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Farmer driven innovation – the backbone of the SGSL Producer Network

Justin Hardy1, John Paul Collins2, Arjen Ryder1 and Jessica Johns2

1 Department of Agriculture, 444 Albany Highway, Albany, WA, 6330,;
Department of Agriculture, 10 Dore St, Katanning, WA, 6317,


This paper reflects on the methods, outcomes and learnings of the participatory research and development project - the Sustainable Grazing on Saline Lands (SGSL) Producer Network project in Western Australia. SGSL is a five-year national project funded by Australian Wool Innovation Ltd. and Land and Water Australia with completion planned for December 2006. Additional partners include Meat and Livestock Australia, the CRC for Plant Based Management of Dryland Salinity, the WA Department of Agriculture, the WA Chemistry Centre and the Saltland Pastures Association Inc. In WA, there are currently 61 grower groups undertaking 69 on-farm trials each of whom are researching ways to increase the profitability of the use of salt and waterlogging affected land through enhancing livestock production. The grower groups represent a significant proportion of the Wheatbelt. They range from sites near Mullewa in the north to others near Jerdacuttup in the southeast.

The process has involved all key stakeholders mentioned, including the farmers, scientists and extension officers. All partners were able to participate in the process, from the overall program planning, the specific farm trial designs, measurement procedures and implementation, results, interpretation and extension. Through trial and error combined with access to technical support and resources the majority of these groups have been able to establish a range of pasture species from saltbush to sub-tropical perennial grasses on what was previously degraded and unproductive land. There have been benefits to the livestock enterprises of the growers involved through strategic autumn grazing and deferral of winter pastures. The process has also enlightened participating growers as to the process of developing and working with research protocols. An important achievement has been the overall sense of satisfaction and pride for producers as a result of improving their degraded and unattractive paddocks.

Three key learnings: (1) Farmers learn best from visual mediums – particularly from other farmers (their successes and failures); (2) Farmers gain greater learning from presenting their own results; (3) Researchers and extension specialists have a greater appreciation on issues of integrating their research findings into farming systems.


Learning; host farmers; participatory; sustainable; agriculture


The Sustainable Grazing on Saline Lands (SGSL) program resembles the Sustainable Grazing Systems (SGS) Regional Producer Network program that also functioned across the southern state of Australia (1996 – 2001). The SGS Regional Producer Network was an attempt to put emerging extension theories of the mid-1990s (Webber & Ison, 1995) into practice. The strongest underlying element at this time was participation by all stakeholders. This focus was realized and the interactive participatory processes underpinned and contributed to the success of the program (Simpson et al, 2003).

Simpson et al (2003) explores the trend in awareness that the “trickle down” approach was not always appropriate to achieve widespread change in farming practices, especially for complex agricultural issues such as sustainable grazing management. They document the rationale (Roling (1992), Jiggins (1993) and Pretty (1995) that shaped the participatory methodology in the SGS Regional Producer Network – “to join the power of organized science to farmers knowledge and experience in ways that strengthened a community’s capacity to experiment and innovate” (Simpson et al 2003, pp 674).

SGSL resulted from a planning process that included a survey of woolgrowers relating to NRM carried out by Land and Water Australia on behalf of the funding bodies. This was followed by a broad proposal for action in NRM research (called Land Water and Wool) that included a focus on saltland however a round of consultations next took place in each state to ‘sure-up’ what was to become the national SGSL program. This SGSL program resulted in three key outcomes and 3 broad streams of activity, one of which is the Grower Network, the subject of this paper (Figure 1). SGSL is an ambitious project when considered at a national scale with its aims to test and disseminate information on current best-bet options for saline land that have neutral or positive environmental impacts. A critical element of the SGSL research is the links with, and participation of farmers. Core research is located on commercial farms and there is involvement of local advisory groups and strong links with a national network of 120 farmer-initiated and run projects testing locally relevant options for managing their saline land (Edwards et al. 2005).

Figure 1. The strategic intent of the SGSL program at a national level and the importance of the grower network component (Source Mason, 2002).

