Return to the city sparks ag communication questions

A move from rural Western Australia to Perth has Cox Inall’s Natalie Lee contemplating access to services and how farmers seek out the information they need.

2015 Natalie Lee (outdoors) 550px x 300pxAfter more than 20 years of living and working in rural and regional Western Australia, last year I found myself splitting my time between Perth and the family farm in Western Australia’s Great Southern region.

I’m in the city during school terms so I can live with our three sons (two of whom are now of high school age) during their schooling. My husband and the boys and I are commuting between Perth and the farm on holidays and weekends.

It has been a bit of a culture shock returning to the city, with one of the most striking positive aspects being the truly vast array of products and services on offer, and their reliability (what a joy to have reliable phone, Internet, water and electricity services!). We are truly spoilt for choice.

In one small suburb nearby, there are no fewer than three bakeries, including a gluten-free one (not that we need it). Rather than a trip to the doctor being a 150km round trip, a range of GPs and specialists are a hop, skip and jump away. I have made up for 20-odd years of retail deprivation and have become familiar with some great local fashion outlets!

Just as I am spoilt for choice in my new Perth home, agricultural communications channels are also now increasingly diverse. Not that many years ago, farmers relied largely on phone, fax, traditional media (including rural newspapers and ABC Radio) and face-to-face learning to keep up-to-date with new information. Thanks largely to the Internet and smart phones, channels available to farmers are now much broader and include Internet search engines, email, social media (Facebook, Twitter,  WhatsApp, YouTube etc), podcasts and apps – to name a few.

The sheer volume of communication channels may seem overwhelming, but growers focus on those that best fit their needs, learning styles and situations. Unfortunately, many still have issues with poor connectivity, hence digital channels such as social media or videos may not be as suitable to them as traditional information sources such as radio or hard copy print publications. While seemingly ‘spoilt for choice’, in reality channels available to a number of growers are still quite limited.

For example, on our own farm, we have a weak mobile phone signal with many black spots – forcing us to stop in known coverage spots, or leave buildings, to send a text or make or receive a call. The best mobile handset my husband has found for phone coverage is a Blackberry model – now more than 10 years old (he is onto about his tenth handset) – but it is not compatible with Android or Apple apps which limits his ability to use best available technology.

When it comes to Internet services, our farm has for the past year had access to the NBN broadband access network (via satellite), which has been an improvement on the wireless broadband we previously relied on – where drop outs were common, data was very limited and charges were high.  Nevertheless, our new plan on the farm is still significantly more limited and expensive compared with those available in Perth.

Last year I had the opportunity to hear from a number of Western Australian grain growers – including about how they access information – during a field day and spring tour I attended on behalf of client the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC).

It was apparent growers each have very different preferences as to how they access information. However, it was obvious that technological and connectivity limitations shape the channels that many growers use. Those in areas with connectivity issues were more likely to favour hard copy publications such as the GRDC magazine GroundCover™ or face-to-face learning opportunities – including workshops and field days. Printed material on topical subjects – including publications with case studies of growers adopting new practices – went like hotcakes during the field day.

Returning to the subject of my now part-time city status, there are some parallels between the choices I make in my new ‘spoilt for choice’ metropolitan environment, and the choices growers make in accessing information in order to increase their profitability.

  • Ease of access – just as availability of good parking helps determine which supermarket I head to, growers will use communications channels that are easy to access and fit into their daily life.
  • All in the one place– I have chosen a GP clinic that also offers a range of other services in the one location. In the same way, it is useful for growers to have access a ‘one-stop-shop’ for information. The GRDC’s ‘GrowNotes™’ (www.grdc.com.au/grownotes) is an example of a resource that contains virtually all information relevant to a particular topic – whether it be wheat growing, canola growing or grain storage. It allows the reader to access topics in various levels of detail, depending on their requirements.
  • Skilled communicators – The assistant at my new favourite clothes store is a great communicator! She simplifies what can be overwhelming choices by providing advice on what might suit me. Similarly, in the agricultural industry, excellent communicators play a key role in communicating research outcomes to growers. The importance of communicators is recognised every year by the GRDC when it makes its ‘Seed of Light’ awards to a person making a major contribution to communicating the outcomes of grains research and development. In WA, award winners in recent years have included researchers, agronomists and a journalist.

Natalie Lee is a Senior Account Director with Cox Inall Communications based in Dumbleyung, Western Australia.

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