GRDC plugs into e-extension
GroundCover™ Issue: 111 | Author: Rebecca Jennings
A trip to the US in March to see e-extension in action could not have come at a better time for a team charged with rolling out an online industry network for the Australian grains industry.
The ‘eXtensionAUS’ initiative between the GRDC, the Victorian Department of Environment and Primary Industries (DEPI) and the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries (DPI) aims to foster online learning networks in crop pathology and nutrition.
These pilot networks cut across state and regional boundaries and will enhance industry extension by providing current, objective, research-based information for anyone, at any time, on any device and in any location.
GRDC senior manager for products and services Kyle Thoms was among the Australian delegates (representing the GRDC, Victorian DEPI and NSW DPI) who met with researchers, extension officers, administrators and growers in California, Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri and Washington, DC.
“The opportunity to meet with those driving online research extension communities in the US taught us a lot about how to design our pilots and how to best support growers and their advisers as our target knowledge users,” Mr Thoms says.
He says the Australian pilots will test whether the system and philosophy that underpins online extension services in the US can deliver benefits for Australia’s grains industry.
“Our trial will bring together experts from research, agronomic consultancy and agribusiness using a range of cutting-edge online networking tools to identify solutions to real-world problems in real time,” he says. “The US model creates a strong sense of community, where participants value being part of the network. These connections aid collaboration and are a catalyst for innovation.”
A key to establishing eXtensionAUS was recruiting experts for each pilot. These ‘who’s who’ of crop nutrition and pathology will listen to industry needs and develop content in response. Already more than 50 experts spanning the public and private sectors have registered as contributors.
“Sure, there have been questions and a few sceptics, but it is heartening to see the level of interest and the willingness of people to put their hand up,” Mr Thoms says.
“It’s important to keep in mind that while the internet has been around for more than 20 years, the potential to use it to support demand-driven, individually focused approaches to research extension is something much newer.
“There is no substitute for the contextualised advice of an agronomist, but e-extension can take growers further down the path of awareness to give them confidence to change practices.”
History of eXtension
As the Australian grains industry dips its toe into the water of e-extension, the US celebrates a century of cooperative extension with the anniversary of the Smith–Lever Act of 1914. This act led to the establishment of the US Cooperative Extension Service, which informs citizens about current developments in areas as diverse as agriculture, home economics and public policy.
Today, cooperative programs run between the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) country extension officers and 75 land-grant universities – educational institutions established from the sale of federally controlled land, which was granted to states to raise funds. Sitting over these state programs is the national eXtension website, developed by the US Cooperative Extension Service so citizens can interact with experts across the country on a broad range of subjects.
Mr Thoms says that despite similarities in approach to research and development, the system of agricultural extension in the US is very different to that in Australia. While there are only about 50 publicly funded extension specialists serving Australia’s grains industry now, the USDA extension service still has more than 2900 country extension officers and an even greater number of front-line personnel.
However, he believes Australia is well positioned to deliver national collaborative extension, as industry experts are used to working together regardless of state boundaries. This is in contrast to the US, where service delivery tends to be state-centric.
When asked what the biggest opportunities of e-extension are, Mr Thoms identifies cross-industry linkages, more national collaboration and, ultimately, improved global connections. And the challenges? Knowledge management tops his list; that is, ensuring information generated online is collected, disseminated and stored to preserve it as an asset into the future.
GRDC Project Code DAV00138
Region Overseas, South, North