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The spoked wagon wheel model of extension for change in agriculture

Keith L Devenish

Department of Agriculture Western Australia,
10 Tobruk Road, Jerramungup, WA 6337.


While it is one thing to use extension techniques to increase awareness and transfer information within the agricultural industry, it is considerably more complex to create the right environment to ensure that change and adoption occur at ground level. This paper identifies five key factors in creating an environment for adoption of new agriculture systems and innovations. These critical factors to success were identified as: extensive knowledge of the problem; working closely in the field with farmers to identify and overcome barriers to adoption; involvement of a credible researcher, specialist or extension practitioner in the process; experience in communication methods to raise awareness about the successes; and funding to support extension activities for the adoption of change.

A five-spoked wagon wheel is proposed as an analogy. In this model, if one spoke is missing the wheel might still work, but if two spokes are missing it falls apart. Similarly for extension programs, success might still be possible if one key factor is missing, but if two main factors (or processes) are missing then the extension program will fail or have a substantially slower adoption rate. Knowledge of these key factors is essential for inexperienced extension officers about to embark on major projects as part of change to farming systems. Extension is often undervalued by organisations that do not understand the value of sound extension processes and how they can speed up the rate of adoption through creating the right environment for adoption and change.

Three key learnings: (1) Extension techniques are often undervalued and the processes needed for change are quite intricate and complicate; (2) Five key factors are essential to create the right environment for change and adoption on the ground; (3) If two or three key extension factors / processes are missing then the extension program will fail, or at least have a substantially slower adoption rate.

Key words

Process, change, adoption, specialist.


Extensive experience working as an extension specialist in the wheatbelt of Western Australian has led the author to identify several key factors or processes that might be used in developing a model to guide extension practitioners. Extension in agriculture is about facilitating or creating the ‘right’ environment for change to be adopted using new technology, innovations, methods or systems that benefits industry as well as the end user - the farmer. While it is one thing to use extension techniques to increase awareness and transfer information, it is considerably more complex to create an environment that leads to adoption and change at the ground level.

To be effective, extension agents need the ability to point out the benefits of new ideas and to offer solutions to the barriers to adoption, i.e. to create the right environment for change to occur. It is also important to understand the factors and processes that need to be met within a farming system before farmers accept change to existing methods or systems. For example, changing from annual to perennial pastures is a major change for farmers who have traditionally farmed the same way for 50 years or more. In contrast, a new crop variety is more easily adopted because there is little change to the system required. Such examples explain why some changes are adopted more easily than others.

This paper identifies some of the key factors that are essential in creating an environment for the adoption of change. The approach has evolved by informally reviewing and reflecting on the processes used over a number of years in extension programs in the West Australian wheatbelt. Five main factors are utilised in proposing a ‘Spoked Wagon Wheel Model’ – to guide the development of sound extension programs. This paper focuses on what has worked best in extension programs for agriculture in Western Australia.


Various terms for participatory approaches have been used in the past such as ‘farmer-first’, ‘bottom-up’ or ‘land-user driven’, and many models based on these concepts have been advocated for use in promoting the adoption of innovations (Macadam and Bawden 1985; Chambers et al. 1989; Russell et al. 1989). Such authors’ state that participatory research begins on the farm with farmers as the main focus, and propose that it is not so much the packages of technology that should be provided, but rather that generic material, principles, practices and methods be provided for them to test and use. Proponents of participatory research and development (R&D) claim that innovations are best adopted by farmers when they are involved in the process (e.g. Chambers et al 1989). Wildren et al (1993) and Guerin and Guerin (1994) found that extension officers must also have technical competence and credibility with farmers. Pannell (1997) found that to be willing to trial an innovation, farmers must perceive that there is a chance of adopting the innovation in the long run. Devenish (2003) highlighted some extension processes that were used to combine researcher and extension officer capabilities with farmers’ knowledge to develop a new pasture harvesting system on a broad area scale. He concluded that good extension processes were instrumental in shortening the early testing period and increasing the rate of adoption.

Evolution of the Model

The model proposed here arose from reviewing past extension programs and though discussing extension techniques with other experienced extension offices working in agriculture. Conducting a guest lecture to university students enrolled in an Agricultural Extension module was the final catalyst for building a relatively simple model that identifies and allows the discussion of some of the key extension factors or processes that are important when considering the design of extension projects.

