Spring 1992 // Volume 30 // Number 1 // International // 1INTL1

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Information Without the Transfer-A Common Problem?

Information transfer in Australian agriculture is undergoing a radical rethink. Our experiences with the legume kit suggest the need to redesign media mixes for more effective information transfer, with less emphasis on paper-based methods, and more on audiocassettes or videotape, and presumably other technologies as well.

Ross Hartley
Senior Research Agronomist (Systems)
NSW Agriculture
Agricultural Research Centre
Tamworth NSW 2340 Australia

Peter Hayman
Agronomist (Systems)
NSW Agriculture
Agricultural Research Centre
Tamworth NSW 2340 Australia

Publicly funded agricultural extension in Australia is undergoing major change both in direction and practice, reflecting the worldwide downsizing of agriculture and related industries. The traditional role of extension officers is changing too, from being one of problem solving to more educational and motivational, away from giving one-on-one advice to farmers. Some remarkable successes have occurred in changing farmer behavior using the traditional model, and some failures. Take wheat for example: recommendations about new varieties and herbicides tend to be readily adopted by farmers. On the other hand, recommendations concerning fertilizer use, crop rotations, and tillage practices aren't. The former are reasonably simple, low-risk changes in farming practice requiring little more than the information itself for the desired change to occur. The latter, by contrast, require motivational and educational aspects in addition to the information.

Information Transfer

Sub-optimal success with information transfer lies partly with the concept of the transfer as an agricultural problem. Clearly, it's not. Most extension staff in Australia, while well- versed in their subject matter, often lack expertise in how best to transfer the information. A recent national survey of extension officers1 found only 50% perceived themselves as competent in adult education and 51% as competent to evaluate extension principles. By contrast, 86% perceived themselves as competent in industry issues. Unless we view information transfer as communication and marketing, and act accordingly, the future for extension may simply repeat the past.

This is especially important in Australia where the farming community has relatively low levels of education despite being arguably one of the more efficient in the world. Estimates suggest that only 25% of farmers are secondary school graduates compared with 50% in New Zealand and 90% in Europe.2 In the first national survey of adult literacy in Australia, 48% couldn't identify correctly the child's dosage on a package of headache tablets; 70% scored poorly in comprehending a newspaper editorial.3 The survey concluded that adults who didn't read in their occupation generally didn't read much at all. The distribution of farmer literacy is probably bimodal, which has implications for information transfer methodology.

In view of these literacy problems, we've been advocating all extension material be written using plain English.4 A simple enough philosophy, yet one not readily adopted.5 Publications should be written with the user in mind so clients can understand what they read, whether the subject matter is basic or complex. Without a sound basis for understanding the subject matter, new information is difficult to comprehend. Farmers, like the rest of us, often don't know what information they ought to be seeking simply because of the lack of a basic understanding of the subject. In cognitive psychology, these basic understandings, or mental structures, are referred to as schemata. Without doubt, part of the present problem is the assumption that practitioners and clients share common schemata. Often, this isn't the case, with serious consequences on the efficacy of information transfer.

A Changing System

Resources for extension are declining, as are the numbers of frontline extension staff. This is true of agribusiness-based extension also. This is happening at a time when research and development corporations are demanding better and more effective information transfer. Such bodies invest millions each year in agricultural research and are increasingly looking to fund extension as well; they take the view that research encompasses more than running experiments and publishing results. If a message that benefits the whole community must be told, as do most agricultural extension messages, then we ought to tell it in ways that sell the message. This means uniting groups of people with diverse interests in the subject, combining limited resources for the common good, and being aware of information transfer problems.

Operation Quality Wheat-Testing New Methods

Operation Quality Wheat (OQW) is an innovative example of an extension program in New South Wales. The program involves agribusiness, institutional agriculture, and the various industry bodies associated with wheat growing, uniting for a common purpose. It takes a refreshing approach to motivating and educating farmers to adopt sustainable agricultural practices. OQW is targeting cereal farmers to:

  • Improve average wheat productivity by 50% between 1988 and 1993.
  • Arrest the current decline in soil fertility.
  • Maintain or improve wheat quality, especially grain protein content.
  • Improve the transfer of information to wheat growers.

