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Blog Update – The Start of 2011

  • Published: by Jeff Coutts | Permalink
FloodDrayton1RobynCouttsFijiJeffCouttsFiji
Well the Queensland and Victorian Floods have dominated the last month – and now a cyclone is heading towards my original home town – Ayr!  Quite a start to the year!  I feel for those affected directly and indirectly.  And those landholders who have battled drought and have now lost crops, pastures, stock and infrastructure to floods.

Robyn and I were in Fiji (again! – see my earlier blog on our first visit there) at the time of the Toowoomba Tsunami and what followed!  Then we watched endless replays on BBC which showed the terrifying surge of water through the streets we knew so well.

This trip to Fiji was almost totally holidays – except that we fitted in a trip to Suva to visit SPC and be shown around by Laurie Fooks who has been working there for a few years now.  Laurie was able to show me that the Extension Policy brief that I contributed to was now published and up on line for all to see (Policy Brief 12)

So, apart from my work in PNG, I have managed to have a very small input into the Pacific Islands – and I hope someone finds it useful.  This also ties in with a PhD thesis that I am supervising at the moment – looking at monitoring participation in development projects in the Pacific.  I am still hoping that something further comes up and I may yet get the opportunity to provide some input into places like Tonga, or Samoa or any of the other many islands that comprise the Pacific Island Nations.

Australia after all, is a Pacific Island Nation at the edge of the Pacific!

Anyway, the holiday coincided with Fiji’s wet season – so we didn’t really escape from the rain and floods back at home.  This time I chose the location for our stay – and I didn’t choose very well at all. But we did manage to get out to the coral islands, avoid drinking kava and buy a beautiful souvenir wooden vase (with lots of knots and shape in it!).  We were held up for a couple of days because of the Brisbane floods and finished the time off at Denarau in a very nice resort (although very unsettled because of the devastation back home).

This year starts off with workshops in Southwest Queensland looking at recovery in some of the communities after the floods, more workshops looking at dealing with on-going climate variability issues, the promise of another trip to NZ and Chile and some interesting on-going monitoring and evaluation projects.  I hope your year has some nice things to look forward to as well.

Wrapping up 2010

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Well just short trips since Chile.  A couple of days in Port Lincoln where I have been doing some work with the Eyre Peninsula NRM Board – looking at planning and evaluation for the major natural resource management programs.

Port Lincoln describes itself as…a thriving City where residents and visitors enjoy a clean, safe and unique location, enhanced by the surrounding natural environment…a major service centre to the Eyre Peninsula, with burgeoning aquaculture activity and services, which are provided to the vast region. It is the home of aquaculture.  It’s certainly a pleasant seaside location – great sunrises – over the bay.

More recently, I have started facilitating a series of workshops for RIRDC with the Centre for Rural and Remote Area Health in South West Queensland looking at issues impacting on uncertainty, stress and mental health in rural and remote communities.  The project itself is focused on climate change implications (and drought) but also picks up on other factors such as the impact of mining, reduced services, isolation etc.  The aim of this first phase is to explore the issues at local levels and see how community capacity can be assisted to be better able to deal with mental health issues in their localities.

It has been incredible that people have been prepared to come and share their communities and their concerns with us.  We have heard some real tough stories so far – but also of some excellent initiatives within these communities to support each other as well.  The participants tell us that they have gained a lot by being at the workshops and hearing from others in their own communities and hearing of what is happening and what can be done.  Because we don’t want to be another lot of outsiders who breeze in and out without anyone hearing from us again, we have started a blog so that workshop participants and others can follow what comes out of different localities and can add comments as well.  They will also be able to follow the conclusions and outcomes of the workshops and this phase of the project.

But life is not just about work things.  A recent family highlight was looking after number one grandson (3 years old) for a week or so – and going for a trip to “Bindi’s zoo”. Despite not finding Bindi, we had a great time – and young Alex was brave enough to even feed the elephants (as well as sitting on the giant crocodile with Uncle Chris and Aunty Amy) – we were much impressed!

