Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Climb down from your camel!

If you want to barter with us, get down off that camel! This quotation – from the Cluetrain Manifesto – urges organizations that want to engage fully with their stakeholders to meet them on their turf. Scientists who are genuinely commited to collaborative science should get down off their camels.

The crisis of soil security has a simple solution: a shift in the behaviour of soil managers. This requires there to be a desire in farmers to change the way they farm. This simple solution has high barriers to implementation. They are economic and social and political. These barriers are not insurmountable, but they can only be overcome by making radical changes to the way farmers are engaged.

A desire for sustainable practices arises from personal values that are enshrined in culture and thrive, survive or crash-dive in a social context. The average farmer desires to protect the landscape out of an innate sense of respect for Nature. However there are many perceived risks facing a farmer wishing to act on these desires:

· The need to maintain production for economic returns;

· The lack of knowledge of alternatives;

· The opinions of neighbours and others in the district;

· The media controversy over ‘natural’ practices;

· The “Green” connotations surrounding the alternatives; and

· The opinions of family members.

The concept of a network of progressive farmers acting as a research base and a demonstration platform has been floated. It is intended that, unlike the conventional top-down approach to conducting research about agricultural practices, a more collaborative spirit would produce more cohesive and better informed methodologies.

The history of scientific enquiry into alternative land management practices – such as grazing management, pasture cropping, no-till cropping – is littered with cases where the experimental design failed to approximate on-farm reality.

The sources of success with sustainable farm management are not easy to identify or understand. The farmer is managing a complex bio-economic system that is subject to rapid change and uncertainty and relies upon the farmer’s skills, knowledge, intuition and passion for the task. It cannot to broken down to a series of disconnected roles and responsibilities and subjected to laboratory experiment.

Rather, a sustainable farm could be conceived of as being a cultural artefact. The phenomenon of the successful sustainable farmer could best be studied by using an anthropological approach, focussing on the values underpinning the shift and how the shift was made in the social context.

The landscape can be described in an interpretive manner, with a range of biodiversity and soil health indicators (in the absence of data) to support the profile of the case study of success.

Each farm is unique and each farmer is unique, and by describing how they solve common problems, the communication value of the study would be a valuable means of giving those on the threshold the ‘permission’ they seek to make the shift.

According to the Bell Curve of Diffusion of Innovation Model, there are only two segments to be engaged in this process: the leading farmers are Innovators (2.5%), the vanguard, and the Early Adopters (12.5%), the first wave of followers. The members of these segments, and the third, the Early Mature (35%), are differentiated by their risk tolerance. Innovators have high tolerance, Early Adopters have lower tolerance but see being left behind as a countervailing risk. The Early Mature have even lower tolerance to risk than both Innovators and Early Adopters, but follow when it appears ‘everybody’s doing it’.

The first segment gives the second, much larger segment the permission they seek to take the risk as the second would give the third. This is where the network concept could operate.

Engagement Strategies: Collaboration must be more than consultation with stakeholders. It must be closer to a relationship between colleagues from different specialties. In order for collaboration to be genuine, there must be mutual respect for the disciplines each party must observe in order to practice their profession.

It is recommended that a cross-training approach be adopted whereby the scientists involved attend an Holistic Resource Management course and the farmers attend a course in Practical Agricultural Science 101.

This would demonstrate commitment and at the same time heighten the engagement of both sides and lead to better project designs. It would give farmers more realistic expectations of science and more ownership of the results. It would set the bar for future engagement between scientists and practitioners.

By adopting a more holistic approach to studying the dynamic of successful sustainable farming through a two-way transfer of skills and knowledge, both parties in the collaboration can contribute to the solution to soil security to their fullest extent.

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