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Participatory processes change farming practices to meet market requirements

Peter Tonello1, Joe.Visini1, Claudio Defaveri1, Brett Weeden2 and Trevor McAndrew3.

1Principal Development Extension Agronomist, Development Agronomist, Scientific Assistant, Department of Primary Industries, PO Box 1054, Mareeba, Queensland, 4880, Australia.
Agronomist, Department of Primary Industries, PO Box 174, Mareeba, Queensland, 4880, Australia
Senior Field Adviser, TGT Pty. Ltd. PO Box 171, Mareeba, Queensland, 4880, Australia.


The introduction of the Tobacco Industry Stabilisation Plan in 1965 contributed significantly to the economic development of tobacco producing areas of Queensland and Victoria.

With the end of the stabilisation scheme in 1995-96, there was increased pressure on the industry to adjust to meet the manufacturers’ requirements, for lighter styled, more flavoured product. During industry stabilisation the market actively encouraged the production of mahogany tobacco and penalised light, bright (lemon) tobacco. Therefore, changes in the market requirements would require producers to change management practices developed during the previous 15 years.

Tobacco is sold on physical attributes. Producers were well aware that changing management practice could severely impact on physical appearance and thus their financial returns. Lack of confidence in the future of the industry was also having a significant impact on the individual's willingness to change. Therefore, not only did new technologies have to be developed and evaluated, producers had to be confident that new practices worked and the market would reward them. This required changes in attitude, perception and farming practices.

For the north Queensland crop success of the program would be measured against some key performance indicators. These were a reduction in total alkaloid levels, measured as a percentage decrease in the run of crop total alkaloid figures, and an improvement in the physical appearance of the crop, measured as the total crop grade-fallout and price at auction.

This program aimed to engender a culture of continuous improvement within the tobacco growing industry to develop, evaluate and promote the adoption of best practices aimed meeting market requirements.


Historically, changing farming practices was dependent on persuading people of the economic value of adopting this new technology. Widespread adoption was dependent on the repetition of the information, the adoption by influential producers and the diffusion from these farmers to the rest of the farming community. This linear diffusion model was similar to that described by Rogers (1962).

With reductions in extension services, farmer discussion groups were initially formed in 1976 to enhance communication within the Mareeba-Dimbulah Irrigation Area (MDIA) of Queensland. Because producers were located in a single geographic area, knew each other well and in many cases had a common heritage (Italian), the tobacco industry was considered ideally suited to the formation of discussion groups.

Then, in the mid-1980’s the groups increased in number and underwent a metamorphosis. In part this was brought on by the increasing complexity of problems the producers faced. The emphasis changed from teaching to learning. Participants become active learners rather than passive receivers of information. The groups were kept small (<10 producers) to allow all participants a chance to contribute and have their say (Tonello and Pregno, 1990).

Although, the participatory processes adopted to date proved successful it was considered that because of the complexity of the issue and the urgency to meet new market requirements they may not achieve the necessary changes to farming practices in the limited time frame.

Part of the problem is the human factor. People usually undertake some form of action which they find rewarding and regard as meaningful, Tonello, et al (1995). Lack of confidence in the future of the industry, perceived manufacturer’s intentions and an acute awareness of high risk of producing low valued tobacco significantly impacted on the individual’s willingness to change. In this environment growers had to arrive at an acceptance of new market requirements. The best strategy was to encourage incremental changes, which did not severely impact on grower returns but gave individuals ownership of the issue and confidence in developing an attitude of continuous improvement. This required the development of sound working partnerships and active participation of all stakeholders in the technology transfer process.

A ‘best practices and continuous improvement’ program (Figure 1) commenced in 1996-97 and continued for four years. Through industry consultation and a participatory action research approach, industry 'best practices' were developed, evaluated and promoted. At the start of the program a ‘best practices’ manual outlining recommended practices based on current knowledge was prepared, issued to all growers and discussed at shed meetings. Then as new practices were evaluated the updated findings were demonstrated to other producers during field walks and discussed at farmer groups shed meetings. The revised ‘best practices’ and other news were also published in a bimonthly newsletter called ‘Tobacco News’.

Figure 1. Participatory model for changing farming practices.

Benchmarking using a stratified sample of 40 producers was introduced mid-way through the second year of the program when it became evident that market failure in identifying and rewarding styles with correct chemistry was having a significant impact on individual's willingness to change. The benchmarking process was extended to the whole industry in the third year when all farms and crops were tagged.