Participation in this project is working well because the on ground results of the saltland treatments tend to be so variable that farmers and specialists tend to be more open to understanding the reasons for the failures as much as the successes. In addition this participatory process has enhanced this part of the culture of extension in the Department of Agriculture. Another key factor is that the WA SGSL Producer Network committee has a strong empathy for the effectiveness of participatory learning style (see below). In addition the 5-year term of the project is allowing growers to trial things, reflect, adapt and try again over a number of seasons. So at the three key levels of activity (described below) there follows a process of action, reflection and celebration of the results whether positive or not. The impact of this attitude is best illustrated by the fact often the new growers to saltland pasture work feel reassured when they discovered that the results are comparable to everyone else (‘normal’) and by having the support and regular dialogue in the field from the experts.

SGSL Program in Western Australia

In WA the SGSL producer network project has a structure based around three key areas of activity and can best be described as a flow of communication. These include a strategic level (the funding body and SGSL Coordinating Committee); on-the-ground level (SGSL Producer Network includes demonstration host farmers and groups) and an operational & support level (SGSL Departmental Team, group support staff and specialists).

The SGSL WA Committee operates as a Board of Management and provides direction and critical thinking for the SGSL team. Membership of the Committee was determined, and the Committee met prior to any trials being established. Emphasis of membership was that the agricultural region was geographically represented and as such membership was determined by the NRM regional groups. The group also includes experienced agency and CSIRO staff members and the national SGSL Coordinator. Key organisations including the Saltland Pastures Association (SPA) and the Sheep Research Council are also represented. An independent Chairperson was appointed to ensure balance of perspectives and advice from research and producer representatives was managed.

Within the framework of the overall SGSL objectives, the Committee has articulated three guiding aims that influence their planning and investments:

  • to establish and support at least 60 producer trials;
  • that information and data gathered from these trials are credible and fit into a productive farming systems context; to support; and
  • nurturing of the sharing of knowledge and experience across the network of sites.

Having set these aims, the Committee quickly took on the challenge of delivering an outcome for WA woolgrowers with continued input from the National SGSL Coordinator and senior agency staff. The broad direction of the work plan for the project team is guided by recommendations made by the Committee, and that Committee members, are aware of issues and activities managed by the project team. Hassall and Associates undertook a mid term review of the national SGSL programme. This review recommended that an evaluation framework was needed to justify decisions made within the project and therefore the WA committee undertook to provide discipline to their intentions and decisions by applying them to a Bennett's Hierarchy (Bennett 1976). This framework enabled the Committee to develop realistic outcomes as well as articulate the verification of these outcomes, i.e. identifying those that can be attributed to the SGSL project. The process also identified the main audiences, priority activities (leading to a communication plan), critical items for verification and outcomes that result from several activities (Table 1).

Table 1. Bennett’s hierarchy of outcomes for SGSL project (visual overview and examples of outcomes required, i.e. does not show the means of verification)

Bennett’s hierarchy level

Host farmers and host groups

Other growers
with saline land

Technical advisers

$ Investors

SGSL project team and special friends

7.Social, environmental, economic






6.Practice, behaviour

40% of the 69 host farmers adopt, on a broader scale, the range of technologies trailed on own or other SGSL trial sites


Agribusiness / consultants use project information for clients (no)



5.Knowledge, attitude, skills, aspirations

50% of the host farmers have knowledge, skills, and confidence to adopt on a broader scale the range of technologies trailed on own or other SGSL trial sites

25% growers outside host groups are aware of SGSL project and research

Agribusiness / consultants use project information for clients (no)



4.Reactions, satisfaction

25% of members of 3 host groups have knowledge, skills, and confidence to adopt the range of technologies trailed on own host farmer site or other SGSL sites.

