Episode 2: Challenges Facing Australian Farmers

For Wes Ward, adjunct research fellow at Charles Sturt University, researchers must move beyond the idea they’re separate from the individuals and communities they are studying.

In this episode of What’s Sociology Got To Do With It?, Ward challenges researchers to recognise the web of individuals involved in agricultural systems. That is, he challenges them to think of the shearers, the contract workers, the farm managers and everyone else involved in running a farm. He says that this ‘thinking of the big picture’ is the only way organisations, researchers and farmers can move towards shared goals, building trust and fixing the challenges actually facing Australian farmers.

He argues that researchers and organisations cannot become truly embedded in their communities when trust is missing from that relationship. In these scenarios, Ward says there can be no effective sharing of knowledge, skills and technologies.

If you want to contact Ward, he can be reached by e-mail at wward@csu.edu.au, or by contacting Charles Sturt University’s Institute for Land, Water and Society.

A transcript of this episode is available at www.thatsociologypodcast.org

Produced by Dr Sarina Kilham with support from Charles Sturt University and The Australian Sociological Association for Social Science Week 2020.

Transcript: Wes Ward

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[00:00:00] Wes Ward: [00:00:00] research is all about people. It’s not just about instruments and white lab coats. It’s a social activity.  

Sarina: [00:00:58] Thanks for joining us [00:01:00] on the podcast What’s Sociology Got To Do With It? Can you please tell us your name, where you’re talking to us from and what is your current role? 

Wes Ward: [00:01:11] Hi, my name is Wes Ward. I’m from Albury in the lockdown capital of Australia on the New South Wales-Victorian border. I’m a adjunct research fellow with Charles Sturt University’s Institute for Land, Water and Society.

Sarina: [00:01:29] Wes, can you tell us about your research? 

Wes Ward: [00:01:32] My research is about investigating how different people and organizations can best communicate and work together to work on and carry out successful research. And that research can be all sorts; it can be agriculture, it can be natural resource management. It could be business, could be health and particularly, [00:02:00] it’s research carried out in and for regional Australia.  And I’m looking for how we can get around the issues that both help and challenge  these collaborations, and you know, what we can do in the future to just work together that bit better.

Sarina: [00:02:17] So, can you ground us in an example of both the collaboration and the type of research that you do? 

Mmm, 

Wes Ward: [00:02:25] sure. One project I finished recently was looking at how people from Charles Sturt University’s Institute for Land, Water and Society, and these ecological researchers, social researchers, conservation biologists, how they worked with the North East Catchment Management Authority based in Wodonga, in-in northeast Victoria. So it was across borders. It was [00:03:00] between New South Wales and Victoria. It was across organizations. Catchment management authorities really are doing organizations; they’re on the ground, get hands dirty and they look towards looking after the catchments in which our regional communities live.

And I wanted, I was really interested in how the researchers at IWS why don’t we live 10 kilometers away from the head office at North East CMA? How well they work together with these extension type people and on-ground workers in natural resource management, how well they work together with them. And I might say that it was very mixed results.

Sarina: [00:03:46] As in the question of how well was that sometimes not very well at all and sometimes very well; is that what you mean by mixed results?

Wes Ward: [00:03:55] Very much   Sometimes people didn’t even know the other organization [00:04:00] exist or they didn’t understand what skills and  what expertise was available in organizations. And that went both ways. That meant, you know,  how well North East CMA has good connections into local  communities and possible places for doing research. And on the other hand, know there was great scientific expertise and great know-how in IWS.

And so,  there was disconnects between those two groups, sometimes-not all the time. There was some really good areas, between the two organizations. They really did collaborate very well.

Sarina: [00:04:37] So with your research, what’s the benefits then of applying a social logical lens to your research or a social science approach? 

Wes Ward: [00:04:49] Look, sociology and the social science approaches to this particular topic is all built around the fact that research [00:05:00] is all about people. It’s not just about instruments and white lab coats. It’s a social activity. It’s about how scientists and agencies and stakeholders, like farmers too, decide what they want to do. So in other words, how to develop shared goals. It looks at how they want to be, who wants to get involved in, uh, research projects.

And there’s a lot of trust involved with that. Whether you know someone and you want to  be involved with them because you trust them. Who wants to be involved, who should be involved? Why should they want to be involved? Or why not? Why are they not involved when they should be involved?

I’m doing some more research out at Deniliquin with a pharma group, and there’s a real disconnect there between research and farmers  in some areas and  a lot of that’s based around distrust and  what’s happened in the past and there’s some really interesting stuff [00:06:00] that we’re doing out there to look at how we can overcome some of the barriers out that way.

Sarina: [00:06:04] So for these I guess like normal, hard science ways of thinking about research problems, how would you say that taking a sociological approach is disrupting or innovating science in your case?

Wes Ward: [00:06:21] Well, look, the way I think I look at my research is that I’m investigating a very complex system.

It’s not something that can be simply broken down into bite size, simple pieces, looking at individual barriers and say, ‘Hey, if we apply a social media tool all will be fixed.’ Unfortunately, I hear that. I’ve heard that, and I’ve seen that in my experience, in Australia and overseas, that simple fixtures, simple tools can be applied to a problem.

