack of a farm forestry culture among farmers’ (Alexandra and Hall 1996 and Black et al. 2000). Implicit in this suggestion are assumptions that clearly illustrate the weaknesses in the broader appreciation of what contemporary extension is about.

Assumption 1: Farmers are a homogenous group in which all will equally respond to pressures in an equal manner. Nothing could be further from the truth (Vanlcay 1992).

Assumption 2: Farming systems and cultures can be quickly transformed to a predetermined end point. In the most extreme cases this may be possible (Pannell 1999a), but in the present agricultural climate, unlikely. More importantly it raises some very real ethical issues for a democratic society where some sections of the society are dictating change to others in order to achieve their desirable outcome. (This issue has been discussed in relation to extension by Roling (1988), Hannibal and Sriskandarajah (1992), Marsh and Pannell (1998), Pannell (2000) and Stantiall and Paine (2000).

Assumption 3: There is no previous ‘culture’ or knowledge about tree growing or management for commercial reasons within our rural communities. Another fallacy that ignores the mass of subtle knowledge that has built up within our rural communities. Routinely there will be over 250 years experience in forestry, farm forestry and revegetation from a group of 20 or so farmers participating in the Australian Master TreeGrower Program (Stephen and Reid 2001, this conference).

Assumption 4: This is the first time ‘we’ have tried to build up a ‘farm forestry culture’. This again ignores almost 40 years of farm forestry promotion which brings with it its own baggage of failures, ill-promoted trends and poor advice that farmers and landholders can still remember and are still managing. Unfortunately those suggesting the lack of a ‘farm forestry culture’ as an impediment seem to have forgotten that past promotional failures by their own department or organisation may be a reason for this perceived impediment.

Assumption 5: Farm forestry is the ‘end’ point. Farm forestry should in fact only be seen as a ‘means to an end’, as it is just one of many land and business management tools that could be used to develop sustainable rural livelihoods (the ‘end point’). If farm forestry is the ‘end’ point then the social, economic and environmental context in which landholders operate in is ignored and therefore the full potential for farm forestry can never be realized.

‘Barriers to adoption’ and ‘technology transfer’ extension paradigms have been repeatedly criticized by Geber (1992), Lanyon (1994), Vanclay and Lawrence (1994 and 1995), Ison et al. (1997) and Farrington (1998). But still ‘barriers to adoption’, ‘lack of a farm forestry culture’, ‘early adopters’, those that ‘have not yet adopted’, and simply ‘disseminating reliable information’ to ‘facilitate the successful adoption of agroforestry’ pervade even the most recent farm forestry extension literature (Black et al. 2000). Related to this is also the perceived requirement by those formulating farm forestry extension, research and policy strategies to simplify the apparent complexity of forestry by suggesting that it is possible to identify a small set of ‘best-bets’ that will be appropriate for most landholders (Reid and Stephen 1999) which are then promoted on inherently optimistic economic forecasts (Dole 1993, Ferguson 1995 and Reid and Stephen 2000). This simplicity allows the farm forestry innovation to be easily portrayed as a discrete commercial innovation or ‘add on’ technology that requires little modification to farm procedures (Vanclay and Lawrence 1994).

The simplicity in the over arching frameworks in which farm forestry extension services must operate, unfortunately does not match the social, environmental and economic complexity that makes up farm forestry (Vanclay and Lawrence 1994 and 1995, Barr 1999, Pannell 1998, Pannell 1999a and b, Black 1999).

What is the current approach to farm forestry extension at the ‘coal face’?

A head-down, bum-up approach to getting extension done. There has been little time for reflection as there has been money to spend, targets to achieve, impediments to remove and the reluctance of farmers to change (Black et al. 2000). It is easy to be critical of farm forestry extension approaches as most efforts are measured against industry and government targets. In Victoria, to date all farm forestry achievements are measured against the Private Forestry Strategy of trebling the plantation estate and the stated achievements read like a transfer of technology tool box; number of meetings attended, number of field days held, number of trees planted, number of inquires attended to, number of sites planted with government assistance, number of media presentations and so on (Private Forestry Unit 2000 and Black et al. 2000).

However at the practitioner level there is also a muddiness, confusion and a slightly schizophrenic approach to farm forestry extension. On the one hand there are strict industry and government targets to be met through simply ‘transferring technology’, but there is also a very real concern by some farm forestry extension practioners about the simplicity in the extension messages and the perception that farm forestry extension is being ‘used’ to achieve goals that ultimately may be counter-productive to their ‘clients’. But it is from these concerns and muddiness some very innovative and exciting developments in farm forestry extension have developed. Some of the more independent farm forestry and agroforestry networks, some of the grower initiated marketing groups, the Australian Master TreeGrower program and some wonderful and committed individuals are making a concerted effort towards human development paradigms of extension (Black et al. 2000). Ideas around farm forestry for rural development are now being discussed.