70% of growers attending SGSL events react positively to event

People / organisations that support the project with technical information (no)


Detail on request


Project team member makes contact with 80% of host farmers and group support people at least once every every 6 months

3 regionally based SGSL forums coordinated annually for all interested growers and others

Re-use / re-supply, initiate, on-going relationships with team




1 group level field walk coordinated per month for host farmer, host group and interested others

SGSL information/sites ‘piggy backed’ onto local non-SGSL days (related topics)

Deliver info at up-dates, invite consultants to forums & walks




FTEs, $$ for travel & equipment. Local NRMO

FTE, $$ travel & equipment. Local NRMO

FTE, $$ travel & equipment. Local NRMO



SGSL Producer Network and demonstration host farmers

The network comprises individual growers and their associated groups putting forward their ideas and resources in response to having a trial of their own and to “join the network” in Western Australia. As a result they are affiliated with a wider network across the WA agricultural area (69 sites from Mullewa to Jerdecuttup) and also part of a national network (approximately a further 51 sites in SA, NSW, Vic and Tas). The Producer Network is a real partnership with the individual growers involved and the individual members of the SGSL team. Over time lasting relationships form as the trial takes shape and measurements are collected and interpreted on an interactive basis. The process commences when the growers outline their trial objectives and develop the experimental design and measurements that is practical to their circumstance and provides meaningful data. As soon as physical site is planned the team facilitates the process of having the site characterised which is outlined in more detail in the methods section below. The intent behind the criteria for the producer network demonstrations is to enhance the three key aims of the project set by the SGSL committee. These criteria include;

  • Broader extension/network value of the project;
  • Farmer ownership;
  • Accessibility (e.g. near a road) and willingness;
  • Credibility as a speaker;
  • Monitoring of data is being done routinely;
  • Innovation and progress with implementation;
  • Gaining livestock data (current & potential).

SGSL Departmental team and specialists

The SGSL team consists of 3 full time equivalents that carry out the activities of the project on a day to day basis. These activities are broadly outlined in the methods section below. The team has general experience in natural resource management (NRM) encompassing sustainable farming systems. The team works closely with the host farmers, producer network groups and also locally employed staff, such as Community Landcare Officers (CLCs/NRMOs) associated with these groups. The SGSL team’s intent is to always work through these officers with whom they offer mentoring and training support. This ‘on-site’ training has proven invaluable. The team is responsible for the site characterization (soil, salinity and hydrology appraisals) to be completed and help facilitate other specialists as needed by the growers. They develop methods to empower the growers to carry out “user-friendly” site measurements and records. They assist with the interpretation of these results and organization of local field days, media and extension events. The team has the ability to adapt and evolve structures and processes and operates through an experiential learning process (Kolb, 1984). They are fortunate to have the freedom to make their own decisions and the trust of the SGSL committee on how to achieve their outcomes. The SGSL team developed two key tools to assist with the collection and storage of the information from the sites. The first was an on-site storage box (letterbox style) complete with rainfall gauge, water table monitoring tape, logbooks and pasture quadrate. The second was the web-based database (see methods).

Research and Development

Operating in parallel is the core research and is being undertaken by the CRC for Plant-Based Management of Dryland Salinity. The interaction between these researchers (specialists in plant ecology and breeding, livestock management and nutrition, hydrogeology, bio-diversity, and economics) and the producers has been a vital component of the producer network project. The combined interaction of all the various parties described in this section above exhibits type 6 participation (Pretty, 1995) where joint analysis is interdisciplinary, leading to new actions.


The SGSL committee “called for projects” from woolgrowers through advertising in the WA rural press. Respondents were provided with a simple application form to articulate their research idea and how they would like to go about exploring this including the amount of dollars they think they would require. The application was designed so that it was flexible yet with the requirement that the host farmer and group would be expected to record and document actions and results for sharing across the wider network. This call was done on four separate occasions over an eighteen-month period. On most occasions the proponents sought input and site visits from the SGSL team. The proposals were reviewed and approved by the Committee and the projects were then further developed with site visits and input from the SGSL team and other specialists in readiness for the trial’s start. At this point the appropriate and practical ways to measure the trials were also discussed and documented. The site storage box was given to the host farmer along with a paddock sign highlighting their trial objectives and contact details.

The trials were started generally involving the preparation and establishment of systems of salt and/or waterlogging tolerant pastures and/or shrubs. The establishment process that was undertaken in most cases using the farmers own infrastructure and machinery, however specialist contractors were also used on some sites. The characterization of all sites commenced. Firstly electromagnetic conductivity maps were produced following EM 38 and 31 surveys carried out using a 4WD motor bike. Secondly soil surveys were completed and the soil sampling included soils chemical analysis. Hydrological site appraisals were also carried out and this involved the siting and installation of shallow observation wells.

