The modern evolution of agricultural extension

Agricultural extension has changed markedly during the last 50 years. In this article we’ll give a brief overview of the modern evolution of extension and we’ll hopefully illustrate that we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

There is no one approach that works – so understanding some of the different approaches, and incorporating them into our work when appropriate, can be really useful when working as enablers of change.

In an earlier blog post we discussed the history of extension and how agricultural extension as we know it, originated from universities in the 1800s wanting to extend the reach of their research programs.

Just to remind ourselves what extension is, we’re using the Australian definition that was endorsed by all the state and territory governments. It defines extension as “the process of enabling change in individuals, communities and industries involved with agriculture and natural resource management”. 

There’s a diagram in that publication which is referred to as the “expanding bubble diagram” (see below) which neatly summarises the various stages of extension evolution in recent times. We’re going to use that as the basis of this blog post and then build on it as well. It illustrates how the approaches we’ve used in extension have evolved over the last 50 years or so. 

It all started with the Transfer of Technology approach and the categories of adopters, popularised by the 1962 book by Everett Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations. We find it interesting how the cover art has changed with each edition! The fourth edition depicts the ripples emanating from a drop of water. However the fifth edition (released in 2003) has an image of several leaves of different colours, from green through to orange. Perhaps it symbolises the different nature of the five categories of adopters, where innovators are lush green fields of opportunity, through to the poor old maligned laggards, who are seen as tired and somewhat browned-off. But it must be a stock image, as the same photograph was used for the cover of Chasing daylight: How my forthcoming death transformed my life, by Eugene O’Kelly in 2008. Anyway, we’re not sure why the publishers or Everett thought it was good choice for his book! So if you’re reading this and could suggest why, please leave a comment and put us out of our misery!

But back to the good old Transfer of Technology approach, which was the accepted model of extension in the 1960s. It works best where there is a simple solution that needs to be communicated to the masses, and it’s what some call a Science-push approach.

In the 1970s, in response to the failure of the Transfer of Technology approach, Farming systems research began. This is where farmer discussion groups inform research and extension priorities. Research is carried out in a farming context or in simulations, to ensure that the research is practical and that farming systems are incorporated into the solutions.

Moving to the 1980s, with systems approaches influencing extension, we embraced systems thinking. This was good, as extension then focused on the needs of landholders, rather than assuming extension (or science) knew best what farmers needed.

In the 1990s, extension used multiple theories, methods, tools and processes, and was drawing on other disciplines as well, such as psychology! This meant that extension was increasingly able to meet a range of needs for a range of people – individuals and groups, including farming and natural resource management. Quite diverse needs indeed! Extension was about supporting social learning processes and participatory methodologies as a means to enabling practice change.

Since the year 2000, the focus has been on capacity building and community development. In Australia at around that time, there was a shift from state agencies being the primary provider of extension services, to encouraging and supporting other providers to be involved in extension. This has led to public/private partnerships, competitive neutrality and increased private sector service provision. So in Australia, instead of the state agencies doing extension, they enable extension to be delivered by others. During this time, natural resource management regional bodies have played a much greater role in delivering extension services as well. 

In New Zealand the shift from public to private provision of extension started a lot earlier. It was in the 1990s after the government removed subsidies on agriculture and reduced their provision of extension. The extension arm of the government was privatised at the end of the 1990s and instead, primary industries have been encouraged to collect industry levies to fund industry development. That has meant there has been some radical innovation in extension and some gaps!

One of the most recent approaches to emerge has been the concept of co-innovation – another evolution of extension. If you’d like to know more about this, we will be devoting an entire post on it, so watch out for that one for more details. Briefly, co-innovation builds on the systems approach and widens the thinking to include regulators, policy makers, and even consumers in understanding and solving problems. Co-innovation involves identifying key actors, including end users,  and involving them throughout a project to co-create or co-develop a solution. 

So we’d now add that to the end of the expanding bubble diagram to represent the major development in that decade. What we like about the diagram is that each new phase is added to the previous ones, so the old ones aren’t replaced, but complemented by the new approaches. 