So 2010 is now almost gone – just about marking 10 years of Coutts J&R!!!! It has been a very busy and very varied year – and I am wondering what I will be able to report next year.  Have a happy Christmas and all the best for 2011!

Dairying in Chile

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Snow capped mountain in ChileChilean farmhouseWorkshop in Chile
For some reason, the dairy industry has entered my radar over the last year.  I have had an enjoyable association with Dairy NZ looking at measuring impact which included a couple of visits to Hamilton New Zealand and out of left field came an invitation to visit Chile to talk about improving technology adoption in the dairy industry.

My two major work interests are agricultural extension and program evaluation and these occasions with the dairy industry provided me with terrific opportunity to pursue both areas.  For this update, I will focus on Chile.  As you would have seen in an earlier blog, we had the opportunity to travel to South America last year – but missed out on Chile, so it was rather nice to receive an invitation to visit and learn a little about what was happening in extension there.

My first stop after Santiago Airport was Osorno.  What I found was a landscape not unlike New Zealand – which I had just left!  Lakes, green pastures, snow capped mountains (including volcanos!) and lots of dairy cows!  And on top of that – quite a German culture.  Apparently the country recruited from Germany in the 1850s to develop the region that the indigenous people had abandoned after the volcanoes had erupted.  What I heard was that new settlers were given two oxen and a track of land and told to go to it!  Now, six generations later there are beautiful German farm houses built from wood, farm families speaking German as well as Spanish – and a thriving dairy industry!  Two sets of food and customs together.

After a chance to look at the lakes and eat an enjoyable meal by a lake with Daniela (my host) and her daughter, I then got down to the business of working with Cooprinsem staff to explore technology transfer issues.  Daniela, her colleague Mario and I ran four workshops with staff to look at what extension practice could offer them in better undertaking their work with farmers.  The Cooprinsem is a 42 year old company (cooperative totally farmer owned), that supplies goods and services to mainly dairy farmers and technology transfer was a key component.

Then we moved to the beautiful town of Puerto Varas to prepare for the national dairy seminar put on by the Consorcio Lechero (how is your Spanish?) which was held on the Thursday.  Speakers included a New Zealand consultant, Jeremy Savage as well as a Fonterra representative who was keen to develop the industry further for the export opportunities.

My messages related to the need to consider the adoption cycle of farmers and their context when encouraging adoption and how to approach this – as well as the need to develop national strategies and coordination between the players to achieve national targets. Daniela was very helpful in ensuring that my presentation was relevant to the mostly dairy farmers who were present – and for that I was very thankful!  I was impressed by the simultaneous translation – what gifted people!  Following the seminar, smaller workshops explored the main topics around increasing competitiveness endeavouring to determine the next steps that must be taken.  A good process I thought.

I had taken a short break to buy a watch for my wife, Robyn – she likes to have “different” watches made locally rather than mass produced.  At the hotel that night, I opened the wrapped parcel to find it empty!  I believed I had been ripped off and my new friends were concerned that it provided a bad view of Chile.  However, when I got back to shop where I bought it, I found a distraught and relieved shop owner who explained she had changed boxes because the first was broken and had wrapped up the long one – she had not slept and had rung the hotels asking if they had an Australian man staying there!  So all good!

So, that was my Chilean experience. Very interesting and eye opening and an opportunity to meet and work with some very special people.  I wonder where this job of mine will take me next?

Ahh, the Yorkshire dales

  • Published: by Jeff Coutts | Permalink
Flower fields in the NetherlandsJeff and Robyn in MoscowJeff and a drystone wall in Yorkshire
Having just come back from a good six weeks holiday in Europe, I thought it time to update my blog with another overseas instalment. Having had this business for almost a decade, I thought we were entitled to long service leave like anyone else – hence a full six weeks to allow the brain to wind down fully. Fortunately for me, Amy was there to hold the fort and so I could (almost) ignore the email traffic while travelling (its remarkable how much wireless access is available out there!).

So – the trip! We started with a couple of days in Singapore to re-set the brain – a spin around the Flier (like the London Eye!); dinner at the zoo; and a walk around the botanical garden – oh, and a drink at Raffles…as you do!