One of the essential OQW messages directed to farmers is to use legumes (grain or pasture) in intelligent crop rotation with cereals, to rejuvenate exhausted wheat soils, and so improve yields. By chance, 1991 provided an ideal economic climate in which to transfer the legume message since projected low wheat prices for the season made wheat growing unprofitable for many farmers. Commodity prices for sheep, beef, and wool were equally unattractive, so growing a grain legume was one of the few viable cropping options. And, we found many farmers were actively seeking information on growing legumes, a fairly remarkable change in farmer behavior.

With all OQW literature and communications, our aim is to provide user-friendly information. Our first objective is always to entice clients to seek the information we wish extended. The second is to deliver the information in ways that make its assimilation and recall easier.

The initial task was to produce a legume test kit for evaluation by the farmers, the potential users of our end product. The test kit contained a 40-minute audiocassette on legume facts and a 19-page booklet about rejuvenating wheat soils with legumes. Both items were in plain English and aimed toward educating farmers about the basics of legumes and motivating them to think of incorporating legumes into their cropping sequences.

The need for basic, as opposed to more sophisticated, information had been highlighted a few months earlier when randomly selected farmers were interviewed at a regional field day. There was widescale misunderstanding about what legumes were and what they did, which possibly explains the reluctance of farmers in the Northwest to grow legumes. Many farmers, for example, were unable to identify correctly which crops were legumes out of a list of 10 commonly grown species. We reasoned, therefore, that in developing the kit, we had to cover the topic starting with the basics.

Testing Information Transfer

Copies of our kit were mailed to 150 randomly selected cereal farmers throughout Northwest New South Wales early in 1991, with a letter of introduction and a short questionnaire. Forty-six percent of those surveyed replied and the results of the questionnaire are summarized in Table 1.

Table 1. Farmer responses to legume kit.
Survey item Respondents
who answered yes
Listened to audiocassette 100%
Read the booklet 99%
Endorsed the plain English approach 95%
Gleaned new information 80%
Motivated to change farming practices 75%
Requested videotape 72%
Requested follow-up information by audiocassette 48%

All respondents said they'd listened to the audiocassette and almost all said they'd read the booklet. The plain English approach was overwhelmingly endorsed, although three or four farmers suggested the kit was more suited to a kindergarten audience. Presumably, these may have been the more educated farmers. Interestingly, those same sentiments were mirrored by quite a few of the scientific fraternity who balked at the basic content and simple presentation. In this case, the differing schemata between information extenders and information recipients presents yet another block to information transfer.

Almost half of the respondents requested follow-up information by audiocassette, in preference to literature. Farmers said they would listen to the tapes while driving into town or on the tractor or in the header, but didn't have the time (or interest possibly) to read technical literature. This indirectly supports our assertion that too many of already limited resources are allocated to extension literature.

Videotape is another underused medium for information transfer in agriculture. Almost three-quarters of respondents requested a videotape on using legumes to rejuvenate exhausted wheat soils. Video is an excellent medium for creating awareness, motivating, and educating. Unfortunately, costs of production and distribution may prohibit its widescale use.

The Future in Australia

Information transfer in Australian agriculture is undergoing a radical rethink. Our experiences with the legume kit suggest the need to redesign media mixes for more effective information transfer, with less emphasis on paper-based methods, and more on audiocassettes or videotape, and presumably other technologies as well. Such changes will occur with the shift to cooperative extension. How this will happen in Australia is unclear at this stage. It may depend on training existing extension staff and on attracting into the ranks graduates in information transfer as well as people capable of uniting the diverse organizations currently involved in extension into a single charismatic force.


1. A. F. Wissemann and T. D. Wilson, "Perceived Competence of Agricultural Extension Workers," Agricultural Science, I (No. 5, 1988), 34-37.

2. Marje Prior, "Rural Education and Training," Agricultural Science, III (No. 4, 1990), 40-43.

3. Rosalie Wickert, No Single Measure-A Survey of Australian Adult Literacy (Sydney, Australia: Sydney College of Advanced Education, Institute of Technical and Adult Teacher Education, 1989).

4. Robert D. Eagleson, Writing in Plain English (Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1990).

5. Ross Hartley, Peter Lucas, and David Hartley, "Directional Change in the Publishing Paradigm of Extension Material in NSW Agriculture & Fisheries," Australian Journal of Adult and Community Education, XXX (No. 3, 1990), 183-89.