Farm Advisory Service - One to Many: evaluation

This report provides an evaluation of the One to Many component of the Farm Advisory Service, delivered by SAC Consulting and provided as part of the Scottish Rural Development Programme 2014-2020. It analyses what has been delivered and provides recommendations for the future.

5 What are the Challenges? Stakeholder Perspectives

5.1 Summary Findings

  • There was a perception among some respondents that the service would benefit from an updated primary focus emphasising climate change and environmental sustainability.
  • Questions were raised about the effective use of expertise, the scope for greater training integration and how best to ensure that advice is inclusive.
  • Barriers to engaging with and following advice were discussed, with participants emphasising the benefits of facilitating small groups of farmers to achieve long-term change.

This section reports the findings of the qualitative components of the research. This comprised of, as stated above, ten stakeholder interviews. Eight of these were with key external agricultural and environmentalist stakeholders, while two were with SAC Consulting personnel.

5.2 What Should the Goal of the Service Be?

In the interviews, participants were first asked what they regarded as high priority areas for FAS going forward. Responses emphasised that sustainability, ecology and climate change were key concerns going forward, and should play a central role in farm advice. For instance:

"To me the big ones are climate change and wildlife. The climate emergency and the ecological crisis. So I think everything should stem from that. And everything would come under that."

Participant 1

"The Farm Advisory Service in general needs to tackle and find ways to support the climate emergency…that's obviously going to drive a lot of business decisions moving forward"

Participant 2

As another participant put it, in contrast to uncertain areas like post-EU agricultural policy:

"…at the same time, there are things that aren't affected by Brexit….I think with things like climate change, succession planning, and competing land uses, that's going to continue regardless of what the future looks like in terms of the economics. There are those culture change elements that might be useful to push a bit more. That can be challenging, but I think it's something the industry needs to tackle head on. I think framing advice around those kind of ongoing challenges that are totally outwith our control is something we could possibly do a bit more of."

Participant 3

However, while there was widespread emphasis on the climate and environmental emergencies, there was also an acknowledgment that this view was not necessarily shared within the sector:

"I can see the ways things are going, but there are a lot of farmers who are absolutely sticking their heels in – "we are not going down this environmental sustainability route" – but to me that's not a question any more, that's what's happening. And the sooner we can get people to see that that's what happening, whether they agree with it or not…there are a lot of forward thinking farmers who are embracing it but if we could get the majority…"

Participant 5

As this participant went on to note, farmers were not always convinced of what they were being asked to do:

"I think people don't understand why they're doing these things and they just see it as another bit of red tape that they've got to go through…it's maybe this explaining bit that as an industry we're missing. People are being told to do this and do that but they don't really understand what the point of it is, they just see it as another obstacle that they have to get over."

Participant 5

These findings indicate some tension between the policy priorities as perceived by the stakeholder group – i.e. climate change and biodiversity – and a potential lack of 'buy in' among the sector. This tension, and the urgency of the policy challenge posed by climate change, suggests that the next iteration of the service could consider updating its mission statement, and develop a participatory mechanism to ensure industry buy in to this. The importance of capturing the urgency of the situation and orientating the sector towards substantial change in a short period was emphasised in one of the interviews with SAC Consulting:

"Right now our mission is to make Scottish agriculture more sustainable, financially and environmentally. It's OK. But, maybe it's too broad. I mull this one over. There are agricultural economies like the Netherlands, New Zealand…where they have made very conscious choices about what they want to focus on. Ireland would be another one…and that's allowed them to make significant change happen in a relatively short period of time…Having a very clear purpose is good for galvanising."

