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Extending a hand.

Farmers wear many hats from business manager and soil and crop nutrition specialist to bookkeeper, labourer, mechanicSo farm management practice changes, to improve water quality flowing to the reef, are another role in a big portfolio. And that’s where agricultural extension officers can help out. 

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It’s not a 9 to 5 job, it’s about genuinely being part of a community. It is as much about who you are and how you interact as what you know.

Extension officers are a link between farmers and all the latest research. They provide support to landholders across the Wet Tropics region, some of them through government-funded projects aimed at adopting more sustainable farm management practices and improving the quality of water flowing into local waterways and out to the Great Barrier Reef.  

Shifting to new practices is complex and it takes time. It also varies from farm to farm – there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Extension officers work with farmers on the best approach for their particular business and their part of the landscape.  

Deb Telford is with CANEGROWERS Innisfail. She began her career as a technician at the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries – but she says working with people to achieve what they want to achieve is just as important, if not more, as the technical side of things.  

“Agriculture is continually refining, and good extension is about the person you’re working with and their enterprise,’’ she says.  “You can’t just say ‘this is right for your business’ and forget it. That person is at the centre of what we do. We’re all different. We learn differently, we have different priorities.  

“It’s also not a 9 to 5 job, it’s about genuinely being part of a community. It is as much about who you are and how you interact as what you know.” 

Rebecca McHardie, from Mossman Agricultural Services, likes being able to apply the knowledge she gained during a degree in soil and plant science.   

“Growers are really receptive to practice change and different ideas,’’ she says. “Extension helps with the research and science-side of agronomy and making it accessible for growers so they can put it into practice. 

“I’ve seen a lot of change over the years. Farmers are constantly refining their spray management, trialling different pesticides and herbicides, and adopting new technology like GPS (global positioning systems).  

“The conversations we have are often focused on productivity, but this usually goes hand in hand with water quality. So it’s a win-win.”  

Kath Dryden works for the Australian Banana Growers’ Council and says the best thing about her role is meeting growers, getting to know them and hearing about what’s important to them.  

“There is such a diverse range of people we get to meet – from different cultures and backgrounds to where they’re at in their farming journey,” she says.  “Farmers across the board love the environment they live in and are constantly refining their farming systems. There’s lots of change happening. Growers who previously didn’t have any ground cover now have lush ground cover, and are interpreting soil tests so they can manage their nutrients more effectively.” 

“I can see the momentum building. I feel really privileged to be in a position where I can support growers to make changes to their farming practices, so they can improve their productivity and the environment.” 

Stewart Christie, CEO of Terrain NRM says more than $200 million has been invested into reef water quality programs in the Wet Tropics since 2008 and in recent years the programs had been focusing on providing farmers with extension support.   

“Over 1,500 farmers across our region have been working hard to make farm practice changes and the recent Reef Water Quality Report Card shows that we’re making good progress,” he says.  

“The Wet Tropics is a particular hotspot for the runoff of dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) from fertilisers because of the region’s short sharp rivers, high rainfall and intensive agriculture along the coastal plain. In the 2019-2020 reporting period, we achieved the biggest reduction in dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) runoff. The Johnstone catchment was a standout, recording a 6.4 per cent reduction, but really good progress is also being made in Mossman, Tully and the Murray.  

“We’re now halfway towards our target of a 60 per cent reduction in DIN runoff by 2025, which is great news. Farmers who are actively involved in these programs are to be congratulated.”

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