| Agricultural extension |
Farmer training is education that most often takes place outside formal learning institutions. It differs from education in schools because it is geared towards adult learning.
Adult learners are distinct from child learners in four important respects. The self-concept of a child is characterized by dependency, whereas mature adults are self-directed and sufficient in most aspects of their lives. Adults tend to resent educators that fail to take this fact into account. They do not appreciate being talked down to or having their autonomy restricted in ways that show a lack of respect. Since most learning situations are pedagogical, or directed at children, adults often enter training with expectations that they will be treated like children with explicit guidance at each step. When they eventually discover that they are capable of directing their own learning, adults are often spurred on by a strong, emerging motivation to pursue their own educational goals.
A second aspect of adult education that also pertains to agricultural training deals with motivation to learn. In pedagogical learning, teachers decide the content to be delivered to students as well as how and when the teaching is to take place. Adults on the other hand, begin new learning ventures with some ideas of what they will gain from doing so. It is necessary, then, that extension agents discover what it is a farmer wants to learn This may seem like a natural step and perhaps not worth much emphasis. Nonetheless, failure to accomodate a farmer's interests is a common pitfall. Extension agents often assume the teacher's role and decide for the farmer what she needs to know. The drawback to this approach is that the farmer is apt to resist. Decisions on the content and method of training must be the shared responsibility of farmers and extensionists. The common purpose which emerges from such choices leads to sense of cooperation necessary for learning to take place. A cooperative spirit in adult learning is important because it allows for the sharing of useful knowledge and skills adults bring with them to a new learning situation. Children have less experience to offer. Their classroom activities are characterized by modes of one-way communication, lectures, assigned readings and audio-visual presentations. By contrast, the past experience of adult learners is central to adult learning, so activities such as discussion, role playing, and skills-practice are designed which use that experience as a foundation for further learning. Grain farmers are asked to use their intimate knowledge of seasonal variations of climate to help plan a crop rotation pattern suitable for local conditions. Livestock owners rely on their experience of the difficulties of procuring local feedstuffs as they make selections to design a nutritional feed ration for a flock of laying hens.
The final characteristic of adult learners which sets them apart from children has to do with their time perspective and how it affects their orientation to training overall. Children (and many educators) view pedagogy as preparation for the future. Its focus is the child herself. Graduation is the point at which learning begins to be applied. Adult learning on the other hand is based on the principle that all experience contributes to a learning process that does not end with the closure of a training event, but continues throughout one's adult life. Whereas pedagogy involves grouping and classifying information into subjects to be studied now for use "someday", adult education promotes learning by working on today's problems today. For example, Farmer training sessions are likely to focus on composting rather than chemistry, or immunization rather than microbiology. Though elements of the broader subjects come into play in each case, the immediacy of application is the determining factor in choosing the actual content of the training.
Adult learning is not widely practiced in the extension services which are predominant in the developing world. Small farmers in Third World countries are often told what is right ("modern techniques") and what is wrong ("traditional practices"), what to grow ( often, cash crops), and where and when to market their produce. This approach to extension promotes dependency on outside inputs and expert advice (self-concept). It denies farmers the choice of what they want to learn (motivation). It does not focus on the Third World farmer's most immediate need to grow more food for her family (time perspective). Nor does it take into account a farmer's accumulated experience of the environment where her crops are grown.
The environment in which small-scale Third World farmer lives is often dominated by uncertain weather, pests, diseases and price fluctuations. Farming in this environment is fraught with risks. Given the choice afforded her in a farmer training system built on adult learning principles, a farmer will avoid as much risk as she can. The extension worker's task, then, is to help the farmer reduce risks whenever possible through a sensitive choice of training methods and presentation of innovations that are appropriate to the scale and type of farming being practiced.
There are several ways to help accomplish this goal. Perhaps the most important is to try and ensure success by promoting only those innovations whose results have been thoroughly tested under local conditions. Extensionists often succumb to the temptation to promote before testing. This may well result in failure of the practice and a disastrous loss of credibility among farmers. The importance of assessing the success rate of specific proposed changes cannot be overemphasized.
A second way to reduce farming risks is to time the sequencing of innovations. Certain changes lend themselves to earlier promotion than others. Those that are easily assimilated into current practices involve less risk than those that are more disruptive of the norm. Examples would be innovations that do not require a radical change in diet or a detrimental shift in the tasks assigned to men and women in the work force; that would avoid considerable retraining; or that would not entail a realignment of a periodic farming cycle. Less costly innovations (e.g. timeliness, seed selection or better spacing techniques) are preferred and in cases where cash inputs are required, risk is reduced if they are readily available to all classes of farmers. Finally, extension agents can build credibility by first introducing innovations that have an immediate payoff as opposed to those that have longer term results (e.g. variation of a feed ration as opposed to cross-breeding).
Sometimes it is easier to promote a 'package' of innovations than a single innovation, because the results of a well-tested package are often much more dramatic. The package approach is also sometimes favored by national planners of extension services because it is seen as a more efficient use of limited extension manpower. One major drawback of this technique is that if the package fails, farmers may conclude that all of the individual practices are unproductive. Also, more research and testing are required to adapt a package to local conditions than a single innovation. A package may be more costly because several changes are introduced at once and may therefore be inaccessible to small farmers with limited cash resources. (Note that a package can also be designed that does not include cash inputs.) Finally, the elements of a package may be so closely related that if a single input is unavailable or one component is inadvertently neglected, the entire package may be susceptible to failure.
It is not uncommon for extension agents, whether they are working with a package or with individual innovations, to exaggerate the benefits of a new practice. Efforts must be taken to make conservative recommendations. Suggestions include: lower yield estimates to account for incidental factors and less than optimum employment of new practices by farmers; recommend purchased inputs on the basis of maximum return per dollar rather than maximum return per land unit or head of livestock (this favors small farmers who do not profit by volume); encourage farmers to do a limited trial of a new practice prior to wholesale adoption, (for example, on a small portion of land rather than over a whole landholding). The idea behind making conservative recommendations is that they allow a farmer to improve at her own rate until she reaches a position of sufficient financial security to assume greater risks.
At times, the difficulties farmers have in taking their chances with a particular practice have less to do with the practice itself than with the method of its presentation. Appropriate training methods help ensure that the benefits of change and the specific steps required to make that change are effectively communicated to a farmer in a way she can readily understand.
Examples of different learning styles include farmers who need to see and test results for themselves; farmers who are unsure how to do something; farmers who need to get their information from people they know rather than strangers, and farmers who need ideas expressed in a logical framework, that is consistent with their own worldview. Corresponding training methods are result demonstrations and on farm-trials; method demonstrations; training of master farmers to train their peers; and analogy and storytelling. When an effective match is made between training method and learner, the quality of communication between the extension agent and the farmer increases, trust is established and risk in the eyes of the farmer is reduced.
In sum, farmers seek to avoid risk whenever possible in an occupation characterized by uncertainty. To help farmers change and adapt new conditions extension agents need to make concentrated efforts to reduce risk by rigorously testing results before promotion, introducing easily adaptable improvements before those requiring a more substantial departure from accepted practices, packaging innovations to enhance results, erring on the conservative side in making recommendations, and choosing training methods appropriate to farmers' learning needs. The advantages of combining these risk-avoiding steps include a greater measure of credibility for the extension agent and a more significant degree of control of and participation by farmers in the development process which affects their lives.