SAC Consulting Participant 1

Another sense in which an updated 'mission' may benefit the Farm Advisory Service would be in helping to cultivate an optimistic, can-do attitude, in contexts that might otherwise appear precarious. As one participant put it, a key benefit of the New Entrants work done by FAS is that the atmosphere of these meetings is positive, and concerned with taking advantage of future opportunities. The need for a change in mindsets to ensure that key opportunities are exploited was also emphasised by another participant:

"We'll never get people in a position where they're able to deal with change that's coming, or seize the opportunities if we simply talk to them about improving the technical performance of sheep, or dairy, or soil health. Those are hugely important subjects, but if people's heads aren't in the right place, or they're simply trying to flog their land harder and not necessarily smarter, then that's a problem…We shouldn't just be here to tell people how to lose less money. We've gotta help them get their heads in a position where they can understand their situation in the round, they can make rational choices, and seize the opportunities and ride out the change that's coming. It's a significant change because advisory services in the past were all about technical performance."

SAC Consulting Participant 1

The sense, captured in this quote, that there is a need to move from technical performance to wide ranging changes, is also emphasised within the recent 'Farming 1.5' report developed by the NFUS and Nourish. This report notes that, historically, the "Farm Advisory Service was never designed or funded to produce large scale change" and subsequently suggest that the FAS is replaced with a "new model focused on transformation in terms of resource use, carbon and nature across farming"[8]. While this evaluation does not take a position on this finding, it is worth noting that the emphasis on the need for a service more focused on change has been identified elsewhere. The findings here are reflected in Recommendation 4, below.

Recommendation 4: Review the 'mission' of the service. Consider the value of establishing an updated 'mission' for the service, using a participatory mechanism to ensure wide cross sectoral buy in. This should be cognisant of the climate emergency and the need to support nature in farming.

5.3 Training, Information and Inclusion

Participants were also asked about their views on the use of information by FAS. Here, sentiments were generally positive, but numerous participants emphasised that there was scope for the greater incorporation of a range of advice into the service. For example, one stakeholder noted that expertise was not always used effectively in the context of, in this example, understanding biodiversity:

"It [FAS] does a pretty reasonable job of covering lots of bases. I think generally from a biodiversity side of things…it's not quite as strong as it could be… they don't always get the right experts involved at the right times, in terms of developing materials for instance…We're not always getting the best value for money…and we're not always using the expertise across Scotland in the best way possible…There is room for more opportunities to bring in expertise from across a wider range of people than they currently do."

Participant 2

Another stakeholder emphasised that, given the emphasis on environmentally sustainable farming going forward, an emphasis on improved efficiency could partially be supported by incorporating more specific, technical advice for farmers, which could in turn draw on the broader ecology of expert advice:

"I think there is going to be an increased need for advice provided by a range of advisers including those involved in specialist areas such as livestock and crop nutrition. Many of the new support schemes, if they are more individualised to the farms individual circumstances will require specialist advice on how they're going to achieve those options…it is going to become increasingly technical when it comes to marginal gains, emissions reductions, resource efficiency use, when it comes to things like fertiliser, livestock nutrition and soil health."

Participant 4

Ensuring that all farm types are engaged with is also critical. As one participant noted, traditional FAS engagement designed for large, productive farming units was simply not relevant to smaller farmers and crofters. While this situation was generally perceived to have improved over the course of the programme, future work must be suitably inclusive if the whole sector is to be involved.

Recommendation 5: Review Knowledge Integration: Review mechanisms for knowledge exchange to ensure there is a consistent approach to climate change and environmental practice both on and off farm, potentially incorporating knowledge exchange initiatives like SEFARI, the website that hosts the outputs from publicly funded research into food and agriculture. Similarly, consider the mechanisms for greater integration of FAS in relation to the broader farming advice context, and ensure specialist knowledge is available and integrated into service provision.

Participants also emphasised the challenges of the current arrangement, and the need for more holistic thinking. One participant, for example, emphasised the need for a more holistic approach to training that made the landscape less confusing:

"When we look at the next phase of what we're going to be doing in upping the skills of farmers, crofters, fisher folk etc…it would be good if the Scottish Government look at this more holistically and decide on how we're going to do this…"

Participant 7

In this context, participants, including those from SAC Consulting, spoke about the importance of highly practical and specific advice as being popular and useful:

"The kind of basic technical skills that they might learn in college or that they've learned from their parents…some of that knowledge is maybe out of date, or some of those practices have moved on…back to doing the basics of farming well is not a bad thing, and there are many farmers who find it useful to be reminded of the basics in order to manage their activities better, their productivity should go up and their emissions should go down."