Here is our updated version of the expanding bubble diagram, including more recent developments.

So you’ve heard our thoughts, now we’d like to hear yours! Add a comment below the blog post and tell us your thoughts about the evolution of extension. We don’t want this to be just a one-way conversation – join in by sharing your thoughts and ideas with us! 

Thanks for reading this Enablers of change blog post! Remember to subscribe if you would like to know when new posts are available, and if you liked what you heard.

Further resources

State Extension Leaders Network (2006). Enabling change in rural and regional Australia: The role of extension in achieving sustainable and productive futures. Available online

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Sandra Baxendell
1 year ago

Great video -many thanks

Jane
Jane
1 year ago

Hi Denise and John, Where does Ag Innovation Systems fit in or do you consider it as Co-innovation?

Chris Aylward
Chris Aylward
1 year ago

Hi John.
Have always been a fan of “grower led innovation”, and models that support that and share risk. Would be interested in your comments about how this fits into co – innovation? Perhaps a silly question but would like to hear your take on this.
Cheers

Chris Aylward
Chris Aylward
1 year ago
Reply to  John James

Thanks John.
Are you aware of any good examples of co innovation that have been documented/case study, so I could better understand? I feel that a lot of extension programs I was involved with and or witnessed, were just dressed up versions of “top down info transfer”, and the practice change rates resulting from those were poor. Thats why I have a bias toward grower led models. So keen to further understand this co innovation model. Any good case studies about you can recommend?

Roy Murray-Prior
1 year ago
Reply to  John James

Hi Chris & John. The Kiwis and Tulips also had an issue of the Outlook on Agriculture Special Issue 2, 2017 that has plenty of info including an evaluation by Coutts et al.

Aaron Meikle
Aaron Meikle
1 year ago

Just to reinforce your initial statement “there is no one approach that works”. I feel that this is often seen as a stepping stone process, where the next step has replaced the former (which the first graphic implies). But all these approaches still have a place – even the hardy perennial Transfer of Technology can still be appropriate. Its evolution, where the new species exists alongside the old rather than the old transforming into the new. And on that note, maybe the graphic could be more like an onion, with each layer the more complex/comprehensive approach than the former? 🙂… Read more »

Roy Murray-Prior
1 year ago
Reply to  John James

I agree with you both. Joan Tully was talking about community engagement and systems in the 60s and many extension officers where using variations of her approach (particularly in the dairy and grains industry) in the 70s. Community engagement and capacity building was at the core of the Landcare movement beginning in the 80s, while soft systems research involved elements of co-innovation and design in the 80s and 90s. However, we still need to to provide information and training as outlined by Coutts, Roberts, Roberts & Coutts in their 2005 RIRDC publication. In this case as implied in the blog… Read more »

MICHAEL MUSYOKA
MICHAEL MUSYOKA
1 year ago

This is a very good article, I would be much interested to read something on market-based extension if you have. Thank you

Zilane Chiweta
Zilane Chiweta
1 year ago

Extension innovation should today also take on board regional weather patterns as well as vulnerability of poor farming communities of Eastern Asia and rural Africa.

Humphreys
1 year ago

Nice explanation

Humphreys
1 year ago

If possible I would like to have a brief explanation on the theoretical evolution of agricultural extension

Lab Wilson
8 months ago

Great summary and agree with all the comments – generally around not throwing out the baby with the bathwater. However it seems to me the concept of social learning is often the espoused theory versus the theory in use (Thanks Chris Agyris). Whilst social learning is alive and being supported well, the default position of many consultants, facilitators, and sadly funding institutions, is reverting to top-down TOT and, what Wegner and Traynor describe as, “the transmission of certainty” or “shaping of behaviour”. As you point out, it is not that these are wrong however in their view, although they may… Read more »

Grey
Grey
6 months ago

How is the co-innovation approach similar to demand driven approach

Grey
Grey
6 months ago
Reply to  John James

Thanks, John really appreciate being a part of this discussion