Um, I don’t believe it can, I think it ta-it’s much [00:07:00] more complex. And what I’m trying to do is look at that complexity and see how we can work within that complexity, that real world situation to come up with some solutions to, um, problems in collaboration.

Sarina: [00:07:14] Wes, I was really interested in what you were saying about agricultural research and working with farmers in Deniliquin. Agricultural research is probably something many of us would think of as a hard science and we imagine fields or paddocks with test plots, mapped out. Your saying to us that it’s more of a social research issue. Can you talk to that a bit for us?

Wes Ward: [00:07:38] Yeah, look, I think it’s- there’s more to agricultural research than just the putting out the plots in the paddock. I think there’s also the need to make sure that people are part of agriculture. They need to be involved in agriculture, they need to be part of agricultural research. [00:08:00] It’s more than just the farmers in the paddocks.

It’s also the stock and station agents. It’s the shearers. It’s the contractors who work around doing plowing, doing harvesting, doing contract spraying. It’s all the other people involved and it is a very complex system and farmers and farm managers are in there and right there in the middle of it. They need to be also involved not just with the mechanics of doing the research, like housing the plots, or homing the plots, but actually getting them involved, being part of the setting of the goals of the research, be part of the planning of that research.  And from that then comes also the backend. They intimately are involved and  interested in getting the results of that research. And they really want to be part of ‘so this is what’s happened. This is [00:09:00] good stuff. I need to get it out to  my fellow farmers, farm managers or anyone else who could make use of that research.’ 

It’s much, much more than just-agricultural research is not just a white lab coat or sitting on a tractor. It’s much more also about the people involved in agricultural systems .

Sarina: [00:09:23] Wes, that’s fantastic. For my final question, I want to ask you, in what ways do you hope your research might change the world?

Wes Ward: [00:09:33] Changing the world? Well, that’s a very big, tall order.  However, I believe I could help in a couple of ways. One way is to get better understanding of how individuals and how farmers can collaborate together in regional Australia.

I’ve done past research in Southeast Asia and it was really interesting, being able to pass back some of those [00:10:00] results and getting some realization that ‘hm. Maybe there is a couple of things here that we can do to improve the way that we spend our money on a lot of big research projects in, ah, developing countries.’

 Another thing is, out of my research, I developed a tool to be able to assess how well, some of our computer programs that we use to communicate with each other across different groups in ways that are involved in research, like researchers from different countries or researchers and farmers and agencies, how well the communication programs could actually deal with their problems, can deal with their communication barriers and be able to assess whether these programs actually do what they’re meant to do.

Sarina: [00:10:54] With those programs, what type of programs are you talking about?

Wes Ward: [00:10:58] So I’m talking everything [00:11:00] from Facebook through to  instant messaging, like WeChat or Snapchat through to Instagram, through to e-mail, through, to  websites, SMS on mobile phones, all sorts, all manner of communication programs.

And I actually looked at these and applied what we called a heuristic evaluation tool that assessed nine different  communication programs and found that many of them had a lot of problems for dealing with people, for dealing with people from different cultures or different  world experiences.

And there was one that they all agreed was probably the best one. And I put it to you, which one do you think it might’ve been?

Sarina: [00:11:48] Face to face, I always go-

Wes Ward: [00:11:51] Um. Face to face was the number one communication mode that they said ‘yes, that was still the number one and the [00:12:00] best one to do, the best communication program.’

Sarina: [00:12:04] Mm. Uh, I don’t know. You’ve got me there, Wes, I-I wouldn’t like to take a stab in the dark.

Wes Ward: [00:12:12] Okay, the number one was e-mail. And that was really interesting because literature says-

Sarina: [00:12:21] Why e-mail is so fantastic.

Wes Ward: [00:12:23] That’s right. E-mail was the number one because, particularly for people for whom English is a second language, they had time. They had time to decode the messages. They had time to ask their friends what a word meant. They had time then to also craft their own messages and send them back to people for whom English was a first language.

And they were able to keep their face. They were able to keep their their credibility as a scientist and as a communicator. So it was really interesting what [00:13:00] people would tell and what particularly the IT industry says where all these wonderful new communication programs or new ways of doing things, the good old e-mail, in some situations, was actually still the best.

Sarina: [00:13:16] Wes, that’s fantastic. I’m so glad we talked to you today. You’ve taken us on a lovely research journey from regional collaboration through to developing trust with farmers right through to plugging e-mailers.

 Thanks for agreeing to appear on What’s Sociology Got To Do With It? If people are interested in your research or getting in contact with you, where’s the best place to find you, Wes?

Wes Ward: [00:13:43] The best place to find me is through Charles Sturt University’s  Institute for Land, Water and Society. I’ll put my contact details on the website.

Sarina: [00:13:56] Yep. On the show notes for the podcast-

Wes Ward: [00:13:58] I’ll put my [00:14:00] contacts on the show notes for the podcast and I’ll make sure that people are able to get ahold of me, particularly my e-mail.

Sarina: [00:14:11] Fantastic. Have a lovely day Wes.

Wes Ward: [00:14:14] And you too, Sarina. Thanks very much for having me.