Then, on to The Netherlands – the old stamping grounds where we lived while I did my postgraduate studies at Wageningen. Apart from visiting great friends and revisiting special places, a highlight was dinner at a Michelin Star restaurant in Wageningen – the mystery 5 course dinner! Exquisite. Not that life is (only) about culinary experiences!

Next Russia…. so different to what I expected! The nice open cities, green spaces, architecture, onion churches – fantastic Moscow underground galleries – and of course the Kremlin (actually means a fortified city apparently) and Red Square (‘beautiful’ – rather than colour red!). We did a river cruise up to St Petersberg, then by train to Helsinki before flying on to Manchester in the UK.

As much the trip to date had been great with many new and pleasant experiences, touching down in Britain is always special! My mother’s family came from around the Lake District and my father’s came from Scotland – so I am convinced that Northern England and Scotland is in my blood. And hence my sense of place and well being while being amongst stone walls and green fields and stone villages and churches and ruined abbeys …… and sheep!

So, during visits to the Isle of Mull, Iona, walks in the Lake District, Hadrian’s wall and the Yorkshire dales – I had my sketch book and just drank in the smells, sites and sounds. My aim is to take the peace I felt on into this next year – and be even better in my work for it!

I could try and draw some nice deep lessons from all this – and relate it to my work (evaluation and extension) – but, I think I will just lie back and think about the Yorkshire dales and let it take me forward.

Convergence – a moment with my father

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In the extension arena, we often talk about managing change.  We talk about capacity and resilience and making changes to improve our own lives and our communities.  It’s not just about taking the latest technology and applying it – but to have thoughtfully learned from our experiences and training and weighing up what to apply across our social, economic, environmental landscape.

My father, Keith Coutts, died recently.  It is a time of change in our extended family.  Someone who was always there – back in my ‘home town’ – is there no longer.  And somehow, the rest of us fit back into normal life and move on to take his place in life’s march.

How do you sum up the meaning of your father’s life to yourself?  At the funeral, I had a chance to speak and reflect and wondered what I could possibly say that could capture even a window into that link and relationship.  I chose a short moment in our lives when, as I put it, our lives converged.  Dad was a blacksmith welder (among other things – father, husband, church elder, scout leader) and lived almost all of his life in Ayr, North Queensland.  I left Ayr at 17 and went off to start my career in agriculture and rural development and seemed to spend my life moving around, changing jobs and living in different places and countries.

However, there was a particular point of convergence.  My parents visited Robyn and I (and our then 2 little girls) when we were volunteering at a place called ‘Christian Leaders Training College’ in Papua New Guinea.  I was managing a poultry farm and Robyn worked in the preschool area.  This was my parents’ first time out of Australia – and it was quite a privilege that they visited us in this remote spot of the world.  I was tasked at the time with building a security fence around our layer sheds – the ‘raskols’ had started stealing in earnest and the tide needed to be stemmed!  This is where Dad’s ‘blue collar’ work met my ‘degree’ (and practically-challenged) career and we spent time together building the fence.  He showed me, for example, that you could line up a post on one side of the road with one on the other by using a hose full of water!

So there was the convergence – in a distant country together; in a ‘church’ setting; and working manually to bring about a management need.  I’m not sure that our lives ever converged again in the same way – but that moment never left me.

Resilience. Being able to move on and use our inner and social capacity that we have built up over life time – and take what life throws at us…or the opportunities that present to us!   Being in the capacity building game, I hope I get a chance to have impact on my own family – and others – in some small way.

Fiji

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Workshop in FijiSnorkelling in Fiji
Having finally set foot on Fiji – I thought I would revert back to my international theme for this update!  Even though I had lived and worked in Papua New Guinea (see my earlier blog) and had projects in Asia, I longed for the opportunity to do something in the Pacific Islands.  Many years ago, I had to choose between a poultry-based job in Fiji – and one in PNG.  I chose PNG but often wondered where life would have taken me and my family had I chosen differently.

