Peer Group Mentor
Understanding the Concept
The important role played by ‘peers’ in encouraging farmers to adopt new practices is widely recognised in the rural extension literature. Whilst it is true that professionals (or experts) can be effective in introducing new ideas and information into a farming community, it seems that they actually play a very minor role in terms of the subsequent validation, interpretation and adaptation which is required before most farmers will seriously consider a substantial investment in practice change. Social research highlights that it is the neighbours, acquaintances and family members that often have the greatest impact on a farmer’s decision-making and their interest in learning more about new land management practices.
Rather than replace other trusted sources of information, peer mentors add value to the work of professionals, industry agents, government agency staff and researchers. Farmers talk, quietly seeking a response from those they trust before making their own judgement. We like to think of the peer group mentoring concept as ‘improving the quality of the discussion’ that occurs amongst farmers and family members as they learn about new land management practices, explore how they might be adapted to fit their particular circumstances, and make the very personal judgement as to whether they will commit their own land and resources to the task.
As a landholder group, the Otway Agroforestry Network (OAN) has always argued that the success of any tree-growing venture lies in ensuring it reflects the aspirations, opportunities and constraints of those involved. Because every farm, and every farming family, is different, what works for on one farm may not suit a neighbour. OAN members say what they require most, even more than subsidies for trees and fences, is on-farm, practical and on-going advice and guidance from people they trust as they plan, establish and manage their agroforestry projects.
The OAN Peer Group Mentoring Program (PGM) identifies and trains experienced tree growers from within the local community, then pays them to work alongside their neighbours. The mentors are not seen as experts. Their role is to provide a sounding board for the farmer as they explore ideas and implement their projects. To date, more than twenty landholders have acted as mentors providing one-on-one support to more than 100 landholders across our region. Mentors have also been involved in running regional farm walks, representing the network at local meetings and contributing to regional newsletters. They are paid an hourly rate and reimbursed for the use of their private vehicle. The funds to support the program currently come from our agroforestry development projects supported by the federal government and philanthropic organisations.
Trees take a long time to grow and require timely management. Having on-going contact with experienced and trusted local treegrowers increases the likelihood that farmers will remain confident and enthusiastic about their tree growing venture. Our mentors also provide a direct link for farmers into a sophisticated regional network of farmers, researchers, service providers and government agencies which can help identify and address any problems or opportunities that arise. For the Otway Agroforestry Network, having regular contact with our members through the mentors increases participation and support for our community group as a whole. This ensures our educational programs and technical workshops are also well supported and it is these activities that help us identify members who are keen to learn more and possibly become involved as mentors themselves. Ultimately, the PGM project is helping us achieve landscape change within our rural communities in ways that reflect the interests and aspirations of the people who live there.
In recent years, the OAN Peer Group Mentoring Program has been recognised as an innovative and novel extension model which might be suited supporting the adoption of sustainable land management practices in other regions.
New National Peer Group Mentoring Project underway in 3 regions
The Australian Agroforestry Foundation is currently negotiating contracts with three regional groups to deliver Peer Group Mentoring projects within their region. The funding comes from the Federal Government as part of the Caring for our Country Innovations Grant. The aim is to test the concept as a means of improving the effectiveness of conventional extension. The idea does not replace professionals. In fact, scientists and extension professional play a critical role in supporting the peer group mentors and responding to the special needs or concerns of the landholders. Each region will receive more than $60,000 to work with the Foundation to run educational and extension programs in their own region.
Where? In addition to continuing the innovative work of the Otway Agroforestry Network in Victoria we anticipate that the project will be delivered in the south west of Western Australia by the SW branch of the Australian Forest Growers and on the New England Tablelands of New South Wales by the Southern New England Landcare Network. A forth pilot project is planned for Northern Australia focusing on Bush Foods.
Rowan talks about the project to ABC Rural.
There is a long history of tree growing on farms in the New England region
Get involved: Each region will be running Master TreeGrower courses and providing trained mentors who will visit your farm, develop a site report, put you in touch with other growers and experts, and provide guidance as required. For those working alone on the land our mentors link farmers into a huge network of practical tree growers, experts, researchers and government officers. Contact: Southern New England Landcare or South West WA AFG or The Otway Agroforestry Network