Bridging the Research Gap

Warwick Rowell
This article first appeared in the February 2001 edition of 
Acres Australia.

One of the most common complaints across organic farming, bushfoods and, to a lesser degree, Permaculture, is the lack of systematic and integrated research into farming and the economic and ecological sustainability of these activities.

Rosneath Farm co-ordinator Warwick Rowell is helping build a model that redresses this lack by linking academia and the local community in the area requiring the research effort.

Rosneath Farm is a 144-hectare, 70-residence Permaculture development in south-western Western Australia designed by Warwick, a management consultant. Also a Permaculture trainer and designer, he is working with Max Lindegger of Crystal Waters, and other members of the Global Ecovillage Network to develop and learn from ecovillages around the world.

The model they are exploring involves much more community support and integration of formal academic research in areas of relevance and of value to the particular community than we are starting to see in Landcare and other similar programs. In the case of Rosneath Farm and Crystal Waters, essentially “Permaculture” communities aiming to be largely self-sufficient, those areas are more varied than most. The very first list at Rosneath Farm extended the Land Management Society’s six areas for On Farm Monitoring. Warwick and his colleagues have identified 15 broad areas, each with many sub-elements, requiring research to “guide our management of the whole system”.

Fifteen areas for research and monitoring:

  • Local climate analysis.
  • Soil structure and biology.
  • Conservation area management.
  • Forestry management.
  • Water management systems.
  • Farm crop management.
  • Farm animal management.
  • Energy systems.
  • Food storage and preservation systems.
  • Recycling and waste management systems.
  • Construction methods.
  • Local economic assessment.
  • Education systems.
  • Personal health.
  • Community development.

He is well aware of the paradox; that a whole system needs to be monitored in all or most of these areas to reach a real assessment of its sustainability, but that there are many many costs in doing the research so it tends to be a blend of opportunism and good analysis “We have four different dry-composting toilet systems on Rosneath already, so we are better placed than most to do some monitoring to find out which one works best or is most efficient.”

“There is also scope for work in the area of weather data and micro-climate assessment. There are different rain and solar patterns on different parts of the property but we don’t have a clear understanding of them – as our houses are built around the property we will ask our residents to manage a rain gauge. We have 60 hectares of bushland with streams and so-on and we need to find out what flora and fauna are there and then work out how best to manage those areas. So when Birds Australia were asking for farms for their Birds on Farms survey, we were willing participants. Similarly we have joined the Land for Wildlife initiative.

“Then there are aspects of economics, business, and society, including a study of the impact of scale on everything from production and marketing to personal interaction.

“One area that could be very valuable is accurate comparisons between what happens here and in commercial agriculture; how we can get a realistic comparison of the performance of small-scale growers marketing locally in comparison to the central market system with larger operators who can spend $750,000 on a carrot harvester, for example.

“What is the best mechanism for our producers to use to sell locally? Is it local markets, community supported agriculture, shop front sales, contract growing, or is a mix the best strategy?

“There is also scope to explore the dynamics of the sociology, including the interactions within the community and between the community and visitors such as the WWOOFers (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) who spend time on Rosneath, and the effect of the Strata Title Act on the structure of the community as it develops.

“This is the first use of the Strata Title Act for a village in WA and the legal processes defined will influence how we operate and what happens here, which is considerably different from the less-structured approach taken by some other apparently similar villages.

“We are very keen to build our research program because there is so much we don’t know and so much we need to know if the Rosneath Farm community is to operate well and sustainably.

“There is so much to study, so much to learn; there is potential for everything from Ph.D.s to shorter-term trial work of a practical nature, and if a research project fits into the context of Rosneath Farm we will do everything possible to find the money and resources to make it happen.”

Warwick, and other members of the Rosneath Farm community have used the pioneer work of others in the eco-village network to develop a two-level model involving annual scholarships and internships. They believe these will encourage researchers to undertake work relevant to the needs of Rosneath.

WWOOFers – Willing Workers On Organic Farms – have played a significant role in the early development of Rosneath and Warwick sees research interns working on a similar basis.

“I envisage interns being much like long-term WWOOFers except that they will be working on structured research projects of direct relevance to Rosneath Farm and the community.”

Internships will be one of the few ways non-residents will have access to the private estate which is Rosneath Farm. Interns will have the opportunity to live and work in the community, usually for a period of three to six months but for up to 12 months in some circumstances, with the stay part of a private study tour or a recognised course they are undertaking. Discussions are underway with Max Lindegger and other members of the Global Eco-village Network about how to link this research effort into a number of local and overseas academic programs.

Support available for interns, who will be expected to develop a learning contract in conjunction with the Rosneath Farm management, includes on-site supervision by academics who are part of the Rosneath Farm community. They will also have access to an extensive on-site library and good office and computing facilities.

The scholarships, which can be short-term or contribute to longer-term projects, are available to third or fourth-year students from Western Australian universities who are in the top 20 per cent of their course group.

Individuals or groups interested in conducting a research project relevant to Rosneath are invited to submit proposals for a project that relates to their academic studies.

The Rosneath community will provide successful applicants with accommodation, transport from Perth, meals, computer, library and limited Internet facilities, qualified supervision, some opportunities for casual labour to augment income, a small budget for expenses, and a cash award of from $500 to $2000 depending on how valuable the project is to the community.

