Complexity in the agricultural information exchange interface: implications for strategic farm management and the sustainability of mixed-farming systems

Lauren Howard

    Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

    98 Downloads (Pure)


    Decision-making is at the core of managing any mixed-farming system. Strategic decisions are important because they provide the overall, long-term direction for the business and consequently, have a major influence on a mixed-farming system’s sustainability. Australian family-operated, mixed-farming systems are complex. Due to the complexity, farmers seek information, knowledge and advice to assist them with their decision-making. Traditionally, the major providers of information were state departments of agriculture. However, during the 1980s, the public sector began to withdraw from agricultural extension and changed the nature of the services it provided. This change has created a complex information exchange interface with a diversity of service providers and institutional arrangements. The information exchange interface exists to support farmers in their decision-making. However, there appears to be limited understanding of its influence on farmer decision-making in general, and even less so on strategic decision-making. Accordingly, the focus and contribution of this thesis is to explore and provide insight into this influence. The research questions answered in this thesis are 1. ‘To what extent are strategic decisions made by farmers supported by the information exchange interface?’ 2. ‘To what extent do farmers and advises prioritise strategic decision-making?’ and 3. ‘What are the implications for agricultural sustainability?’ Strategic decision-making in mixed-farming systems, as indicated in the literature, is complex. This thesis reveals that contemporary changes within the information exchange interface have increased the complexity of strategic decision-making, to the extent that support for strategic decision-making is fragmented and limited. Given the nature of this research, a mixed methods approach was considered most appropriate. A web survey, interactive group exercise and semi-structured interviews were designed to collect data to answer the research questions. The web survey data were analysed statistically whereas the interactive group exercise and semi-structured interview data were qualitative in nature and therefore analysed thematically. This thesis has taken a broad theoretical perspective and brought together the available theories (innovation diffusion theory, adoption theory, participatory approaches, decision models and innovation systems theory) in the context of the decision-making interface. This thesis highlights the inadequacies of existing theories to explain the highly personal and highly diverse nature of the information exchange interface. The theoretical implications are discussed, and this thesis reveals that an absence of support for strategic decision-making within the information exchange interface limits the capacity of farmers to strategically manage their mixed-farming systems and consequently, their ability to be adaptable to change. As the literature revealed, strategic management and adaptive capacity are important for the sustainability of mixed-farming systems. This thesis also reveals there is considerable ambiguity surrounding the definition of strategic management and a strategic decision. Interpretations of strategic vary according to location and the individual, suggesting that strategic views can be somewhat personal. At a practical level, most advisers service the operational-tactical realm, rather than strategic decision-making, for several reasons. Firstly, most advisers are from technical agricultural production backgrounds and are not skilled in strategic management. They are comfortable with providing operational-tactical advice. Secondly, the nature of private sector business models encourages advisers to service the operational-tactical realm due to the short-term profit opportunities. In addition, the information exchange interface is reactive rather than proactive. Further, there are opportunities for the sectors and service providers to work more collaboratively. Thirdly, there appears to be less demand for strategic management support from farmers, despite awareness of the importance of ‘long-term’ farm planning and management. Strategic management is multi-disciplinary in that it considers every aspect of the business. Additionally, decision-making is an individualised and personal process. Consequently, the current extension paradigm is limited in its capacity to adequately explain strategic decision-making. It is also limited in its ability to capture the complexity of competing interests within contemporary, mixed-farming systems. The interface is fragmented, and farmers could benefit from the various service providers working more synergistically. A focus on mutual interaction amongst the service providers, investigating methods they can collaborate and complement each other, could be beneficial. This thesis has revealed that the private sector has limited opportunities to contribute to R&D decision-making and changes to current institutional, funding and professional arrangements could improve the effectiveness of the interface.
    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Charles Sturt University
    • Glyde, Scott, Principal Supervisor
    • Gray, Ian, Co-Supervisor
    Publication statusPublished - 2018


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