Emotional connection + facts = practice change on-farm
Author: Toni Somes | Date: 03 Dec 2018
When it comes to changing grain growers’ perceptions and motivating practice change on-farm United States agricultural academic Drew Lyon believes it doesn’t matter where in the world you are, the challenges are strikingly similar.
Professor Lyon is Endowed Chair of Small Grains Extension and Research, Weed Science in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences at Washington State University and was in Toowoomba recently to compare strategies with Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) extension officers and key weed researchers.
While he said the weeds change from country-to-country, the process of getting growers to change how they perceive and then tackle the problem of weed management remains a universal challenge for those working in research and extension.
“What we have found is that the facts are not enough anymore when communicating messages. For information to be received positively there needs to be an emotional connection between the grower and the message or the message deliverer,” Prof Lyon said.
The US academic is in Australia on a six-week Nancy Roma Paech Visiting Professorship in Agriculture from the University of Sydney.
New South Wales-based researcher Michael Walsh, who is the Director of Weed Research for the University of Sydney, has played tour guide during Prof Lyon’s trip, which has included visits to northern NSW and southern Queensland research facilities and grain properties.
Dr Walsh agrees with his international colleague that an ‘emotional connection to complement facts’ is critical when it comes to grower practice change and he has firsthand experience of the combination working in Australia.
“I spent five years explaining to growers in Western Australia the benefits of harvest weed seed control, however it wasn’t until a few growers who were early adopters, started ‘doing the talking’ that the concept gained a foothold and led to on-farm practice change,” he said.
The example comes as no surprise to Prof Lyon.
“We have found not even ‘overwhelming research evidence’ is enough to shift growers’ perceptions, instead they want to hear information and the shared learnings of their fellow growers before they make a change,” he said.
“It is about the credibility of the message and the messenger and the emotional connection they have with their audience. Growers are also often more confident to make a change once their peers have trialled something and potentially helped iron out any of the initial issues.”
In the United States Prof Lyon’s work is focused on integrated weed management with a 70 per cent extension component aimed at delivering research information directly to grain growers and crop consultants and 30 per cent research into weed control in dryland grain production systems.
He said there were distinct similarities between the challenges facing growers, researchers and extension officers in both the US and Australia.
“Herbicide resistance is a major concern for US growers and my research and extension is heavily focused on the development and adoption of integrated weed management strategies to counteract this issue,” he said.
“We are investigating the use of herbicides in conjunction with cultural practices such as crop rotation, plant population, row spacing, and fertility as well as tillage when necessary to overcome the challenges of herbicide resistant weeds.
When it came to delivering research information to growers he said his Extension Dryland Cropping Systems Team had had success with one of their major projects: the development of the Wheat and Small Grains website http://smallgrains.wsu.edu/.
“This is a website where growers and consultants can find all the information and decision tools that Washington State University Extension has related to wheat and small grains production and marketing,” Prof Lyon said.
“I have also developed an academy program, the WSU Wheat Academy, targeting progressive growers and crop consultants. These short academy programs have been developed to give growers a deeper understanding of the science behind management decisions and researcher recommendations.
“It is an intimate class with scientists and growers. The first year we did this, we had some growers walking out of a (soil chemistry) class just shaking their heads and saying, ‘Wow, that was pretty deep, but I loved it.’”
He said the program offered courses in topics such as, entomology, disease, soil fertility, nutrient management, marketing strategy, pulse production, integrated weed management systems, and drones in agriculture. The courses are 90 minutes each as part of a two-day program.
“There’s always something to be worried about if you’re a grower and always something to do if you’re a researcher, always some problem to look into,” Prof Lyon said.
“An important part of our role is to listen to grower concerns, facilitate research addressing those concerns, and then deliver the results of that work back to growers to help them make sound management decisions on-farm.”
He said the key learnings from his Australian trip has so far stemmed from our position as a global leader in herbicide resistance management, and our use of social media tools like Twitter polls and surveys to collect information on grower practice.
“Australian research and extension differs from the US, in that our extension is linked to universities. The concept, which I think works quite well, is that extension should be a direct link to research conducted at the university, both informing research and translating that research back to growers.
“I really like this model because it allows me to interact closely with growers to discern their issues, conduct applied research to address those concerns, and very rapidly transfer what I learn to them. I am also closely connected to my research colleagues and can pull them into projects where their expertise is of value.”
When it comes to furthering knowledge Prof Lyon is a staunch advocate of international travel and the sharing of innovation.
“Tours like this one of mine to Australia, are about broadening our understanding of how other grain growing countries are handling research and extension and what works, what doesn’t, and how we can all do a better job for agriculture.”
Toni Somes, GRDC
0436 622 645
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