SAC Consulting Participant 2

This popularity was also said to be reflected in the viewing figures, as well as being popular with non-FAS SAC Consulting customers. Another participant observed that the format of the current advice service did not always reflect this emphasis on practical applications with events, in their view, too often being hosted in hotels as opposed to farms themselves:

"I think in terms of numbers and engagement you would get a different crowd if it was a practical on farm event. The crowd who are willing to give up a day or half a day to sit in a hotel are maybe not the people making the business decisions."

Participant 6

It should be noted that, during the SAC Consulting interviews, it was clarified that this was also their view, while an emphasis on other venues usually reflected the attendance numbers or the subject matter.

Recommendation 6: Consider Options for More Holistic Training Integration. This should consider whether there is scope for more holistic integration of training with advice provision. Taking a long-term view, consider the scope for FAS to engage with longer-term training and advice mechanisms.

Another aspect of training emphasised within the interviews related to the perceived success of FAS events related to Women in Agriculture. Here, multiple participants observed that, while they had in some circumstances been apprehensive about having women only events, they had quickly seen that there was a large unmet demand for this within the farming population. As an illustrative example, one participant reported that:

"We were not that enthusiastic about doing women only things at first…until we asked! And women said 'I would love to do a women only course on such and such because when I've tried to attend a course before, it gets dominated by the men…Fencing is a good example, it's considered quite a macho thing…we had a very good trainer, and he showed women all these techniques on how to use leverage, etc, how a women can put a fence up perfectly well, without damaging herself in the process. And the feedback was absolutely over the top."

Participant 7

More specifically, the participants who discussed this emphasised that women may be anxious about making mistakes in front of male farming colleagues, potentially reflecting their concern that they were not 'real' farmers or should not be doing practical tasks. The possibility of meetings being dominated by a small number of loud, male voices was also emphasised, and the importance of ensuring supportive contexts for traditionally 'macho' elements of farm work were discussed. In this context, it is also worth considering additional barriers that farmers may face in accessing training, i.e. language barriers among migrant labourers, or supporting farmers who for various reasons have limited scope to travel for events.

The participants also noted various topics which were challenging to engage with and may require slightly different approaches. One example of this was succession planning:

"Particularly when you're looking at things like succession planning: ultimately no one likes to envisage their own death! So it's a difficult conversation. Particularly where you've got a farmer whose children aren't interested in taking on the farm, it's still their life's work, but how do you approach that discussion with a potential successor you may never have met before?"

Participant 3

As this participant observed, there were considerable difficulties in engaging with this issue, and it may be more amenable to efforts focused on small groups – discussed below - than in the context of large events. In a similar vein, participants also mentioned the need to approach wellbeing among farmers with sensitivity and in appropriate contexts. While it was observed generally that mental health and resilience were critical topics in supporting the community, this raised challenges of its own, as such topics required an appropriate level of sensitivity to be effective.

Another topic that was emphasised was business resilience and mindset, given the current and future complexities of the role, and the multiple demands on farmers. Here, however, it was observed that a particular challenge in the One to Many context was providing specific and tailored, as opposed to general, advice. As they note:

"Those that are engaging, I think are looking for more specific advice, rather than being told 'make sure this is as resilient as possible' and they come away going 'but what am I actually meant to do here?'"

Participant 6

With regard to each of these topics, there is reason to suspect that they might benefit from a more focused, smaller scale form of engagement. As has been discussed throughout, most participants emphasised the benefits of a 'one-to-few' approach, and this may be another instance in which the service can offer a useful approach to providing advice.

Recommendation 7: Ensure advice is inclusive. Consider the best mechanisms to mainstream the lessons of women-only training techniques, how best to ensure they are available and review barriers to participation that may exist for other equalities groups. Review options whereby potentially emotionally charged topics can be discussed in appropriate forums..

5.4 Barriers to Seeking and Following Advice

When discussing FAS, we can describe barriers to initial engagement – why farmers do not seek advice in the first instance – and barriers to following advice once obtained. These are described in turn.

