What was the challenge/ problem addressed?
The many challenges that occur on farm require both strategic and operational decision making with the support of advisors and other farmers. This farmers discussion group facilitated by ProAgria advisors have successfully worked together since 2004 in Finland to share new information, to analyse current situation and past performance results and enable their members to implement better practices as quickly as possible to get even better results. It is one of the most active discussion groups and achieves the best results. They are a long term group and must keep their enthusiasm and positive attitude from year to year and understand the need to find new ideas outside their own group. However, it is natural that groups need new energy and excitement to maintain high levels of interactive engagement and enthusiasm. New ideas, perspectives and energy are needed to maintain the interest and enthusiasm of members.
How did you solve the problem?
The approach used to address the challenge was to continuously develop the facilitators/advisors skills, continuously improve the discussion group methods and activities and to add an international experience to the discussion group members and facilitators, exposing them to new ideas and new ways of doing things. What is new in this initiative is the addition of an international experience dimension and exposure to new ideas. Co-operation and interaction between farmers, advisors and farmer groups from other European countries gives a new perspective to common issues. Meeting each other and working together at field and farm level or with discussion groups from other countries, opened the eyes of both the group members and the advisors/facilitators. It made it possible to constantly develop and renew the discussion group system of working together on strategic as well as day to day farm management challenges and decisions. The discussion groups of Western Finland made different type of study trips abroad half-yearly. This practical case study focused on an approach to exposing discussion group members to new ideas and experiences that they can learn from and adopt on their own farms. It shows how incorporating an international perspective to discussion groups is leading to better results using the example of a grassland discussion group called Paimio. Many advisors involved used these experiences to rebuild there own knowledge and enthusiasm for planning the following seasons activities and new challenges.
What are the success factors in solving the problem?
There has been a significant increase in good outcomes particularly in Western Finland, where for example the average silage yield of a whole example group has increased 90% in six years period.
A critical factor for success is that the group members maintain their positive attitude, enthusiasm and willingness to take on new ideas. It is so difficult to be positive without interaction with positive people who are determined to find new and better ways to overcome challenges.
Each discussion group has a facilitator and an advisor who is referred to as the ‘working pair’. The working pair is typically an advisor with the technical/subject matter knowledge for the topic of the group. The role of the working pair is to organise the meetings, the agenda and any tools or handouts required for the discussion group meeting. This allows the facilitator to focus on facilitating the discussion among the members. Either the facilitator or the working pair changes regularly.
In 2011, Anu and her colleagues in ProAgria began to travel abroad to meet advisors and elite farmers and to observe discussion groups as a method of learning and development. In 2012, she started organising study trips in Finland and abroad for her discussion group members and facilitators and in 2018 she established the international group.
The critical success factors that members of discussion group felt that to maintain their enthusiasm for the subject and to share their experiences and practices openly. It is also important that the members feel that they are all equal. This helps them to find solutions together and to keep pushing forward. The social aspect of the group is equally as important to the members as the professional aspect
Success factors for effective discussion groups:
- Having a mix of personalities in a discussion group is desirable.
- Farmers need to be open to sharing and discussing their experiences and farming systems.
- Changing the facilitator every year to refresh the group.
- Appointing a new monitor farmer every year.
- Establishing a network of advisors/facilitators is important and beneficial for building their knowledge, skills and capabilities.
- Assigning a facilitator and an advisor (working pair) to a group can enhance the effectiveness of the group by bringing different perspectives to the group.
- Regularly changing the facilitator or advisor contributes to rejuvenating the group.
- Adding an international dimension to the discussion group model gives farmers and advisors exposure to new ideas which can enhance knowledge transfer.
- Taking the farmers and advisors out of their normal environment can provide the seed for innovation.
- The social aspect of activities
- Inclusivity of members as equals.
What role does the advisor or advisory service play within the practical case?
There was a strong commitment from ProAgria to develop a discussion group model for dairy farmers in Western Finland.
Anu, the advisor involved has become an experienced facilitator and supports other advisors through facilitation training. She has extended this role through the idea of the international network of discussion group facilitators and discussion groups
The facilitator plays a key role in selecting the members of the discussion groups initially. Once a year farmers can express their interest in joining a discussion group. While there is no particular selection criteria, the facilitator tries to match the farmer with a group based on their farming system, age and experience of discussion groups.
The facilitator also helps to make decisions about the ongoing membership of less active members
The facilitator gives a lot of support to the monitor farm
The facilitator is active in the planning and logistics of visits to other countries.
Can your approach be transferred and/or adapted for other innovation challenges and regions?
Yes, the discussion group model has become an essential part of innovation support in a modern AKIS with many learnings from different models in different countries and sectors. The setting up of strong networks of advisors/facilitators and farmers discussion groups locally and internationally requires support from organizations and projects. The first step is to make advisors more visible to each other, the i2connect database of advisors has huge potential to do this.
Estimated transferability on a scale from 1 to 5
(where 1 is easy and 5 very difficult)5
For sharing the experience on the good practice, please contact Grassland discussion group.