Thought processes

Although extension tasks often appear to be carried out naturally without much thought and discussion, there is a logical thinking process that takes place beforehand. Some of the questions going through an experienced extension officer’s mind might be:

  • Is this innovation or change likely to have major benefits to the industry?
  • Is it likely to be readily adopted on a broad scale; if not, then better to use resources elsewhere?
  • What are the main benefits to the end user and what are the barriers to its adoption?
  • How long will it take and how many resources will be required to start the adoption process?

Barriers to adoption

Important aspects are often over-looked by project managers trying to push a change, rather than investigating the benefits versus the barriers to adoption. In the farmer’s mind there can be many barriers to adoption including:

  • lack of recognition of the benefits,
  • not having enough solutions to the barriers of adoption,
  • experience and confidence to make the change,
  • costs and ease of making the change,
  • suitable information packages to follow,
  • opportunity to talk with other farmers to share experiences and ideas.

Five key Factors and Processes

The informal review and discussions reveal that five key factors affect the success of any agriculture extension program involving adoption and change:

  • Extensive knowledge of the problem or issue.
  • Working in the field alongside farmers to overcome the barriers to adoption.
  • Involvement of a credible researcher, specialist or extension practitioner.
  • Experience in communication methods to raise awareness about the successes.
  • Adequate funding to support extension activities.

The five-spoked wagon wheel (Figure1) is proposed as a simple explanatory model or analogy: if one spoke is missing the wheel might still work at a slower pace but if two spokes are missing then it will fall apart. Similarly for extension programs, success might still be achieved if one key extension factor or process is missing, but if two or three key factors are ignored or missing the extension program is likely to fail as an effective means of promoting adoption and change.

Figure 1. The Spoked Wagon Wheel Model of Extension for Change

1. Extensive knowledge of the problem

The depth of knowledge of an extension officer or specialist about a problem or issue is easily judged by farmers once they start asking questions. Understanding the whole farming system and how a change in one component of the enterprise might affect the working ability and profitability of another part of the enterprise is an important area of knowledge. Part of this knowledge can be gained by spending time working in that particular field or industry enterprise but that is not necessarily a requirement. It is more the ability for the professional extension officer to investigate and analyse a specific problem by talking to clients, in this case farmers, as well as discussing issues with researchers, specialists, marketers and any other relevant person in that network.

To determine the questions to be asking and to collect all the relevant verbal and written information from a range of sources is an acquired skill. This is the analysing stage where the benefits, barriers and possible solutions for the change are captured and analysed. It also means investigating the latest research findings for that issue or problem. The next stage is to apply and test some of the ideas out in the field to greatly increase the knowledge and ability to describe the dilemma while formulating workable solutions.

2. Working with farmers to identify and overcome the main barriers

Working in the field with farmers allows one to build ones own knowledge of the problem as well as providing a forum for detecting the barriers that might hinder adoption. It is important to identify all the barriers to the change and to work through several solutions by writing it in a brief package and listing sources of information. Local knowledge plays an important part here so it is worth contacting other local extension officers to identify several options for working with the leading or influential farmers.

Working with ‘farmers of influence’ can make the change process much easier, with the knowledge that they are the early adopters who want to ‘have a go’ before others, and then the rest will often follow (van den Ban and Hawkins, 1996). It is important to understand the social fabric of an area. A large grain grower with a history of the best crop yields may not necessarily be followed by others or be influential unless they are socially accepted as a leader in that community and someone of credible respect and influence. Hence choosing the right farmer to work alongside can have a large bearing on early adoption.

3. Involving a credible researcher, specialist or extension practitioner

Generally it takes several years of hard consistent work to build trust, respect, knowledge and credibility in the farming community. Farmers tend to use a network of different sources to obtain information, including mainly: talking to other farmers, articles in the rural press, listening to rural radio and reading the Department of Agriculture or industry newsletters, faxes, emails and general publications. As Green (2005) pointed out, farmers browse the internet for additional information but this is often not used in the final decision making process.

