Peer learning amplifies research adoption

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Growers learn best from other growers, as evidenced by the huge increase in the number of grower groups formed across the country in the past decade. The Grower Group Alliance national summit in Perth highlighted the value of on-farm learning and the important role grower groups play in technology and research adoption

Growers learning from other growers promotes effective practice change, Esperance grower Chris Reichstein has found.

PHOTO: Evan Collis

The no-till farming revolution was so successfully implemented on farms around Australia because the strategy was driven by growers for growers, says Esperance, Western Australia, grower Chris Reichstein.

Chris believes facilitated peer learning, where growers learn from other growers, is one of the most effective ways for extension to occur in Australia’s grains industry.

As part of his GRDC Nuffield Australia 2014 Scholarship, Chris saw evidence of successful peer-learning models across a range of agricultural industries around the globe, but says Australia’s own grower groups are unique compared with many other examples of peer learning he has seen elsewhere in the world.

He feels the role of grower groups and regionalised research groups is becoming increasingly important in the grains industry, given the trend for government bodies to withdraw from this research, development and extension (RD&E) space.

“The value of grower groups is significant, not only in what they provide in facilitated learning, but on a whole range of other levels, particularly in regard to social support when the going gets tough,” he says.

Speaking at the recent Grower Group Alliance (GGA) National Grower Group Summit in Perth, Chris says no-till farming has been widely adopted because there is a clear need and economic benefit. It is driven by on-farm innovation, has on-farm champions and is supported by grower groups.

He describes this as an excellent example of a ‘bottom-up’ approach to learning, where the innovation is driven on-farm, with growers seeing firsthand how a new approach could increase their profitability.

“Compare this to precision or decision agriculture, where the take-up of new technology – and this new way of farming – has been comparatively slow,” Chris says.

He says the economic benefits have been less clear.

“Couple this with the complexity of deciding on what basis to vary inputs – be it electromagnetic data, biomass imagery, yield potential or nutrient replacement – and there has been less grower confidence in the move to variable-rate technology (VRT).”

He says no-till is more visual and easy to trial without a large investment – plus, it has support from grower groups: “Peer learning was easily facilitated,” he says.

“However, due to the nature of VRT, where growers are working with a whole range of variables, complex interactions, different software and hardware, and also with VRT being so non-visual, peer learning has been harder to facilitate.”

Through his Nuffield scholarship, Chris found there is a trend towards a peer-learning approach to technology and research adoption in agricultural industries throughout New Zealand, the UK, Argentina and Ireland, but a more top-down approach was still the dominant style in the US and Canada.

The RCSN model

“In the past, the grains industry in Australia has also had a very top-down approach, but that has certainly changed now, with the increase in the number of grower groups and with the formation of the GRDC’s Regional Cropping Solutions Network, where the ideas are being driven from the bottom-up to allow closer linkages with researchers,” he says.

Growers will often underestimate their own amount of expertise, Chris says.

“As growers, we need to draw on the huge amount of knowledge, credibility and experience there is around us, and one easy way to do this is to be part of a grower group,” he says.

He believes the current network of grower groups around the country could be strengthened through the implementation of research protocols to ensure the extension and research undertaken by grower groups is scientifically rigorous.

“Grower groups seem to come in all shapes and sizes. Some are large, with several paid employees; others are small and driven entirely by volunteers. But, regardless, these groups provide crucial links with the research community. Integrity in their research and ensuring scientific validity behind any findings is critical for grower uptake of new technologies,” he says.

Regional benchmarking between farm businesses is another important tool for growers.

While some consultants already benchmark their client base, Chris is hoping to see a broader dataset made available across the industry to allow growers to compare their businesses to similar businesses.

“Just comparing our businesses based on rainfall zones isn’t enough,” he says.

“What would be really useful is regional benchmarking that allows us to evaluate our businesses at a more local and relevant level.”
Chris is a member, and former chair, of the South East Premium Wheat Growers Association (SEPWA), which was established and based, he says, on a ‘hub and spoke’ model.

Smaller, localised, volunteer-based groups feed into SEPWA, which has several paid staff and is widely recognised across WA for its research and extension work in Esperance and surrounding regions.

As an extension of the grower group concept, Chris is also a member of a local business discussion group, in which members meet to share production and financial data, and then evaluate the drivers and motivators for each business. The group employs a facilitator to run the discussion so that all production and financial data is collected and presented in an easily comparable manner.

“This is a fantastic group that pushes us all to improve the way we do business, even though it is incredibly confronting at times,” he says.

“When the group first evaluated my farming business, looking at the strengths and weaknesses of the structure, evaluating the financials and production system, it was almost like taking my clothes off in public – but it was worth the challenge and I’d encourage other growers to consider joining or forming groups like this.”

WA’s GGA chair Dr Kelly Manton-Pearce agrees grower groups are integral to coordinating extension activities to facilitate grower learning, and to maximising the adoption of research and development investments.

A recently commissioned report has estimated that grower groups have contributed about $900 million in economic value over a 25-year period to WA’s grains industry.

Dr Manton-Pearce says the report estimates volunteer members of grower groups in WA commit about 111 days per group per year, valued at about $2 million annually across all groups.

“As well as direct and indirect contributions, grower groups provide employment opportunities in regional areas through the hiring of staff, supporting local businesses and communities, providing networking opportunities, up-skilling people in a range of fields and representing growers in issues that affect the bottom line,” Dr Manton-Pearce says.

“Grower groups come together to address issues common to their members and their area. They are a key link in localising research findings, ensuring these findings and new technologies are adopted on-farm by growers to improve profitability.”

The GGA supports more than 40 recognised grower groups in WA, extending from the Kimberley through to Esperance, with similar networks across South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland.

The GGA National Grower Group Summit was held to explore the future of farming systems and grower groups across Australia.

GRDC Research Code NUF00010

More information:

Chris Reichstein
0429 101 970
creichstein@bigpond.com

Grower Group Alliance
08 6180 5759