Practice Change

The emphasis for many extension programs is around enabling some form of practice change in particular rural community target markets (groups of people that the extension program is aimed at).

Georgia McCarthy, Leanne Sherriff and Basil Doonan in their report on “How agricultural extension leads to practice change”, (2018) describe practice change as:

“A continuous process which occurs initially when producers identify the need for change and become motivated to make changes to their business and involves a decision to adopt or disadopt a technology or practice.” 

Support from both technical experts and family or friends is seen in their report as crucial for people to implement and sustain long-term practice change.

Farmers in their businesses have needs and the technology or innovation that is being promoted so as to achieve practice change has features that can deliver outcomes.  Where the features can meet farmer needs, benefits to the farmer and their business occur, the more significant the benefits and/or the easier the practice change maybe to achieve and the greater the likelihood of adoption.

That is, simpler practice changes are typically more readily adopted, more complex practice changes require longer periods of time and many more contributing influencers for them to be adopted, (Howard et al, 2014).

McCarthy et al, (2018) identified that there is evidence that follow up activities help to keep producers motivated to continue with the practice change process.

They propose a 3-step process to maximise the successful outcomes of supporting farmers via extension activities that take them from awareness to adoption, thereby creating practice change.

The three steps are:

  1. Raise awareness of the practice and the beneficial impacts expected from its implementation into a farming system.
  2. Generate interest in adopting the practice and/or participation in any associated extension program through feeder activities such as field days and workshops.
  3. Follow up / support producers through the entire practice change process from awareness to adoption.

Activities of steps 1 and 2 can lead to practice change, but linking them to step 3 activities is proposed as a much better way to ensure targeted levels of practice change are reached.

Benefits of Learning in a Group

Being part of a group that provides a learning environment where there is an opportunity to explore, check and validate ideas has been shown to support practice change:

“The sociocultural factors that work together to promote learning are personal (individual), interpersonal (their participation in the group), and cultural (the values, experiences and traditions of the group).” – Henwood et al (2017)

In an individual case study explored by Henwood et al (2017), they noted that the nature of of the case study farmer’s learning changed over time, with the amount of tacit knowledge he sought decreasing and explicit knowledge becoming relatively more important.

Learning in a group supports individual practice change

Script Theory

Vanclay and Enticott (2011) proposed script theory can influence proposed actions.  They define a script as a culturally shared expression, story or common line of argument, or an expected unfolding of events, that is deemed to be appropriate or expected in a particular socially defined context, and that provides a rationale or justification for a particular issue or course of action.

They suggest there are four types of script:

  1. A socially perceived routine or expected sequence of events;
  2. A catch‐phrase, metaphor or allegory that is frequently recited in response to a particular issue or situation;
  3. A mini‐story, narrative or parable;
  4. A commonly used line of argument, that is widely invoked in response to a particular issue or situation.

In their work with farmers in the United Kingdom and Australia in relation to animal health and biosecurity, they  demonstrated how scripts affected the perceived management options of farmers in particular circumstances.

As a result they suggest that scripts have implications for policymakers and those seeking to promote practice change, such as agricultural extension staff and agricultural veterinarians.

So understanding what scripts are in play and the importance of those scripts can be useful to help optimise the adoption of practice change.

Measuring Practice Change

McCarthy et al (2018) stated “it has become apparent that information on how practice change is measured is scarce.”

What is clear is that the “current state” needs some form of assessment in order to be able to measure any change.  Once the current state is understand, then after an activity related to creating the opportunity for practice change has been delivered, it is then really useful to measure the intent to make any change with participants.  As intent has been shown to correlate with a greater likelihood of a practice change being adopted.

Consideration to the timing of any monitoring and evaluation and any external influences at the time needs to take place.  E.g. too soon and there may not be enough time for changes to have been made, or particular changes can be impacted by external factors, such as the weather, which could be having an overriding influence on adoption or the indicators of adoption.

Evaluating changes in participants change in knowledge or skills can be a good indicator for the likelihood of practice change occurring.  Ongoing change overtime can indicate a greater likelihood of practice change being adopted.  Though it must be pointed out that is likely more of an indicator than an exact science and as McCarthy et al (2018) documented in their report on “The value of skills audits as an effective evaluation tool of agricultural extension programs“, further research on the correlation between skills audits and on-farm practice change is required.

Activities that support participants from awareness through to adoption have an increased likelihood of practice change and therefore warrant more intensive monitoring and evaluation if knowing rates of change is important, (McCarthy et al, 2018).

Bennett’s Hierarchy is a tried and tested model for extension planning and evaluation.  Using the model can include a key step of gathering of hard and soft evidence of practice change.

In that context Roberts Evaluation Pty Ltd proposed that practice change can be measured through:

  1. Direct observation
  2. Physical measurement of indicators or outputs
  3. The levels of use of the technology that contributes to the practice change
  4. The level of extension and research activities that relate to the practice change

Further Information and Information Sources

Vanclay, F and Enticott, G (2011), The Role and Functioning of Cultural Scripts in Farming and Agriculture, Sociologia Ruralis, vol. 51, no. 3, pp. 256-271.

McCarthy, G. Sherriff, L. and Doonan, B. (2018) How agricultural extension leads to practice change, Meat and Livestock Australia

Howark, K, Beattie, L and Graham, C. (2014) Assessing the Impacts of MLA’s Southern Majority Market Program, Meat and Livestock Australia

McCarthy, G. Sherriff, L. and Doonan, B. (2018) The value of skills audits as an effective evaluation tool of agricultural extension programs, Meat and Livestock Australia

Beever, G (2017) Bennett’s Hierarchy Extension Program Evaluation Model, Extension Practice, extensionAUS

Bennett, C (1976) Analyzing Impacts of Extension Programs, US Department of Agriculture

An Example of how Bennett’s Hierarchy can be used for Reporting, Roberts Evaluation Pty Ltd (2007)