Farmer Action Groups (aka Field Schools or Stable Schools)

Behaviour change is a complex process and farmers follow patterns similar to the general population. Various approaches to motivating producers have been shown to work, including social marketing and motivational interviewing. Often the barrier to improvement is not a lack of knowing what to do, but how to practically implement ideas, particularly when time and resources are limited. An approach called Farmer Action Groups involving peer-to-peer learning can provide the necessary insight and solutions to practical problems during implementation (Ivemeyer et al., 2015; Vaarst et al., 2007). For this approach a skilled (qualified) facilitator is required. To maximise the peer-to-peer learning, the facilitator must avoid taking on the role of advisor and focus instead on ensuring the meetings are well-organised, disciplined, well-documented and running to time. As soon as the facilitator assumes a technical advisory role the dynamic of the meeting will revert to a conventional client-advisor relationship and the peer-to-peer learning will be disrupted.

  1. Form a small group of (6-8) producers with similar attitudes and values (“The Healthy Feet Action Group”). In this case the group would want to improve foot health and would operate similar systems of production and similar lameness control strategies. Openness and transparency is essential for the exercise although this can be built with time. It is important there is some common bond so that trust is established as quickly as possible.
  2. Each producer must agree to host one meeting in the cycle. Meetings are held every 1-2 months, on a day in the month most convenient for the group. This is usually a Wednesday, and so it is normal to schedule it on the nth Wednesday of the month. A full cycle would be completed in a year with breaks in the seasonally busy times I.e. no meeting at Christmas, first cut, autumn block calving or maize harvest.
  3. The facilitator would ask for a volunteer to start the cycle and then at the end of each meeting, a volunteer to host the next meeting would be found and the date agreed and circulated.
  4. 1-2 weeks prior to the meeting, the facilitator calls the host to ask for:
    1. A success story – something changed or improved in recent history. It is important to capture as much practical and relevant detail as possible, which open questioning techniques. The specifics of the problem and chosen solution are worth capturing in detail.
    1. 1-2 problems that need(s) solving – again the specific details need capturing. For example, rather than a problem with digital dermatitis, the facilitator could use open questioning to establish why there is a perceived problem, when it is at its worst, how long has it been happening and what might be contributing to the problem. E.g. heifers calving down with severe digital dermatitis in the last 2 years, since moving heifer rearer who hates foot bathing
    1. Detailed directions for finding the farm captured with an annotated map
    1. Contact details added to the agenda in case people get lost or have a hold-up
    1. Data requested, analysed and added to the agenda
    1. An agenda is drawn up and circulated approximately 7 days prior to the meeting. A note saying the meeting will start at the advertised time will mean farmers will know they must arrive promptly.
  5. The day before and 60 minutes before the meeting, a reminder text message is sent out to the participants. Farmers being busy, are easily distracted by calving cows and morning routines and so sometimes the ping of the text can be the all-important reminder that they need to drop what they are doing (unless it is calving a cow)
  6. The facilitator should arrive 15 minutes early to set-up road signs and disinfectant points
  7. The meeting should start promptly at the advertised start time, otherwise the farmers will quickly learn they have 5 or 10 minutes spare at the start of most meetings. It should start with a brief introduction by the host and then a farm walk (the orientation) for about 45 minutes. A normal format is to walk the route of the cows, starting at the collecting yard and ensuring dry cows and youngstock are seen. Details relevant to the success story are explained in detail and the problem(s) can be introduced at the relevant point. Some tangents in the discussion are permitted. The facilitator is there to prompt questions, maintain meeting momentum and keep the meeting on time.
  8. The second part of the meeting is held around a kitchen table or in a farm meeting room. 15 minutes is given to getting out of boots and overalls and in for tea or coffee. The host introduces the problem on the agenda, with as much relevant detail and data as they can provide.
  9. Each external person around the table is given the opportunity to ask for clarification and to describe how they would approach the problem from their perspective. Notes are captured on a flipchart. The host and facilitator must refrain from passing comment or judgement, but points of clarification can be raised. Each visitor has a turn at providing a practical solution or refinements to what has been said. The facilitator must protect each speaker from interjections. Interjectors are told to save challenges for the end of each contribution. The group are then given the chance of asking questions and clarifications at the end of each person’s contribution. The facilitator is to encourage practical solutions and details extracted with open questioning to ensure the guidance is captured on the board accurately and with enough details for all to understand.
  10. Once everyone has made a contribution, the host is then able to comment on what they thought of each of the ideas. The host can cross off the list anything they do not feel would work for them. Again, interruptions are prevented but the host can seek further clarifications from the contributors.
  11. If there is a second problem to address from the agenda then the process of going around the table of visitors is repeated.
  12. The round-table meeting is ended promptly within an hour (2-hour total meeting length including farm walk). It ends with agreeing who is to be next host and date for the next meeting.
  13. The flip chart notes are photographed. These can be typed up into brief notes or the photographs of the white board notes circulated unchanged. The local vet and advisors for the host farm can be included in the circulation as a safeguard against anything dangerous. If there is a request for further information then the facilitator can do some signposting but often the group will do a good job of signposting to the relevant resources. On the subsequent rounds of visits, the photographed notes can reviewed so the group can see what was or was not implemented

At then end of the first cycle, farmers can withdraw from the group and new farmers invited. The process works best with small groups of 6-8. Groups larger than this become difficult to manage and facilitate.

The format works well if the follow rules are strictly adhered to: