Alastair Crombie

What is an adult educator doing in the grains industry? Alastair Crombie, formerly Executive Director of Adult Learning Australia and now a Programme Consultant to the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC), advises the Corporation on its investment in building skills and knowledge in the grains industry. His activities clearly illustrate that requirements such as “lifelong learning” and “learning by doing” have become an indispensable part of all areas of life. He describes his own role as that of a “learning broker” who matches provision to demand, in this case among farmers, in order to help the latter to achieve concrete results.

An Adult Educator in the Grains Industry

Just six months after the establishment of the colony, Governor Philip wrote: “....It is now found that very little of the English wheat had vegetated and a very considerable quantity of the barley and many seeds had rotted in the ground..... All the barley and wheat likewise which had been put on board the ‘Supply’ at the Cape were destroyed by the weevil”. Only a pitiful crop of about a bushel was produced from the first plot at Farm Cove.

ABARE (Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics) has just released its winter crop estimate of 34.4 million tonnes of grain. The Australian grains industry is worth $6 billion a year in exports, and accounts for 25% of the value of farm production. Around 34,000 farmers make a significant part of their income from grain production.

While grain growers still have to battle the poor soils, insect attacks, and adverse climate that made life hard for the settlers, there has clearly been some learning!

As a newcomer to the grains industry one is struck by the fact that the farmers who, under the most demanding conditions, have achieved annual productivity growth of around 3% a year for the past two decades, are seriously lacking in ‘educational attainment’. They lack formal qualifications, and are in general averse or indifferent to the institutions and practices of formal education and training. Farmers adapt to enormous complexity and uncertainty to make a living. Like other small business people, they have to constantly learn by doing. Their ‘learning projects’ are highly pragmatic, and are most likely to involve acquiring new knowledge and skills from close and trusted colleagues or peers in 'real life’ settings at times and places that fit the rhythm of the farm day and the cropping seasons.

‘How farmers learn’ needs no further study in my view. What does bear further examination is why education and training providers still find it so hard to become genuinely ‘learner focused’ – in the case of farmers and other small business people in particular. The result, anyway, is a growing array of commercial providers – company representatives, farm consultants, electronic information suppliers, and so forth. Overall, there is no shortage of supply. Indeed, one of the most common complaints of the farmer is the difficulty of rational choice when confronted with such a bewildering array of options.

To overcome this problem I strongly advocate development of the role of ‘learning brokers’. A good broker helps create, and then maintains a strong position in two networks – of supply and of demand. The Grains Industry Training Network based in Horsham, Victoria, has some of these characteristics for grain growers in that region. I believe there is satisfaction, and revenue, to be gained from helping members of farm management teams get quickly to the right learning choice for their business development needs. In my experience good adult educators have sound brokering instincts, and could make this a valuable service.

The yield and productivity of the grains industry have increased dramatically over two centuries mainly as a result of innovations in farming – new crop varieties, better agricultural machinery, improved farming practices, chemical fertilisers and pest controls. While there will always be more to learn about plant breeding, crop growing and harvesting, the signs are that the key drivers of future productivity improvement will come from the other end of the value chain – consumers, and those who process grains into food and beverages for them.

Grain properties and qualities demanded for breads, noodles, pastas, malt, oils, and even feed lots, are more and more differentiated and narrowly specified – by processors increasingly capable of sourcing their supply from anywhere in the world. Trade, transport and information barriers have fallen. In this setting producers need to create and consolidate special relationships with their particular customers, and to work hard to ensure that all those in between are involved in enhancing this special relationship.

The Dutch are world leaders in this emerging discipline of ‘supply chain management’. The Dutch government has been investing around $ 5 million a year in the Netherlands Agri Chain Competence Foundation – funding which is matched by industry and the research community. A team of Australians has just spent a week there. Our farming history, of bulk commodity exports and marketing monopolies, is completely different to the Netherlands, and we are relative beginners in the global supply chain management business. ‘Supply chain thinking’ requires a perspective transformation for much of Australian agribusiness, before the hard grind of building globally competitive supply chains can get underway. This represents a major, industry-scale learning challenge.

My experience to date in the grains industry has affirmed an important general observation about learning and education. Constant multi-dimensional change has made learning a core survival activity – for people, communities, organisations, and industries. Learning – conceived as the way people solve problems, and close the gap between where they are and where they want to be – is all pervasive. Educational institutions have been slow to understand and respond to this socio-cultural shift, as though they have a ‘trained incapacity’ when it comes to catalysing learning, and helping people learn for themselves. In general they are still too introverted, too rule-bound, and too smug about what can be classed as worthwhile knowledge. Whatever the merit of this judgement, it is incontestable that a raft of new players are moving into the learning business – including in the grains industry.