All host trial growers and groups have customized measurements that suit the objectives of their experiment. The process of developing and supporting these measurements has involved training sessions, negotiation and adaptation between the growers, the SGSL team and the researchers. Given the data collection is largely the responsibility of the growers the challenge in the development of the grower trial measurement procedures has been to encourage optimum participation verses the rigor and accuracy that is fundamental to the reduction orientated research. At the same time there has been the realization from all parties that the data needs to have a level of trustworthiness. This process has been an exciting part of the project as the growers have learnt about the processes and procedures driving good research. Conversely, the specialist researchers have developed a greater appreciation of the relevance of grower participation and the influence that this has on the adoption of new information into their farming systems.

Site information including maps, documents, photographs, site livestock (including grazing days, condition score and stock live weights), pasture (including composition, density, dry matter, and plant nutritional analysis) and other measurements are all transferred from the field visits and storage box to the web based data base. In keeping with the notion of sharing information across a national network of grower sites, the SGSL team worked closely with the national SGSL coordinator to develop this web based database. As well as this being used as a storage repository it is now being used for retrieving information from the national network of grower sites. There is also a theme based search function that is under-going further improvement based on direct feedback from growers.

Site “health checks” are incorporated into the planning and review processes of the SGSL team. The team follow an experimental learning cycle (Kolb, 1984) of planning, quarterly activities, observations and reflection, a similar approach that drives their work with the groups within the network itself. This has been for assessing the level of participation and ownership the host farmers have for their trials. It allows the team to plan and prioritize their activities around the needs of the trial host farmers and groups. It also allows the team to communicate progress to the Committee to check against the desired outcomes for the host farmers and host groups developed through the Bennett’s Hierarchy (table 2).

Action learning activities were used to strengthen and share the new and existing knowledge being gained from the trial data and grower experiences. This was also in keeping with the desired outcomes of the project for the host farmers and groups as well as the other growers with saline land developed through the Bennett’s Hierarchy (table 2). The key activities that the committee have invested in have been ‘grower and researcher’ forums held each year both centrally (Perth) and regionally. The SGSL committee and team preferably design events that enhance grower knowledge and understanding based on the principles of experimental learning (Kolb, 1984). These events have brought together all host farmers and associated group members and group support staff as well as other farmers with saline land and have also been open to the general public. In excess of 400 people (over 75% growers) have attended these events. These have been held in conjunction with other organizations, such as the Saltland Pastures Association Inc (SPA is a WA farmer interest group); the Salinity CRC and the local groups themselves have hosted these events when they were held in the regions.

The programs at these forums are designed to encourage growers to share knowledge from their experiences and have generally included field visits and growers presenting their own results. They have stimulated learning through interaction with specialist researchers. These events have helped identify gaps and opportunities for future research and have begun to create a vision for saltland beyond 2006 through the link to the SPA and the CRC. The evaluations after these events have indicated that the balance and interaction between growers and researchers and the experiential learning approach is right. Other techniques used include local field walks and bus tours, rural press/newsletter articles, radio interviews, displays at rural shows and participation in state and regional conferences such as the sheep up-dates and NRM events. In all situations the SGSL team focus presentations such as posters and talks with growers themselves talking or their work being profiled.

The final key element of the project is the supportive role of the SGSL committee towards the SGSL team. The committee has about six meetings a year and provides the strategic support and direction to the team, signing off on key activities without interfering with their operational activities. The Committee is clearly the responsible party for ensuring the expectations of the funding bodies are met and provide the overall interface for the project publicity.


Farmers learn best from visual mediums – particularly from other farmers (their successes and failures)

During it’s initial deliberations the SGSL committee articulated the concept of “farmers learning from farmers” must be an outcome of all project activities. As a result the targeted activities (see methods) have had a significant impact on achieving this key principle. The approach has been to use adult learning activities that allow farmers to hear and see from other farmers followed by systematic and informal processes of questioning and reflection. The project has created a spirit of co-operation, partnership and strengthened relationships between growers and support people involved. In addition all planned activities by the researchers and extension staff have been road tested for relevance with the participating growers. There has been a focus on practical field walks to collect data, short talks (sometimes in-doors) with discussions and local bus tours. Other helpful techniques include; photographs of successes and failures (before and after) of what others are doing and hands on activities such as the use of condition score models (feeling), sheep weighing, use of colour salinity maps, soil pits and piesometers, simple signage and regular case study type media articles. The national initiative of an SGSL photographic competition in 2005 also assisted in creating pride across the developing grower network and awareness of work in progress.