The stakeholder interviews suggest that, as indicated in previous chapters, a considerable number of farmers simply do not engage with the service. One participant emphasised that, in their estimation, around 60% of farmers simply did not engage with the service, and in another context concern was expressed that those engaging with FAS were simply the 'top 20%'. As noted previously, more robust data collection about FAS use going forward can help to clarify the extent of non-engagement.

Participants emphasised a range of factors that could limit farmer engagement with FAS. Many of these related to a combination of availability and interest, but also tapped into the sense in which seeking advice can be understood as a shortcoming in some cases. This was further reflected by a stakeholder who emphasised the extent to which farmers may perceive 'advice' as criticism about the way they, and by extension those who preceded them, have maintained the farm. As they observe:

"Someone said to me once when you try to tell a farmer they're doing something wrong, often, you're not telling him that it's just him, it's probably his dad and his grandad, his whole history is wrong."

Participant 5

This participant also observed that, in some cases, farmers may be apprehensive that, by exposing themselves to advice, they risk finding out that they may not be as skilled as they had perceived themselves to be.

Clearly, the need for an engagement strategy for underrepresented groups may be beneficial, as recommended previously, and it may be the case that a broader 'mission' for the service can address the perception that engagement with the service reflects poorly on farmers themselves. This is captured in Recommendation 4: Review Engagement Strategy.

Once individuals are engaged, further, participants observed that inertia provides a large barrier to undertaking costly and potentially risky changes to their business:

"Any course you go on, unless you make the change the day after you got back from the course, then there is a risk it becomes only an interesting set of notes, ideally you need to do it the day after and that takes having the time and space to do so…..."

SAC Consulting Participant 2

It was also observed that participants may face considerable barriers in having have to persuade others within the business, or if the person attending the event is not the person solely responsible for day-to-day management decisions. Following on from this, assuming that change is able to happen quickly and the participant has the capacity to enact change, they may still face difficulties. As one participant observed, there can be a genuine fear of being the first to do something new on the farm, as well as a concern about taking risks. By comparison, many participants highlighted the benefits of contexts where advice was provided within the context of a small group of farmers, who were then able to collaboratively develop solutions with each other. As one participant put it:

"Where we hear truly positive responses, where people are really appreciative of the support they've been given, that's through the networks that have been established. Quite often that is Women in Ag[riculture], but also, new entrants in particular have really appreciated the peer to peer support…"

Participant 6

Another participant expressed a similar sentiment:

"When it comes down to the in person meetings…if you can create a community I think you'd get further with people. Because instead of just listening they start to bounce ideas of each other and that's when things really start to work…it would be good to have…a reasonably small group that got to know each other, and could trust each other, and could bounce ideas off each other. This doesn't necessarily take a long time, it doesn't need the whole five years…if you can get the bond going, the group will continue by itself probably."

Participant 5

Clearly, stakeholders perceived benefits from peer supported processes. Another perceived benefit regarding smaller groups and a sense of shared mission was that this could have the effect of creating a positive atmosphere, as emphasised as a key feature of the new entrants group's collaborative work. It was notable that a similar sentiment on how to ensure more effective ongoing engagement was shared by the delivery partners, SAC Consulting, who observed:

"It's verging on one to few…it's not one to many, it's not one to one…so you get the efficiencies and the shared learning of the one to many, but you have enough focus and enough confidentiality and enough sense of shared purpose…and a safe space. If you've got 12 to 15 people, they will talk about more stuff than if you've got 25, 30, 40 people. We're running multiple events each year with essentially the same groups, so they get to know each other, and in some cases we're running those groups year in year out, so we've really built up a relationship."

SAC Consulting Participant 1

In addition to this emphasis on small, mutually supportive and accountable groups, another participant suggested the offering could be improved by providing a more structured environment for long-term learning.

"What I think people would prefer is to sign up to not necessarily a 'course' – but rather than an afternoon in a hotel, a progressive series of events on this specific issue. That would be more beneficial in terms of measuring progress, but also how the service is engaged with. So if someone comes to the first event and doesn't go anything else then coming to one event is not a success."

