December 1995 // Volume 33 // Number 6 // Feature Articles // 6FEA3

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The Use of Publicly-funded Extension Services in Australia

A survey of farm operators in the Australian state of Victoria has shown a high degree of contact between government employed Extension agents and the farming community, despite the contracting resources available for government Extension services. The high rate of farmer contact reflects a farming community that is smaller than a decade earlier and more active in its search for information. While individual farmers had a small demand for environmental information, there was an increasing focus on, and demand for, Extension services to farmer conservation groups.

John W. Cary
Associate Professor
Department of Agriculture and Resource Management
University of Melbourne
Parkville, Australia
Internet address:

Roger L. Wilkinson
Research Scientist
Landcare Research NZ
Lincoln, New Zealand
Internet address:

Recent proposed reductions in the public funding and public delivery of Extension programs in Australia have occurred against a background of apparent strong demand for public Extension services. Departments of Agriculture in five of Australia's six states have conducted reviews of their Extension services within the last few years. These reviews have generally recommended refocusing or 'downsizing' Extension activity, often as a consequence of reduction in public funding. During this period the demand for public Extension related to land degradation has increased. The strong demand for Extension information likely reflects Australian farmers becoming increasingly more independent, better educated, and more active and selective consumers of Extension information.

Proposed institutional changes in Extension service delivery include service reduction, commercialization by charging fees for services, contract delivery by private agents, and sale of service units to the private sector (Rivera & Cary, 1995). Changes that have occurred or that are proposed in Australia include both changes in sources of funding and changes in means of delivery (Cary, 1995).

Against this background, publicly-available information on the nature and extent of recent client use of Extension services in Australia has been virtually non-existent. This article reports the results of a survey of farmer use of Extension services in the state of Victoria. The objectives of the article are two-fold. First, to provide information about one side of the Extension delivery equation--the demand for public Extension services. The second objective is to provide a background for assessment of the likely implications for maintaining effective Extension services in the face of reduced public funding for Extension.


The data for the study were collected by telephone interviews of a random sample of 426 Victorian farmers during September 1992. The sample was selected from a sampling frame comprising all financial members of the Victorian Farmers' Federation (N = 17,950) which represented 75% of the state's 24,000 farmers. Completed telephone interviews were obtained from 85% of those selected in the probability sample. The sample was stratified to exclude respondents from the intensive pig and poultry industries. These industries are dominated by relatively few, large agribusiness firms with predominantly private research and Extension delivery systems. Respondents represented broad-acre cropping, grazing, dairying, horticulture, and other minor agricultural industries. While some bias might be expected because the sampling frame did not include all the state's farmers, measures of demographic variables such as age, and membership of various farm groups were equivalent for the sample and the state farm population as measured by the Australian Bureau of Statistics and other studies such as Mues, Roper, and Ockerby (1994). General results of the study are reported in Cary and Wilkinson (1992).

Use of Extension Services

In each Australian state, the major provider of publicly funded Extension services is the state Department of Agriculture or Department of Primary Industry. In Victoria, the Department of Agriculture (DAV), now called Agriculture Victoria, had a high rate of contact with the farming community. For the 12 months preceding the survey almost all farmers reported having used DAV information or services at some time. Eighty-five percent of farmers had seen information from DAV within the previous few months. The most common sources of DAV information, for both frequent and infrequent users of DAV services, were articles in local newspapers, newsletters or journals, and state agricultural newspapers.

More than 70% of farmers used the DAV services about once a year or more frequently (Table 1). Only 9% of farmers claimed never to have used DAV services. This figure was similar to the finding of a survey of farmers in the state of South Australia (Harrison Market Research, 1991).

Table 1
Frequency of Use of Department of Agriculture Services
by Farmers (n = 426)
Frequency of Contact PercentageCumulative
Four or more times a year 20 20
Two or three times a year 28 48
About once a year 24 72
Less than once a year 19 91
Never use 9 100

While nearly three quarters of farmers had used the services of the DAV, at least half of Victoria's farmers had had some form of face-to-face contact with agency staff during the twelve months preceding the survey (Table 2). The level of face-to-face contact was also similar to that found in South Australia (Harrison Market Research, 1991). DAV policy discouraged farm visits in favor of group Extension activity, for reasons of delivery efficiency and because individual visits conferred private benefits to individuals from a declining pool of public Extension resources (see Cary, 1993). In the face of espoused agency policy, a high level of farm visits by DAV Extension staff was reported by farmers. Telephone contacts and office visits were the most frequent means of direct contact between DAV staff and farmers.

