| Agricultural extension |
Making individual visits to farmers' fields and livestock holding areas is the farmer training method most widely practiced by extension workers. As such, it requires special attention.
During farm visits extension field workers are often directly confronted with very pressing problems. On the spot, the extension agent is asked to make an expert judgement about (troubleshoot) something plaguing a farmer's plants or animals. The way the extensionist handles this situation can profoundly affect levels of dependency in the farmer-agent relationship. The trick in successful troubleshooting is to avoid taking on "expert" status.
The situation an extension worker faces is somewhat like the interaction between a doctor and her patients. Given someone who needs medical attention, the doctor has several choices as to how she responds. She may simply cure the patient with a packet of pills or an injection and send him on his way. Or she may explain to the patient the causes of his affliction and the way the cure works, cure him, and send him on his way hoping to have educated him enough to prevent future illness. Finally, she may refuse the responsibility for the patient's cure, discuss with him the possible causes of the disease, and explain to him ways that he might be able to cure himself. With this the doctor sends him on his way, hopefully more capable of both preventing disease and curing it without any further assistance from the doctor herself.
The three options for the doctor's response are listed in order of decreasing dependency in the patient-doctor relationship. The same options may be available to the extension agent. One difference in the case of the agent is that she is likely not to have the same degree of expert training as most doctors. The consequence, then, is that the extensionist is in many instances not qualified to make the type of expert judgements represented in the first option above. On the other hand, like the doctor, the extension agent may face situations that she is competent enough to handle and that are serious enough in nature as to require direct action - a disease outbreak among a herd of cattle, for instance. In these cases, it is useful for the extension agent to have practical troubleshooting skills.
The first skills to consider are those of observation and examination. It is essential at the outset that the agent possess enough technical expertise to be able to distinguish normal from abnormal conditions. There are lists of signs of plant and animal diseases, for instance, that an extension agent needs to have either memorized or readily available for use. In the field, then, the agent watches for abnormal plant color, lack of uniformity, stunting, wilting and leaf spots. And she physically examines plants for signs of insect feeding. The steps necessary for a thorough examination need to be second nature. The way to make them systematic is to practice them daily and actually record them in field notebooks and worklogs.
The second set of skills involve utilization of resources beyond those of the agent herself. Included amont these skills are information gathering, description and networking. When confronted with a problem in the field, the extension agent needs to know what practices the farmer has used that might have contributed to the problem, what solutions the farmer may have already attempted in order to get rid of the problem, and, in more general terms, how much the farmer actually knows about possible causes and solutions for a given condition. In order to gather this information, the extensionst needs to utilize the interviewing skills discussed in Chapter Two. In some cases, information gathered from the farmer and the extension worker's own skills at diagnosis may still fail to turn up any clearer understanding of a situation. Being able to accurately describe what conditions exist then becomes a crucial skill. The agent can carry a description of a problem to a network of technical support persons, including other farmers, other extension agents, and technical research stations, to solicit their opinions as to what steps should be taken.
A third set of skills is important when the extension agent does have a clear idea of what is wrong with a farmer's crops or livestock. It is in this instance that she is most likely to set herself up as an "expert." Therefore, caution is warranted. The skills involved include dialogue and use of cross-cultural communication techniques. Dialoguing entails the artful posing of a series of questions logically sequenced so as to lead a farmer through the thought process of diagnosing a problem. (See ILLUSTRATIONS). The key is to keep asking open-ended questions. In cases where dialogue fails to work, the extensionist can give a careful, straightforward explanation of a problem, using analogies to other parts of a farmer's experience. Relating a problem to something'a farmer already knows will help him grasp the solution as something that is not wholly unfamiliar to him, rather than as something that is entirely within the foreign, even magical realm of scientific expertise.
Troubleshooting in a poultry extension program:
Field workers in a livestock extension program directed at poultry farming come together in a district capital for a meeting at which they discuss how they deal with the widespread problem of overcrowding in chicken pens.
Agent A simply tells farmers to build new pens for some of the chickens.
Agent B observes the chickens' aggressive behavior and examines several of them that are afflicted with fungus diseases related to the sanitary conditions in their pens. He asks the farmer how long the behavior patterns and diseases have been present. He explains to the farmer how the behavior and disease are related to the size of the pen and recommends moving some of the chickens to a new location.
