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Engaged research

Agricultural researchers employed by the Government agriculture department and private consultancy companies have been working in the Bundaberg region since 1980. Several of the researchers are held in very high regard by farmers in the region, and the success of some industries is attributed to them. The introduction of disease resistant varieties to combat bacterial and virus diseases that threatened the tomato industry, use of virus free planting material to increase sweet potato yield and quality, adoption of tillage systems that permit field access after heavy rain, and introduction of new insecticides to control pest species were highlighted by most growers as examples of technological innovations that allowed them to remain profitable.

Changes that had been introduced into the industry but that were not ‘championed’ by the group of influential researchers were less frequently mentioned in discussions with farmers. Researchers engaging closely with the horticultural community in their research activities were more likely to generate transformational outcomes for industry as well as being more highly regarded.

[name] is great to work with because he listens to what we say. He’s done trials on ideas that the farmers have come up with, and some of those results have been the most useful stuff that we’ve had from the Government.

This quote highlights the importance of researchers working with farmers, of listening to the farmers’ concerns, and of respecting each other’s knowledge and expertise. Engaged research literature emphasises mutuality, reciprocity and partnership as core principles (Madsen & Chesham, 2015). Such principles need to exist in agricultural research if it is to be successful as the results and recommendations that are generated from such research need to be applied by largely independent farmers working on privately owned land. While government regulations constitute a large part of the industry, research application that relies on compulsion is not likely to be readily accepted by independent farmers. Working in partnership such that farmers’ concerns are heard and the reality of the agriculture industry from their perspective is considered is far more likely to be productive. The results of research generated in this way - that is, engaged research - are a reflection of two-way knowledge generation (Weerts & Sandmann, 2010), whereby there is a consistent feedback loop between agricultural researchers and producers.

In working closely with farmers, the researchers responsible for many of the technological advances that have driven industry expansion and overcome production constraints have also contributed to the sense of self-reliance and optimism that pervades the industry. For example, a new disease, tomato yellow leaf curl virus, is currently impacting crop productivity but growers are generally optimistic that a solution to the problem will be identified.

We need to be a bit more careful in what we do in the crop now but there’s work being done to sort out the best way to fix it so we’ll keep planting and hope that we get an answer sooner rather than later.

The confidence that appears to be derived by industry from engagement with the agricultural researchers both contributes to and reflects the resilience of the horticultural community. The confidence is evident in the conversations with individual growers who see the benefits of researchers and farmers working together to generate solutions as problems become apparent. Although primarily focused on addressing technical issues that are impacting on the economic viability of crops, research can also provide opportunities to build other capital domains. Social capital is supported through bringing growers together in cooperatives and local associations so they can institute policies and procedures within the local region and to act collectively to address problems and challenges. Environmental capital is also supported when technical research promotes the sustainability of the agricultural industry through protection of soil and other environmental resources. Furthermore, as is evident throughout this chapter, each capital is intimately interdependent on each other and Wilson’s (2012) suggestion that community resilience requires a balance across all three capitals holds especially true for the horticultural community. Farmers know, perhaps better than most because of their personal connection to their land, that exploitation of their environmental capital will eventually lead to erosion of economic and social capitals. It is, therefore, in the interests of all to be involved in research that promotes community resilience across all three capital domains.

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