The Benchmarking aimed to give participating individuals ownership of the problem, it would also allow individual’s and industry to measure progress towards set targets prior to the commencement of the next crop. It also was used to determine what other factors could be contributing to the quality problems.

Consultation. The use of an ‘Industry Consultative’ group, the formation of a producers ‘Focus’ group and the use of ‘Farmer Discussion’ groups facilitated consultation. The ‘Industry Consultative’ group contained members from research, extension, industry, the funding body and domestic manufacturers, met annually to prioritise research and extension strategies.

A group of 18 producers formed a ‘Focus Group’ to help us develop management strategies for evaluation. All members of the group had been receiving high prices and we hoped that they would encourage other producers in their area to change their practices. . The group meet for the first time at the end of the second year and developed strategies for industry wide evaluation during the third year of the program. The main processes used to develop these strategies included ‘problem census’ and ‘force field analysis’ (McIntosh, 1997). During subsequent meetings the group reviewed progress towards meeting targets and developed new strategies for evaluation and adoption in the final year.

Appreciation of market requirements and improve networking with industry stakeholders was further achieved by regular attendance at auction. The commercial performance of various technologies was evaluated at auction and then demonstrated to other producers. This forum allows for good consultation and interaction with growers and open discussion with processors.

The farmer discussion groups are extremely important in developing the culture of continuous improvement. Cooperators for developing and evaluating beneficial technologies come from within these groups. The farmer discussion groups met at the start of the season to reflect on the previous year’s findings and to plan the next season’s action plan. The group then met three times on the cooperators farms during crop growth. It was hoped that this approach would ‘fast-track’ the development and adoption of new practices.

The action research approach involved establishing good rapport with cooperators, discussing management options, helping implement agreed practices, reviewing and demonstrating progress to other farmer group members and evaluating response with all stakeholders in the industry. Generally the program altered practices on a significant portion of the cooperators crop on 10 to 20 properties in any season. This set up a ‘with’ and ‘without’ comparison allowing real time evaluation of altered farming practices.

Results and discussion

Performance indicators

Crop Performance. In the first two years of the program fear of producing off-type tobacco while the market continued to reward high alkaloid tobacco significantly impeded the adoption of new farming practices. In addition some individuals that lowered nitrogen levels without adjusting other management practices performed poorly at auction. This served to justify many growers’ attitude that industry targets were unachievable.

The adoption of the ‘Benchmarking’ program mid way through the second year of the program was extremely useful in creating awareness of not only the magnitude of the problem, but also an insight into the contributory effects of management and environmental factors. Just as importantly it gave participating individuals ownership of the problem. Instead of relying on price as sole determinant of quality, individual growers were able to benchmark their farming practices and measure their progressive improvement in product quality.

Figure 2. Auction prices from 1997-2001 for north Queensland

Overall the program has significantly improved auction price (Figure 2) and grade fallout (Figure 3). The average price for the north Queensland crop is significantly higher now than the 580 cents per kg mid-pin price anticipated had the crop not improved. The grade fallouts show an increase in the percentage of the crop falling into desirable indicator grades. The desirable group consists of grades indicative of the lighter style tobacco demanded by the market. Using 1996 as the benchmark (fallout prior to the start of the program) the desirable indicator group grades show a six-fold improvement over the four years while the percentage of tobacco falling into the poor or undesirable grades declined by a similar amount. The results from the 2001 sales show that the gains have continued beyond the life of the program.

Figure 3. Percentage of north Queensland crop falling into the desirable indicator and
poor grade groups from 1996-2001.

The run of crop total alkaloids levels show a significant reduction over the last two seasons to reach industry targets of a 30 percent reduction of the four years. The reduction was greater in the benchmark group than that in the 'other' farms (Figure 4). Individuals in the benchmark group who had regular contact with the team adopted new practices earlier. This is similar to the findings of Fell and Oliver (1979).

Figure 4. Change in run-of-crop total alkaloid percentage for benchmark, other and
overall groups from 1998-2000.

Best Practices

During the life of the program a range of management practices was evaluated as a means of optimising product quality. Alternative irrigation programs were developed for different planting times. Rate, timing and methods of nitrogen application were evaluated and shown to have an important part to play in reducing nitrogen applications and thus total alkaloids. Harvesting time and topping time could also be manipulated to improve product quality.