“A scholarship is not a free lunch, we expect results of value to the community, but we are prepared, and equipped, to give support in many ways,” said Warwick , who believes that one of the strengths of what Rosneath Farm is offering is a very supportive environment with an understanding of the need for and the value of research as well as personal experience of what is involved in a research project. “We live in an environment where research is valued, and nurtured.”

The support structure includes a senior environmental consultant and a biologist who will shortly be residents at Rosneath Farm. There are several other residents with significant tertiary qualifications in a variety of disciplines.

“We are attracting people with a diverse range of skills as Rosneath Farm grows. We will have a powerful research and support team when everyone gets settled in and they can focus on the needs of the community rather than their individual and family needs. But we know this settling in process might take up to five years from when they buy a lot here.”

Mr Rowell feels some urgency about establishing the baseline data on everything from soils to birds and insects to provide reference points for assessment of conditions in the future.

They have already had bird and flora surveys done and a general fauna survey is currently being planned.

Once the innovative scholarship and intern system, which is currently in its formative stages, gains recognition and momentum, Mr Rowell hopes to be able to direct attention towards a broader, more systemic approach. He commented that he had been reading for thirty years that “Modern science is too specialised, with the trend being for researchers to go ever-deeper down ever-narrower holes.

“In the 1930s and 1940s, before WWII, it was nothing for researchers to study 10 generations of pigs to determine the impact of different diets, for example, and many of the current problems confronting agriculture and the environment are calling out for long-term, systematic research, but the government and the various primary industries find it very difficult to fund it.

“With all the pressures on short term perspectives, it is very difficult to look at least fifty years ahead.

“There is a lot of talk today about systems and a holistic approach but few attempts to address the issue in agricultural production – like the Land Management Society’s activities over the last fifteen years – although there is more of a focus on a systems approach appearing in parts of the environmental sector and in some academic areas. For instance, the FAO and the UN University in Tokyo have done some good work, and there are increasing numbers of sustainable agriculture programs. But there is not enough.

“I see a desperate need to bridge the gap between the majority of the population on the surface and the researchers in their ever deepening holes.

“Research is really a creative process – the sociology of science shows many important discoveries were quite serendipitous and often made by someone not involved in formal research in that area — because 99 per cent of scientists are paid to do detailed, repetitious, audit-style work.

“Rosneath Farm needs that sort of work too, to establish bench-marks against which to reference future changes, but a key issue is what we can afford; the work needs to be done within a budget.

“First we will sort out detailed research goals, then we will define the required measures. Then the issues of methods emerge, and with those, the issues of costs, personnel and overheads. Too frequently the research actually goes the other way.”

Mr Rowell is of the opinion that one of the intrinsic problems with modern agriculture, and the broader society, for that matter, is the scale at which processes and systems operate these days. “This is an issue on which what we do at Rosneath Farm could provide some valuable insights. Large-scale systems are impersonal and one of our objectives in establishing Rosneath Farm was to attempt to build at a scale that makes community more likely. In research, as in other areas, individual members of the Rosneath Farm community need to combine and work together to resource and undertake the necessary work. Individuals have neither the resources nor the time required to undertake the research themselves, although the research itself needs to be relevant to the individual scale.

He also makes the point that “Farmers operate on a smaller scale than most empirical research, which can involve comparison and amalgamation of results from large numbers of case studies.

“Farmers work on the scale of how a particular paddock performs in a particular set of conditions. What farmers, and Rosneath Farm, are doing is trial work rather than experimentation because it is part of a progression; a continuing learning experience.

Farmers are not in a position to abandon something and start off in a different direction; they need to be able to learn from the results of whatever they tried and go forward from that.

“If it doesn’t work, that’s fine, but then we have to be able to look at it, learn from it and work out how to move forward.”

As a Management consultant he sees grounded research as part of the learning process. He fears that farming, and so the wider community, is at risk of losing a great deal of valuable “intuitive” knowledge based on decades of practical experience over the next few years as Australia’s aging farmers leave the industry and are replaced by much younger people, often from outside the rural community.

“Good farmers have an intimate, sub-conscious understanding of their property, the environment in which they are working and the crops they are growing which is more than rational knowledge. It allows intuitive decision-making which often produces better outcomes than all the reasoned science available. Such decisions are made on the basis of what are often described as ‘gut feelings’ but are in fact a response to observations or subtle cues the farmer is tuned in to subconsciously.”

He illustrates the point by referring to the experience of his wife, Gillian, a highly experienced midwife and nurse educator who, when she moved into a highly instrumented environment with a variety of high-tech monitors, found she felt there was a problem with particular deliveries before the instruments indicated that was the case.

“What she was doing was reacting to cues she had picked up subconsciously during her experience with more than 300 births.

“She could feel something was going wrong before the instruments picked up the specifics. It is the same with experienced farmers, who have a ‘feeling ‘ for the farm, the crops, the animals and the environment in which they are working.

“Decades of experience with the soils and conditions on their property enables them to make good intuitive judgements neither they nor anyone else can identify at the time.

“So having the people living there intimately involved in setting the research objectives and conducting the monitoring required is terribly important. Only they can make the important decisions about what needs to be done. Others are invited to assist and guide the Rosneath Farm residents as they attempt to manage their own research program.”