This dichotomy in approaches is also clearly evident in the debate over the definition of farm forestry and reflects broader extension approaches and attitudes. Those that argue farm forestry is simply “commercial tree growing (of all types and scales) on private land, including management of plantations and native forests and their integration with farming systems” (Private Forestry Council 2001) generally view extension as a persuasive communication process to transfer information and knowledge about the commercial wood/agricultural innovation. There are strong links to the transfer of technology paradigm, in which extension is seen as an intervention through the communication of information and raising awareness. (But as Vanlcay (1992) convincingly argues raising awareness does not necessarily lead to the required changes in management). Voluntary change is up-front and abrupt, either farmers choose to adopt the prescribed recommendations or they do not and as such the intervention into the farming subculture is short and shallow.

At the other extreme are those that seek an active role in voluntary change and define farm forestry as “the commitment of resources by farmers, alone or in partnership to the establishment and management of forests on their land” (Reid and Stephen 1999). The emphasis is now on supporting farmers to ensure their decisions and commitment are appropriate to their circumstances. Extension is now seen more in the sphere of adult learning and empowerment of farmers and communities to a point where they can articulate, design and implement forestry practices that best meet their own needs (Byron 1997). Voluntary change is subtler and influenced through the learning process and the farmer’s knowledge environment. As such, extension as an intervention could well be argued as being more manipulative as the issue is not what to think or learn, but ways to improve learning and thinking (van den Ban 1999). The extension intervention is deeper, more complex, but ultimately more successful in terms of changes to land and business managerial skills.

In reality the extension tools and methods used by both philosophies are similar, but there are very different expectations of the role of farm forestry in the rural community.

Unfortunately there has been relatively little debate about farm forestry extension (other than the definition of farm forestry) as a deliberate intervention to induce change in farming systems, particularly where change is directly linked to industry targets which often run counter to the farming communities ideas for their development. As mentioned there has been little time for debate and reflection, but the ‘farm forestry extension profession’ (if there is such a thing) is also still relatively new, generally based on younger, technologically proficient personal that do not readily overlap with other extension sectors (Vanclay and Lawrence 1995). There is also a naivety related to trees, ‘trees are good, we’re involved with trees, we must be doing the right thing for farmers’.

A changing farm forestry framework

In several regions of Australia, most notably south-west Western Australia, the green triangle of Victoria and South Australia and Tasmania, industry targets required to achieve ‘the’ vision have been well and truly exceeded. Plantation development in these regions has been rapid and all encompassing. But this rapid expansion has also been met with considerable community disquiet (Petheram et al. 2000 and Schirmer 2000) as the change in the rural landscape has not produced equitable and positive benefits to all. Those that view extension as a learning and empowerment process viewed this result as inevitable and have been arguing for a shift in focus in farm forestry development and extension for some time now (Reid and Stephen 2000).

Consequently the national ‘2020 Vision’ (Stanton 2001) and Victorian farm forestry strategy (Private Forestry Council 2001) are being reviewed. In Victoria the revised vision for private forestry is to “make a significant contribution to the growth and of a multifaceted and dynamic forest and forest products industry with economic, social and environmental benefits for all Victorians”. The new strategy sees a significant shift in emphasis from the 1998 industry development strategy (Private Forestry Council 1998) to a more balanced view of forestry’s role. There is an acknowledgement that the scale of development will be dependent on the decisions of the appropriate stakeholders and prevailing market forces and that regional and community development through farm forestry are important outcomes.

There are many reasons for the revision of the Victorian strategy, one of which was the change in government. But extension practitioners have also been important in influencing, defining and facilitating this new strategy, which is a simple but important new role. The previous framework was simply imposed and extension was meant to occur within the defined boundaries. The current consultative review process has acknowledged the broader political role of extension, other than simply facilitating the exchange of and access to information (Coutts 2000).

However as Coutts (2000) states, “Just as extension moves forward it becomes entangled in its baggage and is drawn back into its traditional roles”. Extension officers have demanded a greater recognition of the role of farm forestry in rural and regional development and the over arching strategy has responded to this, but does farm forestry extension have the skills, knowledge and commitment to genuine rural development? Or will farm forestry extension slip back into the old transfer of technology paradigm?

Farm forestry as a tool for rural development

Traditional thinking of rural development through farm forestry meant jobs; 40,000 to be precise and a promised 20 percent increase in farm incomes to ‘revitalise rural communities’ (Ministerial Council on Forestry, Fisheries and Aquaculture 1997). Studies are often cited to illustrate how beneficial this development could be (Dwyer 1995) suggesting the process is simple; ‘you’ (the farmer) plants trees, ‘we’ (the plantation developers) bring jobs. But unfortunately it is more complex than this and extension therefore has a more complex and demanding role to play if farm forestry is going to contribute to ‘regional and community development’ through social, economic and environmental benefits (the triple bottom line).