The widespread adoption of the new curing regime within the first two years has helped improve cured leaf quality. The program has determined the optimum storage conditions for tobacco and identified that that most on-farm storage conditions are below optimum. The north Queensland crop is held in storage for too long and efforts were made to change selling dates to allow earlier purchase and processing of the product.

The benchmarking exercise showed that besides high nitrogen levels other factors, such as variety, planting time and soil type were found to be contributing to the quality problems. By the end of the program in excess of 70 percent of the crop was being planted earlier. These early planting’s, were however prone to severe erosion that required the development of minimum tillage practices. By the final year a controlled traffic technique involving chemical ploughing, strip tillage and raised beds had been developed for commercial adoption.

Participatory Processes

The dynamic nature of the project, in which technologies were continually changed and new benchmarks established, required a need to remain flexible in thinking and action as new issues relating to both the content and process emerged with each step. This participatory approach increased learning by giving participants a feeling of ownership of information thereby facilitating the adoption of beneficial practices. The involvement of key people from all stakeholder organisations minimised the delivery of conflicting advice. Daniels and Chamala (1989) had found that unless all key people are involved they can act as information gatekeepers (passing on only part of the information).

Revans (1984) described action learning as a process where groups of people work on real problems, carrying real responsibilities in real conditions. Hamilton (1995) also stated that solutions to real and increasingly complex issues would only occur if we work with people on their problems. The complexity of the problem required a systems perspective to allow a common language and goals to be established. Rling (1994) suggested that in this type of system thinking, people are the central core and ‘ the objective is not to predict and control, but to stimulate, self reliance, discourse and learning’. This allowed a critical thinking to develop where assumptions, belief and values are challenged and solutions are more likely to emerge.

The main assumption in this study, which did not follow the conventional science model, was that if the combination of new practices improved product quality, then the remainder of the farms in the MDIA could adopt the practices. Although this strategy had a high risk with the failure of one practice within the group of practices adversely affect the final result, the rewards for success were potentially great in terms of developing, testing and extending beneficial practices in a short time frame.

This soft system methodology had been used successfully in two earlier studies. The first time was in a program that looked at improving irrigation efficiency (Tonello, et al, 1993). The investigation used commercial-size planting's on 50 farms. Prior to this program fifty percent of the systems had sub-optimal distribution patterns, resulting in nutrient leaching and uneven crop development.

The participatory approach was further developed using ‘model farms’ and farmer discussion groups within the MDIA to develop, evaluate and ‘fast-track’ beneficial technologies into commercial practice (Tonello, et al, 1995). The group comprised fifteen farmers, three of whom were selected from each of the five farmer discussion groups operating at the time. One of the three farmers from each of the discussion groups was selected as the ‘model’ farm on which the proposed technologies were implemented. The remaining two farms (monitors) in each group were used to evaluate whether the ‘model’ farms performed more efficiently than farms with no interventions.

Although we facilitated the ’Focus’ group meetings we limited our input to outlining what progress had been made in achieving the set targets. By the end of the third year, focus group members often led discussion at farmer group meetings, set-up informal ‘self-help’ groups and acted as mentors for growers in their own geographical areas.

The reality is that most farms are family business where diversity in regard to economic, cultural, emotional and social factors influence attitudes, behaviour and thus decision making. Reliance on economic factors alone is not enough if we want farming practices to change. Therefore, we tended to spend a lot of time discussing various options with the farmer group members. The action research approach required a genuine commitment and preparedness by the team members to put it ‘on the line’ and a willingness by participants to accept and value others’ opinions when arriving at a consensus. This built up confidence and creditability, a most important factor in the adoption of farming practices.

Similar to Carr (1975), our study found that farmer discussion groups provided a venue for people to become aware of new ideas in a non-threatening situation while gaining from each other’s experiences. The level of discussion, problem solving and learning was improved when the data was systematically organised. A common understanding of the problem is critical to the achievement of the objectives by the group. Tully (1964) stated that this interdependency and interaction is the basic mechanism of change leading to new values, beliefs and attitudes..

Groups should meet on-farm rather than away from the participants own environment. The on-farm meetings also allowed participants to obtain hands-on experience of any new technology. It was found that producers in the same locality have a closer bond.

The strategy of encouraging incremental changes based on adopting peer proven practices gave individuals confidence in developing an attitude of continuous improvement. Initially some growers made the changes while others observed their performance in the field and at auction. Growers who made the initial changes then adopted new practices’ while the observers started with their small changes. This is another reason why the adoption of best practices outside the benchmark group was slower.


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