My entry to Fiji this time was through a workshop organised by the University of Queensland as part of an ACIAR project (Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research) which looked at extension capacity building needs in the South Pacific.  I was a bit of an interloper – not having done the hard yards in the project – just coming in at the end (or what I hope might also be a start!).  What was fascinating was meeting a core group of people who really had a heart for extension – and developing skills in ‘extension workers’ and managers around participative processes.  [For those who are unfamiliar with the term ‘extension’ – it comes from an agricultural based-role referring to better linking farmers with research relevant to their farms.  This has since broadened beyond agriculture and to include more personal can social capacity building!]

But Fiji!  At last – standing on the soil – and beaches!  I only had a glimpse really – but was not disappointed.  I saw a country with mixed development, plenty of potential – good farmland, emerging industries – and a great tourist spot.  I also heard more of some of the other Pacific Island Nations and now also hope to visit places such as Vanuatu and Samoa – amongst many more.  Maybe the opportunity to engage in a project such as this might provide an opportunity to learn with other like-minded people in these places.

And the tourist side was also great!  My wife Rob joined me after the workshop for a taste of the beaches and islands – and we both discovered that we could actually snorkel if we put our minds to it!  It helped that the water was so warm and the coral so inviting.  And speaking of taste, the Indian food was just superb!

A final comment re Kava – the national drink!  I did get to taste it (see the photo) – but an yet to understand why a chalky, brown fluid is so popular!  Ah well, maybe you have to drink a few to find out?

Survey Workshops

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Survey workshop AdelaideSurvey workshop Darwin
One of the factors that has prompted us to launch our specialised rural survey service has been the survey workshops that I developed with Kerry Bell – a whiz with numbers and statistics!  Kerry and I had been co-running the University of Queensland’s ‘Evaluation of Projects and Programs’ Masters course for a number of years.

We had about 2 hours during the one week residential to devote to survey design and analysis and were always left frustrated at the end that we could not do it justice – and it was an area that students were very interested in. So we finally developed a course where we could devote 2 days rather than 2 hours to helping people understand the whole survey process!  And we’ve been pretty satisfied with the results and the feedback from participants.

When I was Director of the then Rural Extension Centre (a joint Department of Primary Industries and University of Queensland venture) we developed and ran courses mainly for people already employed and engaged in extension or educational activities themselves.  We applied ‘adult learning principles’ in the way we ran our courses to maximise the value that people got out of the experience.  We focused less on the ‘bit of paper’ and more on the practical value to participants.  And people responded!

This lesson has stayed with me since – don’t be an ‘aloof teacher’, but be a ‘learning facilitator’.  Build on the knowledge and motivation that the course participants already have….ground it in their own experience so that they own it and can use it when they leave.

Although training is not my major focus now – it is something that I have undertaken across a range of topics, place, groups and circumstances over the years.  From the formal UQ courses in Evaluation and Research Methods held on campus to training in evaluation, extension, facilitation, and participative development across Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines – and also once in South Africa!  In all cases, I have used adult learning principles – and gained as much from the interaction as the participants did.

After completing a review of extension around Australia for the Cooperative Venture in Human Capacity Building, Kate Roberts (an evaluation consultant based in Melbourne) and I ran courses in the evaluation of different extension models – and evaluating ‘empowerment’.  One exercise that we did in the training was to have the participants design a symbol capturing the range of interests of the group in the context of the learning that they were undertaking.  One example is shown in the picture – a strong symbol of people standing together and caring about the natural environment which they shared.  It also symbolised how we can learn from each other to make a difference!

Tassie

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Jeff horse-riding in tassieLooking out the window in TasmaniaTasmanian windmill
It’s not exactly ‘overseas’, but Tasmania is separated from mainland Australia by Bass Straight!  So maybe it ‘almost’ fits the travel theme of previous blogs.

It really is a beautify island sate – and I have been fortunate to have had some good project work in Tasmania over recent years.  For a number of years, I worked with my colleague Gordon Stone in evaluating the Stronger Learning Pathways project in the Cradle Coast (North West region). This project was attempting to address the low standing of continuing education in the region.  This gave us lots of reasons to travel to that part of the state – Burnie, Smithton, Wynyard and heaps of other coastal towns – to enjoy the tulips (yes there is a tulip farm just outside of Burnie!) – and look out for fairy penguins on the beach in the evenings.