Participant 6

Longer-term engagement, with the capacity to measure progress, could substantially improve our understanding of the achievements of the advisory service, as well as allowing the service to develop more ambitious goals for upskilling and supporting farmers through challenges.

However, there is also a broader point here, given the emerging challenges in agriculture at present. While certain skills might be best addressed in one off events, there may be broader changes that FAS wishes to cultivate going forward, given the opportunities for high nature value farming, renewable energy, diversification and other forms of transition. In this context, it is worth considering the range of outcomes FAS might support and the appropriate timescales/mechanisms that could underpin this. This was well captured by a participant from SAC Consulting, considering the potential future roles of farmers:

"The FAS should be an instrument that moves farmers and land managers forward. So whether it's their ability to diversify, their ability to open up a new enterprise, their ability to shut one down if it doesn't function where they are…Scotland has this amazing geography which will have some of the best carbon sinks in the world and have some of the most productive, intensive cattle in the world. So we can have both….We can help all land managers and farmers go down the track which is right for them. Are they going to be a high nature value farmer, a carbon farmer, are they going to be an intensive farmer? How do we transfer the skills so that land managers can adapt as they see fit?…FAS will help you adapt to your new path when that is needed."

SAC Consulting Participant 2

Recommendation 8: Engage with Barriers to Following Advice. Consider developing mechanisms to cultivate small, facilitated groups of farmers which can collaboratively develop change over time. A common challenge noted among respondents was that change can be more achievable in the context of facilitated groups of farmers, rather than individually, and this should be considered as a mechanism for improving the take-up of advice. Consider longer term mechanisms with an explicit emphasis on transition.

5.5 How Should Change be Monitored?

Following on from this, participants had a range of views about how change might be monitored. As one participant noted, current monitoring is largely focused on engagement as distinct from the 'impacts' of advice. As another participant observed, capturing the outcomes of receiving advice could provide a more useful guide to the effects of the service:

"It's about giving people options that they can take home and consider and then action…I think that is something that's not being measured through the service at all: how many people are taking something away that they can action at home, but then are actually doing it? To me that would be the real success of the service. And at this point I don't think we're seeing that fundamental change in farming practices."

Participant 6

A challenging dimension of monitoring is that it requires integration within environmental monitoring generally. The challenges and opportunities of centralised monitoring were emphasised by some participants. For example, as one observed:

"I think there has to be some form of monitoring. It comes back to the data question. There is so much unknown in terms of our baseline at the moment…in terms of the economic side of things there are things like the Farm business survey, the June agricultural census, all those kinds of things are definitely useful for looking at the health of the businesses…the big gap is that we don't have many other baselines to measure from which to measure success or otherwise at the moment, other than the economic side of things…"

Participant 3

As this participant observes, there are considerable challenges around environmental monitoring owing to a lack of baselines and the data collection challenges monitoring involves. Among some participants, there was clearly support for a more broadly integrated approach to environmental monitoring, which could include farms. As one participant noted, environmental monitoring is generally poor in Scotland, and it follows that a better data strategy for this could improve monitoring of outcomes elsewhere.

While we can certainly imagine an approach to FAS that would seek to monitor performance in terms of national priorities, such as carbon emissions, participants also emphasised the importance of farmers, or groups of farmers, establishing their own KPIs for change and these being monitored. Developing an appropriate mechanism for 'blending' these levels, i.e. ensuring farmer-led innovation – thus supporting 'buy in' – while ensuring national goals are prioritised will be an important challenge here.

While measuring impact is important, this does raise the possibility of goals being set in less prescriptive ways and being more connected to the specific aspirations of farmers or, indeed, groups. There was certainly the possibility, noted by some participants, of allowing groups to set their own goals and to be measured against these. While this might not correspond as neatly to the central policy goals alluded to above, there could potentially be scope to have an approval process in relation to these goals, or develop them in consultation with FAS. A strong benefit here would be buy in from participants, who would be pursuing outcomes they have selected and are invested in. These aspects should inform the interpretation of the recommendations pertaining to monitoring, as above.



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