A research project was undertaken in early 2003 to examine a range of environmental issues for dairy farmers in South West Victoria. The project recognised that to encourage voluntary adoption of environmental practices, resource management strategies should clearly specify the desired behavioural changes and measurable environmental outcomes for specific segments of farmers. Any policies being developed should meet the needs of individual farmers as part of a process of value exchange, and minimise the costs and difficulties of the change process itself.
Five environmental practices were the focus for this study; preserving and enlarging fragments of indigenous bush, implementing riparian management, establishing shelter belts, restoring eroded soils, and restoring saline soils. All these practices could contribute to improved environmental outcomes within the Region. To study these, sixty five farmer interviews were carried out across the catchment and the results then qualitatively and quantitatively analysed.
The study found that farmers in the catchment used a range of indicators to measure resource condition as part of their general farming decision making. Some of these indicators varied in their effectiveness, and some could be quite difficult to interpret. Farmers generally considered the natural resources on their properties to be in good condition and even improving. Given that most farmers did not consider that there was an environmental problem needing their attention, they were most interested in using environmental practices when there was a material production advantage to be gained and minimal conflict with their existing farming systems. For these reasons, establishing shelter belts was widely supported amongst farmers, but the other practices were felt to be too costly in time, finances, and loss of productive potential.
In the study, four different farmer segments were identified that respond to different extension approaches.
- Production farmers wanted to know about any production advantages that they could gain from using environmental practices, how well these might fit with their existing management strategies, and ways to ensure that they would be implemented at least cost to their existing farming operations.
- Cosmopolitan farmers want to make their own decisions about acting in socially responsible ways. They are positive about working with external agencies and tend to build upon initial success by adding additional practices.
- Future builders tend to be interested in farm succession and the improvements to asset value possible from applying environmental practices.
- Conservationist farmers are interested in the environmental benefits from using environmental practices and in information on the practical details of implementing them.
The different segments each had different expectations regarding the benefits to them of the environmental practices, and would.