November this year was the Australasian Pacific Extension Network (APEN) conference held in Tasmania and organised by John James and a conference committee. It was 30 years ago in 1993 that I was responsible for organising an international extension conference at the Gold Coast for the Queensland Department of Primary Industries (QDPI).
That ‘first’ conference resulted from a few of us in QDPI who had the opportunity to study extension at post-graduate level – at government expense – in other countries. We wanted to share what we had learned and to reignite interest and skills in what extension could do differently. The logic was for us to learn what was working in other countries and bring back this knowledge to Queensland (this also happened in the more technical study areas). It came at a time when government extension was going through a bit of a crisis and rethink – there was a focus on government dealing with market failure – not providing a ‘free advisory service to farmers’. I was also involved in developing the extension strategy for QDPI which guided it during the 90s.
Back to the Tasmanian conference. There were well over 250 attendees – many early in their careers and many who were not involved in APEN or attended such a conference before. The other exciting aspect was the number of private and industry extension people there – extension is no longer a government dominated arena. APEN came out of that first conference in 1993 and has been a force in developing extension practice and support now for 30 years. It was a very well run and energetic event with very high ratings from participant when they responded to the value of the conference for them. This energy and interest generated now needs to be supported and built upon.
While extension’s eulogy was being read 30 years ago the conference success underpinned the current vital importance of people in the equation when it comes to supporting learning and implementing change in the face of increasingly complex situations facing the agricultural sector in Australia and beyond. A project that overlapped with the conference – we held a workshop around this at the conference – is developing an extension skills matrix, designed for the breadth of extension work and in looking ahead to the challenges facing those involved in agriculture. In a brainstorming session looking ahead to new skills needed for extension, among many others, participants raised the need for: Virtual reality skills and use of equipment; and Embracing AI and other innovations and bringing others along (i.e. not left behind). Such technology is not seen as a replacement for extension – but in strengthening what extension can do to support those in agriculture.
I doubt if I will be around to see what is happening in extension in 30 years’ time – but I am confident that the need will still be there and the flame will be carried forward by the younger cohort of extension professionals.