Terms such as development, rural development and economic development come with their own baggage and debates and there has been a plethora of literature devoted to these subjects (Todaro 1994 and Meier 1995). But there are some very important issues for farm forestry extension. Furze et al. (1996) focuses rural development within the realm of local level development1 by stating local level development is:

  • Based on understanding the nature of rural society and change within that society;
  • Incorporates local people into decisions concerning their own futures (that is the facilitation of participatory rural development); and
  • Is at the heart of issues of access to social and economic equity.

The emphasis here is on development by local people for local people as local people have knowledge, experiences and in-sights that are legitimate and are therefore legitimate partners in any development process (Chambers 1983). But this is not solely a ‘bottom-up or ‘farmer alone’ approach. The ideas espoused by Furze et al. (1996) and his conclusion that development needs to be a ‘creative relationship between local people and so-called development experts’ (farm forestry extension officers?) is an important consideration. Rural development is a complex web of interactions both positive and negative over a number of linked sectors. The ‘sustainable livelihoods approach’ (Carney 1999 and Department of International Development 1999) acknowledges this and considers rural development only achievable if external support works with rural people in a way that is compatible with their existing livelihood strategies and their ability to adapt. Farm forestry extension may therefore consist of and be involved in:

  • Investigating the context in which (different groups of) rural people live, including the effects upon them of external trends (economic, technological, political etc), shocks (natural or man-made) and seasonaility;
  • Their access to physical, human, financial, natural and in particular social capital and their ability to put these to productive use;
  • The institutions, policies and organisations which shape their livelihoods; and
  • The different strategies they adopt in pursuit of their goals (Carney 1999)

Challenging, but exciting areas of development for farm forestry extension. The ideas of social capital2 and rural development are only now being discussed in relation to natural resource management (Krockengerger et al. 2001). Landholders when making a farm forestry decision do it with a limited data set, in an environment of imperfect, incomplete and secretive markets (Meynink 1996), with ill-defined property rights and high transaction costs (Landell-Mills 1999). A concerted effort to increase social capital in rural communities will help in lowering transaction costs and will promote the transfer of knowledge and skills throughout the community (Dole 1993 and Pannell 1998) leading to a more productive and economically viable community (Putamn 1993). Increasing social capital means promoting people as members of a society and that goals for rural development are shared goals that are achieved through a process of engagement and productive compromise.

Farm forestry extension most definitely has a role in rural development, as extension is about development, but development is also about people (Duvell 1995). As Carney (1999) stated: “The goal is to learn from them about the often highly varied activities they undertake to sustain their livelihoods and to identify the most pressing constraints and most promising opportunities, regardless of where (i.e. in which sector or geographical space) these occur”. Farm forestry now becomes a tool for rural development and the role for extension is to facilitate the use of the tool in allowing communities to determine their own destiny.


Farm forestry extension by the very nature of farm forestry is complicated, difficult and full of contradictions. Unfortunately the simple frameworks in place have promoted and relied upon outdated modes of extension to deal with this perceived complexity. But within these frameworks there have also been some very innovative approaches and enthusiastic extension officers and farmers continually considering ways to improve the learning process and building the knowledge base. This development has lead to exciting changes in the Victorian (and hopefully national) farm forestry strategy that will require new and innovative techniques and processes to explore issues of rural development through the use of trees.

The fear is that farm forestry extension will become ‘entangled in its baggage’ as the complexity of the issues increase. Rural development is far more than agricultural development (Schutjer 1991) and it would be a missed opportunity if farm forestry extension simply reverted to simple awareness raising statements about a production technology and considered this rural development. There is still much to debate and consider about the actualities of ‘on-ground’ extension work. But as extension and farm forestry evolve so will farm forestry extension.

The challenge now is to make sure the ‘head-down, bum-up’ approach to getting on and doing extension is occasional broken and heads lifted to ensure the direction taken is relevant to the communities we are working with and for. Otherwise farm forestry extension will become just as another irrelevance in the farming and rural landscape.


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1 Furze et al. (1996) has deliberately uses the term local level development to avoided using the confusing term ‘community’ generally associated with homogeny and harmony (Kenny 1999).

2 Social capital is defined as “the rules, norms, obligations, reciprocity and trust embedded in social relations, social structures and society’s institutional arrangements which enables its members to achieve their individual and community objectives” (Nayan 1997 and Putamn1993). The ACF in (Krockengerger et al. 2001) suggested social capital would be measured in ‘trust, community involvement in decision-making and a high level of voluntary association’.

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