Farmer Learning

Capacity to adapt to successfully manage change is linked to our ability to learn.  Assisting and engaging with farming businesses in their adaption, management and implementation of change, is greatly helped by understanding how farm businesses learn and make strategic and tactical decisions.  Which enables more effective targeting and design of extension approaches.

“Primary production operates in a context of continual change and requires up to date, complex and varied skills of primary producers and land managers. Farming now requires access to good information and demands not only sound business management skills, but a higher level of skills than before, including the ability to work with other farmers and others, (van der Ploeg et al, 2000).”

Informal learning sources in the form of experts, observation and experience, and other farmers, were the most frequently used learning sources for change, (Kilpatrick and Jones, 2003)

Kilpatrick and Johns (2003) in their findings of an Australian study of 85 farm management teams from across the country proposed that farm-management teams employ four different learning patterns (that apply to whole of business management teams, not to individual team members), to successful plan for and manage change:

  1. Local Focussed (LF) – Those that seek advice and information from locally available experts only:  Accountants, government agents, local suppliers (e.g. rural merchants) and local fellow farmers.  Local practices may be observed and local media followed.  This group includes those that only seek the advice from a single expert and as a category they do not participate in training, other than attend field days.
  2. People Focussed (PF) – This category consult with two or more people that may not be local, and use one other learning resource when undertaking change.  They learn from people in one to one or farmer group situations.  Their other learning sources vary widely from training, to media and making observations.
  3. Outward Looking (OL) – These businesses use a variety of learning resources, which normally includes at least one of:  Training, media or active observation of the particular practice being implemented elsewhere.  In addition they typically combine one to one or group learning (associations or organisations).  Most usually consult at least three and maybe more, learning sources when managing change.
  4. Extensive Network (EN) – As the name implies, these businesses consult a wide range of sources when learning for and managing change.  They will use at least four of the following:
    • Experts (i.e. government agents, private consultants, buyers, financial advisers and other experts)
    • Training (other than field days)
    • Other farmers or farmer groups
    • Agricultural associations/organisations
    • Media (internet, industry magazines, books, technical notes and fact sheets)
    • Observations (interstate or overseas)
    • Research trials or experiments, usually in conjunction with experts.
Farm management teams learn in a variety of ways, both in informal and structured (formal and non-formal) contexts, but tend to prefer learning through interaction. (Photo, Birchip Cropping Group)

The Study Sample

Eighty-five farm owners/managers from a range of agricultural enterprises and across Australia, participated in semi-structured interviews.  There were two sub samples of similar size.  The first was designed to reflect the farm population as a whole, and was a random sample of farm businesses drawn from lists held by five State and Territory farmer organisations, or state primary industry departments as available.

The second sample was designed to capture female farmers who were actively committed to agriculture, with a random sample being drawn from the membership lists of Women in Agriculture and similar organisations.

About a third of the sample consisted of farm businesses managed by husband and wife teams, another third of the businesses were managed by multi-generation teams.  The remainder were single operator businesses, businesses operated by family members of the same generation (mostly brothers), or partners with no family relationship.

The capacity of the farm management teams was classified in two ways:  Farm Management Indicators (based on Dunn and Lamont, 1997) and Farming Styles (based on Vanclay et al, 1998).

Key Conclusions

  • The findings show that learning-pattern groups may not be directly related to the success of the farm business, but they are an additional source of information about how farmers ‘work’ that may be useful for those wanting to intervene and improve farm success.

Those farmers who are considered ‘successful’ managers display managerial skill, have a sound financial structure, and the ability to exploit location, weather conditions and fluctuations in commodity prices, (Peterson, 1994).

  • Informal learning sources in the form of experts, observation and experience, and other farmers, were the most frequently used learning sources for change.
  • Formal training activities were a learning source for just over one third of the changes described, the higher the level of formal education in the management team, the more likely they will participate in formal training. Training was rarely used as the only source for learning for change.  It was usually combined with discussion with others; experts and/or fellow farmers.
  • Local focussed management teams learnt for change by accessing only local sources (including government extension services) or a single individual, (20% of the sample).
  • People focussed farm management teams preferred to learn for change principally by seeking information and advice on a one-to-one basis from more than one person, most frequently experts, but often other farmers, (23.5% of the sample).
  • Agricultural organisations play a significant role in learning for change, especially for members of the extensive networking learning group, 17.7% of the sample, filling the void left with reduction in government extension.
  • Increasing pressures for farmers to better manage complexity and risk, demands greater sophistication of farm management; which makes learning essential in order to make and manage changes to farm management and marketing practice.
  • Farm management teams learn in a variety of ways, both in informal and structured (formal and non-formal) contexts, but tend to prefer learning through interaction, delivered in a way that suits the time constraints of running a small business with content that is directly relevant to their situation.
  • The outward looking learning group made up 40% of the sample and had a large proportion of farming couples and multi-generational farming teams.  This is the group that likes to use a variety of learning sources.

Information Sources and For Further Information

Kilpatrick, S., Johns, S.  How farmers learn: Different approaches to change. (2003).  The Journal of Agricultural Education and Extension 9(4):151-164  DOI:10.1080/13892240385300231

Vanclay, F., Mesiti, L. & Howden, P. (1998). Styles of farming and farming subcultures: Appropriate concepts for Australian rural sociology?, Rural Society, 8, (2), 85-107.

Department of Primary Industries and Energy (1997). Rural Adjustment: Managing change, Mid-term review of the Rural Adjustment Scheme, Canberra, May.