Agent C observes the overcrowded pens and tells the farmer that he will return the next day with a suggestion to improve the health of the flock. He goes home and prepares a detailed analogy to help explain why it is important to reduce the number of chickens in the pen. He returns the next day and draws a parallel between the chickens and a large number of people confined in a closed room. He asks the farmer to recall the bad air and the heat he has experienced in closed rooms full of people and says that chickens experience something similar when too many of them are crowded together in one pen. He then recommends that the farmer build a new pen for the overflow.
Agent D is unsure whether overcrowding is the problem or not. He counts the number of chickens in the pen and paces off its size. He asks the farmer to describe the chickens' behavior and makes some brief notes in his field notebook. He visits other farmers whose flocks are healthy and compares the density of the chicken population in their pens. He asks the other farmers if they have observed any of the same sort of aggressive behavior as the first farmer he visited. The other farmers, it turns out, have larger pens for a comparable number of birds and have not witnessed agressive behavior in their flocks. On his next visit to the District Office of the Ministry of Agriculture, he has his suspicions confirmed by a senior extension officer who tells him that the disease and behavior of the problem flock are probably related to the overcrowded conditions in the pens. He returns to the farmer who owns the chickens and explains what the other farmers and the Ministry official told him. The farmer decides to build a second pen for some of his hens.
Agent E observes the crowded conditions and guesses right away that they are the source of the farmer's problems. Rather than tell the farm directly her opinion, she asks several questions that get the farmer thinking about different possible causes of the problem. Some of the ideas the farmer has are shown to be wrong when the extension agent points out exceptions. Others she accepts as possibilities. Finally, the farmer and the agent have narrowed their list down to two or three potential causes. They discuss ways the farmer can test them and arrange for follow-up visits by the agent to see if any of the options have worked. After testing one of the possibilities and finding that it does not change the condition of his birds, the farmer finally determines that overcrowded pens are the chief cause of his flock's illnesses.
Dialoguing with a farmer about crop management techniques:
Question to the farmer: What is the problem with these plants?
Answer: They are yellow and their leaves are withered.
Q: Are all of your plants in the same condition?
A: No, some are much healthier.
Q: What can make plants get sick like this?
A: Sometimes the ground is not good; sometimes there are insects.
Q: Why do you wait until this time of year to plant your garden?
A: Because the crops will not grow well without the rains.
Q: Where do the heavy rains go when they hit the ground here? Do they stay in one place?
A: No, some goes into the ground, but most of the water goes down the hill to the low part of the plot.
Q: How do the plants in the low part of the plot compare to the sick ones you brought me here to see?
A: They are much greener and larger than these.
Q: Why do you think that is the case?
A: It could be because there is more water in that part of the plot when it rains.
Q: How can you help these plants on the upper half of the plot grow better?
A: Give them more water by hand.
Q: How often will you water them?
A: Once every day.
Q: If that is not enough, what will you do?
A: I will water morning and evening, twice a day.
• The ultimate cause of the problem here is that the garden plot is unlevel. The more immediate problem of making his plants healthy is more important to the farmer. The extension agent in the dialogue is wise to wait until a more appropriate time -- just prior to the next planting season, for example -to talk to the farmer about levelling off the plot itself.
• Guard against asking patronizing questions by being thoroughly familiar with a farmer's knowledge.
Troubleshooting tools for crops extension agents:
-A pocket knife for digging up seeds or slicing plant stems to check for root and stem rots or insects borers.
-A shovel or trowel for examining plant roots or checking for soil insects or adequate moisture.
-A pocket magnifying glass to facilitate identification of insects an diseases.
-A reliable soil pH test kit for checking both topsoil and subsoil pH; especially useful in areas of high soil acidity. Kits using litmus paper are generally unreliable. The Hellige Truog kit is one of the best.
-Disease, insect and hunger signs guides which can be hand written if conveniently sized booklets are not available.
1. Know signs of abnormal conditions; supplement knowledge with additional training if necessary.
2. Assemble useful tools.
3. Observe and examine and consult with farmer.
4. Consult with other farmers and local agriculturalists.
5. Consult outside experts and resources.
Appropriate problem-solving options: (Consider in order)
-Non-action (Can the farmer handle the problem on her own? Is she turning to an extension agent out of force of habit?)
-Dialogue leading to farmer controlled experimentation.
-Preceding a response with time to prepare an appropriate training method.
-Making recommendations after patiently explaining their rationale.
-Intervening directly in cases of extreme need and attempting a follow-up at a later date.
"A Guide To Troubleshooting Common Crop Problems", Traditional Field Crops Manual, M-13, David Leonard. C/O ICE. Page 333 and afterwards.