Table 2
Use of Department of Agriculture Services by Farmers
in Previous Twelve Months (n = 426)
Type of Contact Frequency Percentage
Used services of Department of
Agriculture (any contact)
320 75
Face to face contact:
Farm, office, research station,
or laboratory visit
343 57
Face to face contact:
Farm or office visit
209 49
Farm visit 111 26
Office visit 153 36
Research station visit 89 21
Laboratory visit 42 10
Telephone contact 234 55
Letter 81 19
Contact with DAV staff at field day 196 46

Farmers who were more frequent users of DAV services used all services more frequently (Cary & Wilkinson, 1992). Farmers in the more intensive industries of horticulture and dairying had the highest level of contact with the DAV. In both these industries more than 50% of producers had contact more than once a year with staff of the DAV.

The Nature of Public Extension Services

From analysis of the survey data not reported here, the most common reasons for farm visits, visits to Departmental premises and telephone contacts concerned advice on production and technical matters and, to a lesser extent, advice on animal health. About a third of farm visits were concerned with the provision of production or technical advice; and more than a quarter of visits were concerned with animal health matters (Cary & Wilkinson, 1992).

Farmers most commonly saw DAV as predominantly a supplier of technical information. Some farmers looked to DAV mainly for management information or laboratory testing services, but relatively few were looking for marketing or environmental information (Table 3).

Table 3
Most Important Information Needs Which Farmers Consider
Should be Provided by Government Extension Agents:
Unprompted (Multiple) Responses (n = 415)
Information Percentage of responses Percentage of farmers
Technical 28 37
Management and financial 9 12
Marketing 6 8
Environmental and Landcare 5 7
Laboratory and testing services 11 14
Whatever needed at the time 16 21
Latest up-to-date information 15 20
Other (content unspecified) 10 15
Total 100 134

Group Extension

Half of the surveyed farmers were members of at least one group concerned either with environmental or land care matters or with a farm production focus, such as a farm discussion group (Table 4). The relatively recent growth in landcare groups (Campbell, 1994) provided increased demands for Extension activities, where agents of DAV and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources frequently provided technical advice or group facilitation service. Landcare groups are voluntary community land conservation groups in which landholders in a locality work together to identify and tackle local land degradation problems, such as soil salinity or soil erosion. Twenty one percent of farmers were members of production-oriented groups such as discussion groups. This reflects the high membership (49%) of dairy farmers in dairy discussion groups focused on pasture and herd management and sometimes financial management issues.

Table 4
Membership of Landcare-Type or Production-Type Farm Groups (n = 426)
Group membership Percentage Cumulative Percentage
Landcare only 30 30
Production only 10 40
Landcare and production 11 51
Not a member of these groups 49 100

Analyses of the survey data not reported here showed that members of landcare groups and production groups used the services of government Extension agents more frequently than other farmers.

Other Extension Providers

Government departments were not the only sources of professional advice sought by Victorian farmers. Farmers obtained technical or management advice from a range of commercial and other sources. There has been an apparent growth of private consulting services in some types of farm enterprise in recent years. Thirteen percent of all farmers obtained advice from commercial, privately-employed farm consultants. The more intensive dairy industry had a higher use of consultants (23%) than other more extensive agricultural industries (see Cary & Wilkinson, 1992).

Implications: Challenges and Opportunities

In the face of contracting resources for publicly funded Extension services, a high proportion of the farming community had contact with the government Extension agency. The high level of face-to-face contact between DAV Extension staff and farmers points to the difficulty of an agency seeking to reduce high cost face-to-face contact. Farmers prefer such services. Extension officers derive satisfaction providing them, while at the same time improving their understanding of on-farm problems and the credibility of their other Extension activities. As well, a more specialized agriculture requires more sophisticated and much more individually tailored information to be provided to individual farmers operating complex farm management systems.