In most cases farmers want to hear from experienced individuals or advisors and deal with or talk to real people before making a change. Van den Ban and Hawkins (1960) discuss various influences on credibility of sources, and the importance of credibility as a factor in adoption. In many instances the farmer is poised ready to adopt the change but needs a second opinion from someone regarded as a professional. Most extension officers like nothing better than making personal visits to the farm to work through problems and solutions but one-to-one visits are very time consuming and limits the size of the audience that one can influence. Other strategic opportunities need to be considered.

4. Experience in various communication methods

Considerable literature exists on alternative communication modes in extension (e.g., van den Ban and Hawkins 1996; Roling 1988; Chamala and Mortiss 1990). Field days are often considered the best opportunity for extension officers to help create change but communicating the appropriate messages is extremely important. Visiting a property as part of a field day or bus trip to have a farmer show other farmers what they have achieved is ideal but it is very important to have the researcher or specialist there as well. The combination of farmers telling other farmers about their success with backup technical advice from the specialist is a powerful weapon for the adoption of change. In some cases the innovation is so new that the researcher or specialist needs to display it through their own trial or demonstration sites. This requires considerable forethought so that it is included in any field day events. Bus tours are an excellent way of promoting change because farmers spend time together discussing the problems while viewing different solutions.

Despite the widespread use of radio and television, the written word is still a most important extension method. In Western Australia the majority of farmers read rural weekly newspapers and receive Department of Agriculture Agmemo, in addition to agribusiness newsletters, while some read the more technical bulletins and monthly journals. The written word should be in farmer language and easy to read but contain enough technical advice with sources of more information. Accompanying a written article with a photo will always add more value to published stories and catches the readers’ eye, especially if the photo includes the specialist alongside a farmer with an animal, piece of machinery or new crop. Community newsletters are particularly useful at a localised level. It is worth noting that very few farmers read published papers, they are more for researchers and extension people.

Hearing is less important but still critical for the awareness stage. Most farmers listen to rural radio so it is just a matter of working out which radio program they listen to during various times of the day. Messages through this medium should be kept simple, straight to the point and include something new.

Combining the three communication channels - seeing, reading and hearing - is highly advantageous in communicating the reasons for change. This is what happens at field days, small field walks and bus tours where farmers can listen to other farmers, talk with the specialist, see it with their own eyes, hear all the important details and take away some written material. When delivering a talk at seminars, the experienced extension officer will include photos with overhead slides plus some brief written notes. It is important to communicate simple clear messages that are relevant to smaller farms as well as larger ones. Working with farmer groups is common these days, but although it is an ideal way of facilitating change, knowledge gained is mostly limited to the members of that particular group.

5. Funding to support extension activities

The adoption of innovations or new systems takes considerable time no matter what the extension activities. There is no easy way of providing a credible researcher, specialist or extension practitioner as part of the change process without having the financial resources to provide for salary and operating expenses. In some cases these costs may be hidden where the extension specialist is part of a government or agribusiness organisation. Nevertheless there is a cost involved to that organisation to provide the service. In some cases there are experienced researchers who also deliver extension activities quite successfully but there are also many with limited knowledge of extension techniques and often they are busy conducting research.

Specific funding allows the specialist role to be employed. Funds are needed for all Spokes in the Extension Wheel, for example to ensure understanding of the whole farming system and how a change in one component of the enterprise might affect others. Someone has to work out in field with farmers while detecting the barriers that might hinder adoption. It takes time and funding for extension officers to build their knowledge and credibility. Someone has to identify the benefits, identify the barriers, formulate solutions and provide written packages with all the details to help change occur. In general, the bigger the change that is required the greater the need for funding to engage an extension specialist.


Extension in agriculture primarily involves creating a suitable environment for change to be adopted. The role of any extension program is to help manage change as well as speed up the adoption rate of that change. The Five Spoked Wagon Wheel model is proposed as a means for extension personnel to plan and assess extension projects. The model has also been used as a valuable means of guiding and stimulating discussion on extension principles. Such discussion invariably gives rise to opinions on other important factors in ensuring conditions for the adoption of change. The model could be adapted for different regions and types of extension projects, and may look somewhat different in different circumstances to those in Western Australian wheatbelt where it was developed. However, the five spokes or key factors proposed here are based on quite well established principles of extension from the literature and from the combined experience of many extension practitioners. Knowledge of these important factors and processes is essential for inexperienced extension officers about to embark on major projects as part of change to farming systems.


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