Sunday, 16 December 2012

Really Important to have Social Scientists Working in Agriculture

Social scientists are very active in Agrifood. 

That’s great! I welcome these intelligent minds working in both the agriculture & food space. Agrifood is about people. Dairy Farming is primarily about people. 

How people think, make decisions, work with each other, how we collectively live & work together is really important stuff. Yet mainstream agricultural science, farmers & farming largely ignore the social scientists & their work. I’ve just attended the Australia-NZ Agri-food Research Network conference held at Massey University.

To my embarrassment I admit I was largely unaware of the research work being undertaken in the Agrifood space by social scientists. These people work in Geography, Politics, Rural Sociology, Psychology, Maori studies, Economics, Extension, History, Business Studies, Communication & the Environment. What’s more there are some very good postgraduate students…. lots of them! 

It is so encouraging to see Agrifood attracting bright young people & the Research Network supporting these young scientists.

There were 2 presentations that struck a particular chord with me. Firstly Dr Lesley Hunt’s paper, from the ARGOS Project (a number of papers), stating that not all farmers are driven by the profit/increase production motive. Not new information but really important to be said again when we are facing important public problems like sustainability, climate change & the environment. Farmers have many goals, motivations & value systems that encourage different systems & create a complex rural society & community. NZ research & extension is totally focussed on profit & increased output. Reference to “the top quartile farmers” might be feel good stuff but is rarely helpful in understanding farmer decision making.


Marie McEntee’s study (University of Auckland) into how effective NZ Agricultural Extension is, showed a dominance of “Top down” linear thinking and approaches being used. 

The mere term “Transfer of Technology” implies a transfer of information. Can scientists really develop “better” solutions? It’s all too easy to blame the end user for failure to adopt. Farmers are being seen as adopters not as originators of knowledge. Why? This was an excellent presentation for those who are listening.

In my experience farmers are fully in control of the on farm decision making process. They drive it. Farmers are actively creating new knowledge & information (research) all the time but are largely ignored by extension & research. 
Why would they respond to top down technology transfer? They are however very keen to participate in research & development.

The rural community has complex networks that work very effectively to enable change. So if science & society want change that involves farmers, we’d better all get to understand farmers, farming families & the rural networks. These networks include social media and are global. This is really exciting & chaotic.


 The “Future Agenda” forum was created by the Vodafone company.Much of the future agenda involves social change. Issues such as “Cocktail Identities”, Enjoying the Ordinary”, “Switching off” are already here & are likely to become even more important. 

Agrifood, including pasture based dairy farmers need to understand the social future. We need to better understand people. Social Scientists have much to offer.

The internet has enabled people all over the world to connect & become a community.

 The impact of increasingly global common interest groups with which people align their priorities should not be ignored by farmers or researchers. Priorities like sustainability, environmentally friendly, quality food & good diets will impact massively on the way we farm in the future.


  1. Thanks Tom, an interesting read. Are proceedings/papers/presentations from the conference available? If not, will they be?

    You'll be pleased to hear that Beef + Lamb New Zealand has and is working with social scientists in our planning and delivery, and there are plans afoot for even more work in that area. I think this includes social science research as well.

    As a result, I dont think your comments "NZ research & extension is totally focussed on profit & increased output", "Farmers are being seen as adopters not as originators of knowledge" and "Farmers ... are largely ignored by extension & research" are fair or applicable to the work Beef + Lamb New Zealand are doing.

    Our purpose, in my view, is 'Behaviour Change to Increase Farmer Satisfaction', with the behaviour change work occuring at all points along the pasture to plate journey.

    Farmer satisfaction as I see it broadly consists of 3 areas: Financial returns, Family and 'Fun', for want of a better word. Profit isn't everything, as the ARGOS work reinforces, although it certainly makes family and fun easier!

    Beef + Lamb New Zealand is also focussed on the 3 'legs' of sustainability: financial, social, environmental. A lot of our investment on behalf of sheep and beef farmers is not about just or always about the bottom line. A significant amount goes into making things easier or more enjoyable as well.

    In addition, especially since the formation of Beef + Lamb New Zealand, we have made a huge effort to drive our research and 'technology transfer' from the ground up. Each region has its own 'Farmer Council' of bona-fide farmers, and we've given them a large degree of autonomy. They work by forming strong connections with farmers and others in their neighbourhood. Each region develops, implements and monitors their own Region Delivery Plan, in conjunction with their Director, staff and peers. Delivery is then overseen by local steering groups. A big focus is on-farm 'innovation' - who has good ideas, how do we get others to see/hear/experience those onfarm innovations. As well as interesting things coming out from our research (which is turn is often exploring/expanding ideas thrown up from something someone tried on a farm).

    No doubt in the past there was a lot of top-down/'farmers as passive recipients' in tech transfer in sheep and beef; but as importantly, there is no doubt this has been largely overturned. Happy to catch up and go over what we do, and how we could improve, in more detail some time.

    Aaron Meikle
    Extension Manager
    Central South Island
    Beef + Lamb New Zealand

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