Such demands are likely to require more extensive one-on-one dealings between Extension advisers and farmers. The high proportion of farmers with Extension officer contact probably reflects a farming community increasingly more active in its search for information (Watson, et al., 1992). In the face of such demands the role of local farmer groups in Extension delivery has increased, and the demand for Extension services to Landcare groups has increased rapidly over a short time. Refocusing Extension effort towards group-based methods may have increased farmer demand for individual Extension contact.

Farmers saw DAV as predominantly a supplier of technical information. Leaders of Australian Extension agencies have often espoused a greater emphasis on marketing and management aspects of farming. The strength of public Extension has traditionally been transfer of, or advice about, technology. Farmers in Australia do not appear to have a strong demand for marketing and management information from public Extension agencies. This may be because farmers do not perceive government agencies to be highly competent in this area. Or it may be perceived as the domain of the private sector. In Australia, the growth in the demand for marketing and management information and advice is likely to be met increasingly by the private sector rather than by publicly funded Extension.

The significance of the commercial sector in the provision of Extension advice is evident in the importance of commercial suppliers, processing firms, and consultants as sources of advice and information. This reflects similar findings reported in U.S. agriculture (Postlewait, Parker & Zilberman, 1993). In Australia, there appears to have been a significant shift to information provision by the commercial sector for the dairy industry and the cropping industry, specifically by processing companies, input suppliers, and farm consultants. For industries such as cropping, this reflects the management complexity of modern farming systems and the increasing use of purchased technical inputs. The dairy industry in Australia is approaching a situation where its advisory and Extension services can be delivered by commercially-employed providers or, as already occurs, by the employment of some government Extension agents whose salaries are funded by dairy industry farmer levies.

The demand for delivering viable and equitable Extension services in the face of declining resource provision presents a challenge for government agencies. The increasing demands for government Extension agents to provide public good services to an expanding number of Landcare and other environmental groups puts additional strains on limited resources. It would seem that there will need to be some re-allocation of public Extension effort away from advisory services for production agriculture--a move which should lead to increased availability of Extension services provided by the commercial sector. However, there are persuasive arguments against sole reliance on commercial information provision in some farm industries. Eliminating all public delivery of Extension presents some dangers, not the least being the extreme fluctuations of income in some rural industries. Long periods of low farm incomes in such industries can lead to the demise of commercial advisory and consulting services.

Commercialization of government Extension delivery has not met with great success in Australia. The challenge of rethinking publicly funded Extension delivery with fewer resources presents opportunities for Extension services to identify their strengths as seen by farmers, to identify the roles public agencies should have in contrast to the roles of commercial Extension, and to facilitate technology transfer through wider networks which may include commercial Extension agencies.


Campbell, A. (1994). Community first: Landcare in Australia. London: International Institute for Environment and Development.

Cary, J. W. (1993). Changing foundations for government support of agricultural Extension in economically developed countries. Sociologia Ruralis, 33, 336-347.

Cary, J. W. (1995). Privatization of Extension: Some lessons from Australia and New Zealand. Invited paper presented at Privatization of Technology and Information Transfer in U.S. Agriculture: Research and Policy Implications. University of Wisconsin - Madison, October 25-26, 1995.

Cary, J. W., & Wilkinson, R. L. (1992). The provision of government Extension services to the Victorian farming community. Parkville, Victoria: School of Agriculture and Forestry, University of Melbourne.

Harrison Market Research. (1991). Survey of farm managers: study overview and commentary about commercialization. A report to the Department of Agriculture, South Australia.

Mues, C., Roper, H., & Ockerby, J. (1994). Survey of Landcare and land management practices, 1992-93. Canberra: Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics.

Postlewait, A., Parker, D.D., & Zilberman, D. (1993). The advent of biotechnology and technology transfer in agriculture. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 43, 271-287.

Rivera, W. M., & Cary, J. W. (1995). Privatizing agricultural Extension. In B. E. Swanson (Ed.), Improving agricultural Extension: A reference manual. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organisation. In press.

Watson, A. S., Hely, R., O'Keeffe, M., Cary, J. W., & Clark, N. (1992). Review of field-based services in the Victorian Department of Food and Agriculture. Melbourne: Agmedia.