Another project in Tassie that I was involved in evaluating the was 8×5 wool profitability project (I was never sure what the ‘8×5’ stood for!).  This took me over to the east of the state – a drier area, but older heritage towns remarkably like England!  The project found me (and Robyn) in a cold and draughty wool shed observing a workshop with wool producers about alternatives to fly control.  Rather than use a typical ‘feedback sheet’ to gauge how the wool farmers liked the workshop, I used a ‘dart board’ – three rings like a target up on the wall where they could peg how much the workshop hit the target for them!  This project showed the extra impact of on-going groups compared to more passive ways of bringing about change.

From wool to milk – and I had the chance to evaluate a dairy ‘Pasture-Plu$’ project – mainly across the North of the state.  A little greener than the drought-affected wool areas.  This project encompassed training, ‘focus farm’s, workshops and a ‘young farmer’s program and was very successful in engaging a large number of dairy farmers in thinking about pastures and better business management.  Again this project showed the value of the ‘personal touch’ – against the continuing flow of governments thinking that websites will take away the need for on-the-ground extension programs!

Lastly, I have had the opportunity to work with one of the Natural Resource Management regional bodies – NRM North – based in Launceston.  This has involved evaluating a large program looking at ‘best practice salinity management’ (I hadn’t even been aware that there was a salinity problem in Tasmania!) and different approaches to Property Management Planning.  This is another project that has shown the much added value of having people visit properties to work through the best options (not that I don’t value training and groups and good information to support such engagement!).

As well as work – Robyn and I did have a nice 10 days work-free bed and breakfasting around Tasmania – including getting over to the pristine West!  And, on one work trip, I managed to spend a day riding a horse through the mountains in the south – encompassing rain, snow and sleet all in one ride!  So for walk or play – I recommend Tassie.  I think I could easily live there (maybe if it was a tad warmer!)

South America

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Robyn in PeruRobyn in Peru at Machu PichuPeruvian runs
I seem to have started a theme about experiences in other countries – and as I am freshly back from a holiday in South America, I thought I would continue the theme.  Robyn and I teamed up with a group of mainly Toowoomba-ites, and marshalled by our common travel agent (Wendy), headed off to South America just after Easter.  We had not been there before and it was all a bit of a mystery to me.

We started in Argentina – Buenos Aeries.  I found a country that seemed very much like a version of Australia – just with the Spanish background rather than the British influence in Australia.  In both countries the original inhabitants were forced out to the more inhospitable areas – and you are left with quite a transplanted culture in the cities and agricultural parts.   Flying over the agricultural land was just like flying over NSW and SW Queensland.  Even our visit to a local tourist ranch reminded me of the early Australian era as well (well, except for the more colourful clothes and dances!).  A highlight was the large cemetery where Eva Peron was buried!  More like a city than our traditional Oz plots.

Next was Iguazu Falls.  Anyone who has watched the movie “The Mission” has seen the magnificence of these falls!  And you needed to go to both the Argentinean and the Brazilian side to truly appreciate all of the aspects.  The highlight for me was coming face to face with a troop of monkeys – always good to say hello to the rellies!

Then onto Brazil – or at least Rio.  What an incredible city!  It even made Sydney with its great harbor look a little small.  Standing at the feet of Jesus (the big stature on the hill) you could see the whole city and its bay and islands in their magnificence.  Much was built on the backs of slaves – who brought and sustained a rich culture with them despite this context.  The Samba night was a bit of a highlight!

The focus of the visit was Peru – Machu Pichu was in Robyn’s ‘bucket list’!  Spending time up around 13,000 feet in the Andes made the Great Dividing Range down the East Coast of Australia (on which Toowoomba sits!) seem like a sand dune.  Peru was just like the pictures in books I have seen over the years – fantastic mountain scenery; heaps of Inca ruins; lamas and rural people tilling the land in very tradition ways.  There is a lot poverty and lack of access to education and health.  We were fortunate to meet up with a great small foundation established by an Australian woman with a Peruvian partner – www.peruschallenge.com and look at some of their work with impoverished communities.  Well worth checking out and supporting!