Farmers gain greater learning from presenting their own results

The SGSL committee has invested in six key grower and research forums held in the spring of 2003, 2004 & 2005. The forums featured the growers giving oral presentations of their own work and they were open to the general farming community as well. Also the entire host farmer network had their work presented through a display of posters at these events.

The notion of the farmers presenting their own work to other farmers (and researchers) and sharing their insights is a key factor that underpins the success of the project. The process of preparing, presenting and leading discussion is rewarding for the farmer and for the project as a whole, as it provides increased understanding, confidence and ultimately credibility to the speaker. Probably the best evidence of the impact of their involvement as presenters at the forums are seen when the trial host farmers are approached (by locals) to represent their material at other events, such as local field days and walks. In addition, anecdotal evidence has shown increased confidence in further improvements to their trials and adoption of similar treatments on other areas of their farms. The presentations are made along side those of the researchers (associated with the CRC for Plant Based Management of Dryland Salinity) and the resulting discussions are richer where the technologies are viewed in the farming systems context. This enhances the process of learning from the both perspectives, of the grower and researcher. The overall impact is also highly valued by the other forum participants (growers, extension and specialist staff). The event evaluation sheets summaries reflect the value of this balance (Hardy, 2003, 2004, & 2005).

In spring 2006 the Committee plan to schedule an ‘Open-Trial’ program across the producer network sites (style on the Open Garden scheme) to capitalize on the willingness of the host farmers to share their insights and understandings at a local level. This will be an opportunity for the researchers to contribute their results in an applied manner in the field. Finally it will also profile the overall trial within the local farming community so it continues to be used long after the SGSL program has stopped.

Researchers and extension specialists have a greater appreciation on issues of integrating their research findings into farming systems.

The benefits of the participatory approach and the action learning and research techniques described above have had other benefits. In particular via the forums the techniques have enhanced the researchers’ appreciation of the farming systems context, the farmers’ view on what works based on subjective judgement and decision-making processes. Likewise the farmers have a greater appreciation of the need for precise measurements and research procedures needed before clear messages are given. For instance interactions at the grower and research forum in 2005 resulted in the livestock theme researchers (CRC) identifying twelve of the grower network sites in strategic locations and with willing farmers. The livestock researchers have concluded that by providing some of their own technical support they can gain valuable additional live weight data (apart from the grazing days and condition scores that growers were recording).

The interaction has strengthened and created new relationships between researchers and growers. The researchers have been exposed to fresh topics and consensus on priorities, particularly useful as the CRC currently moves towards a second bid. Much of these experiential results will be clearer following the state and whole of program (national) evaluations that are underway.


The SGSL producer network project has reinvigorated interest in saltland pastures in WA through the creation of a wide spread and significant number of woolgrowers testing locally relevant options for managing their saline land. The further communication efforts triggered by the SGSL committee allow a large number of other growers to become involved, including a number that previously (past advocates) had experience in adapting saltland areas on their farms to productive management units. As a result there is now a unique opportunity for this strengthening network (bringing together old and new growers) to make a permanent impact towards changing the attitudes and management of saltland in the WA agricultural areas.

The WA SGSL producer network structure has created a learning environment that focuses on problem solving, that is interactive at all levels (growers and support staff) and is practical and field based. It encourages learning through both failure and success through regular monitoring and dialogue between all parties. There has been a genuine commitment to participatory decision making through the regular flow of good relevent information and the open testing of all ideas.

The most recent grower and research forum (October 2005) clearly highlighted the critical phase this SGSL project has now reached. Individual participating growers are more confident about the best-bet recipe and approaches for their situation but collectively there are still many levels of uncertainty on key issues such as siting, establishment, management, utilisation, persistence and value of saltland pastures. It is clear that unless a credible support structure for growers remains in place the network relationships and overall inertia will decline.


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