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International Programs News & Views Volume 27

December 2001

PERCEPTIONS FROM AN AUSTRALIAN IN THE USA

A 5-month visit to the USA in 2001 afforded Julie Francis, an extension agent from Victoria, Australia, the opportunity to investigate extension, small farms and sustainable agriculture in this country.

I learned about the International Programs Division (IPD) of NRCS through a meeting with Lawrence Clark, Deputy Chief for Science and Technology, while he was conducting official business in Australia. I was interested in visiting the USA and Larry offered the services of IPD to facilitate my program. I was fortunate enough to receive funding through an ‘Enhancing Science Networks’ project run by the Department of Natural Resources and Environment, allowing me to visit the US from March through August 2001.

One focus of the journey was to visit extension staff and NRCS district conservationists who work with small farmers, the farmers themselves, and people involved in small farm policy. Unlike the US, Australia does not have an extensive national small farm policy; however, the Victorian State Government is now initiating a family farms program. By talking to people in the US small farm sector, I gained valuable insight into obstacles and issues that might occur when implementing Victoria’s Future Family Farms initiative. I was also introduced to direct marketing and the knowledge I accumulated will be beneficial in assisting Australian small farmers wishing to further explore the concept, which is only in its infancy here.

I discovered that other important small farm stakeholders in the US include non-profit organizations such as the Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI). Highly organized, farmer driven groups such as these are not prevalent in Australia, so it was interesting to see the perspective they added to the situation in the US. I particularly focused on how PFI has promoted local food systems in Iowa (for example, encouraging a convention center to occasionally provide All Iowa Meals).

Denis Ebodaghe, National Small Farms Program Leader, USDA/Cooperative State Research, Education & Extension Service (CSREES) was of great assistance in Washington, DC, and through him I was able to establish contacts around the country. Meeting Denis occurred by chance at the first conference I attended in Missouri. Denis also provided me with some highly relevant and useful resources, such as small farm conference proceedings. I am in the process of writing recommendations to my Department on those aspects of USDA Small Farm policy that may be relevant in the Victorian context.

Besides small farms, I was also interested in US extension and outreach in general. I picked up many useful tips for involving and motivating farmers from Daniel Mountjoy, NRCS, Salinas, California. I also learned from numerous Cooperative Extension staff. For example, Richard Molinar runs an extension program on an Asian-speaking radio station that reaches Hmong farmers in Fresno County, California.

Visiting with extension agents helped me appreciate the difference in the outreach systems between our countries. In Victoria, all agricultural extension (including information on agricultural production, natural resource management, farm business management and marketing, as well as pest plant and animal information and regulation) is administered through the State Department of Natural Resources and Environment. There is no formal link with the Universities so much research is carried out by the Department. Also, there is no field staff employed by a national body. Although Victoria runs a Food and Agriculture in the Classroom program, there is no youth extension network like 4-H and no parallel to Family and Consumer Science extension.

The funding available for agricultural extension in Australia is considerably lower than in the US and as a result very little one-on-one extension is carried out. Extension offices and research farms are spread throughout the state, but they are not located in each county. There has been a change over the last 20 years from one-on-one extension to group facilitation. The disadvantage to the farmer is decreased personal service, but the group-learning environment can be useful and affords the farmers more say in what they

Rather than having an extension agent come out and tell them what he/she has researched, the farmers are now working with a facilitator to identify what they need to learn, and then locating tailored speakers for their group. Of course the group format does not suit all farmers. Another change over recent years is the requirement for many producers to pay a levy to industry bodies to carry out specific research and extension. This sometimes means that governments need to conduct more research into new and emerging industries, which are not large enough or organized enough to have research levies in place.

Besides the difference in outreach programs, there are a number of similarities within the agricultural sectors of Australia and the US. These include the increasing average age of farmers, declining terms of trade, a growing emphasis on environmental management, increasing farm size for medium-large scale producers, and also increasing numbers of small farms as urban people start living on large acreages around cities.

The IPD helped organize my enrollment in some NRCS staff training sponsored by the National Employee Development Center (NEDC). The NEDC staff was very helpful and informative. In Victoria, we do not have much web-based training available to extension staff so participating in Introduction To Water Quality allowed me to experience this method of course delivery. The Working Effectively With Livestock Producers (WEWLP) class was highly valuable and afforded an excellent opportunity to meet NRCS staff from across the country.

I was taken to a baseball game one evening and was told that I would need to consume beer, peanuts and hot dogs for the true American experience. The caramelized popcorn was the highlight!

Upon my return to Australia, I recommended that my Department investigate the feasibility of running courses such as WEWLP. It was a remarkable opportunity to learn about specific farming businesses within a short period of time. As increasing numbers of extension staff in Victoria are employed with natural resource management qualifications, rather than agricultural science, courses such as this will be invaluable in increasing staff knowledge and credibility with farmers.

Curtis Absher, Assistant Director of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Kentucky’s Cooperative Extension Service, was another valuable contact that I met early in my trip. Curtis arranged many activities to help maximize the learning opportunities available to me, including partaking in training offered by the Kentucky Natural Resources Leadership Institute (KNRLI). What I particularly liked about the KNRLI training was that class participants were a mix of agency staff, farmers and community leaders. Utilizing this format is another recommendation I am putting forward to my Department, particularly with our current Government’s focus on enhancing community capability. Curtis also organized many beneficial visits with co-operatives, farmers and extension agents in Kentucky.

While investigating examples of sustainable agriculture in the US, I spent valuable time with Dave Dukes, a no-till row cropper in southern Iowa; Gary Jackson, Director of Farm*A*Syst; farmers working on Water Quality Plans in Kentucky and California; and some organic farming and social researchers at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California. The information I have gained, the contacts made, and the resources I have brought home will be invaluable for the Department of Natural Resources and Environment and for my own career.

I encourage everyone to try and find an opportunity to undertake a similar visit to another country. It is an amazing learning experience. If anybody would like to know more about my exchange, Australian extension, or contacts in their field of expertise, please email me for more information.

I would like to especially thank Larry Clark and the IPD for their assistance. I would also like to recognize the kindness of the farmers, USDA and CSREES staff and their families who offered accommodations, transport and friendship throughout my trip. To all of them, I am most grateful.

Author: Julie Francis, Extension Agent, Victoria, Australia, Julie.francis@nre.vic.gov.au

Editor:  Gail C. Roane, International Programs Division,