Machu Pichu certainly was worth the visit!  Friends of ours walked for 4 days along the Inca trails to get there – but we took the train!  Just as well, as you needed all your energy walking up and down slopes as you explored the ruins.

We then found ourselves at Lake Titicaca – the highest navigatable lake in the world (I think) – with the highlight being the villages on the reed islands – pretty impressive technology and adaptation!

So now back in Australia and wondering what I took away from the trip (apart from the trinkets bought to help the tourist economy!).  One thing was the close comparison between Australia and Argentina and Brazil – and accident of history and a similar trajectory.  Close neighbours in this sense (and serious competitor in agricultural products!) – we could certainly learn from each other (including how better to work together with the original inhabitants of our lands).   The experiences in Peru highlighted the skill of the ancients in what they did, what they made and how they organised society – and the shame of having lost so much of the details.  It also highlighted that many communities still lack basic services – health and education – and we all could do more to contribute from our wealth.

Memories of Papua New Guinea

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One place that I have enjoyed going to over the years is Papua New Guinea.  My first experience there was as a very young Australian Volunteer when my wife Robyn and I went to Hagita High School and Plantation in 1976 near Alatou in Milne Bay Province.  I managed a copra and cattle plantation and Robyn taught at the Catholic High School.  This was just after independence and it was great to experience the hope and confidence of this new nation.  One claim to fame – at least for Robyn – was making the outfits for the school brass band to welcome the Queen on a visit to Alotau.

Our next sojourn to PNG was from 1981-84 when we went to Banz near Mt Hagen from 1981-84 to use my poultry management skills to manage Girumbin Poultry – a commercial enterprise associated with the interdenominational Christian Leaders Training College.  While I managed the poultry, Robyn worked with the many pre-schoolers that belonged to staff and children.  The Highlands was very different to the coastal areas – cooler, more people around…. and more conflict.  It had a terrific climate – ideal for poultry – the only down side was the cost of bringing imported feed up the long Highland’s Highway from Lae.  The poultry operation was based around breeders, a hatchery, sale of day old chickens and a layer farm – and was quite profitable while provided training and jobs for a good number of highlanders.  It was here that our eldest daughter started school – at the Banz International school (which I believe is no longer there).

Since then, we have been involved in a number of projects which has meant regular trips to the country and having the chance to watch it grapple with nationhood and wielding a diverse culture into one that speaks the same language of measured development.  A favourite destination has been East New Britain Province – an island in the north – and The University of Vudal.  There we have been involved in working with the agricultural department and providing a range of training packages to staff.  East New Britain – despite the destruction to much of the capital Rabaul from the volcanic eruption – has a good steady development and very stable community – and always a pleasure to visit and work with the people.  In one project – an AusAid funded training project – training in a range of topics was undertaken in the villages themselves with University or Department of Agriculture staff (using adult learning approaches).  Our role was to monitor and evaluate the process and impact of the training – and there was a lot of positive impacts that we observed from the project!

Another project was known as the PNG Scientific Communication Project (SciCom) – funded by the AusAid through Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR).  I was project leader, Robyn was the gender advisor and various staff from the University of Queensland paired with PNG national staff to develop post-graduate training courses.  Dr Ken Rickert from Toowoomba was the academic leader and Laurie Fooks managed the project from Lae.  The project came about largely through the efforts of Robert Songan – who at the time was on the staff at Unitech in Lae – who had a vision for such a course.  These courses could be delivered in one-week blocks and aimed to develop the skills of university staff and researchers in government or private agencies to better communicate the outputs of their research.  The most exciting part of this project was seeing the way that the PNG national staff embraced the concept and became such advocates and deliverers of the course throughout PNG.

Its been more than a year now since my last visit to the country.  I miss the smiles and “Moning tru…yu stap orait?”…the people and their resilience faced with sometimes very difficult circumstances.  It is their country and they know it well.  They put up gracefully as we ‘foreigners’ come in with yet another project to help.   Maybe…I will have chance to get back someday.