Agricultural advisers and the transition to sustainable soil management in England : an analysis of the role of knowledge and knowledge processes
This research is concerned with the dynamic relationship between agricultural advisers, knowledge and soil in England. On the basis that agricultural advisers have always played a central role in linking research and farming practice and implementing policy on the farm, the thesis explores the role of the adviser in facilitating a shift towards sustainable soil management (which encompasses a range of complex and knowledge intensive practices) and to the realisation of policy objectives in this domain. Specifically it aims to provide detailed empirical evidence of the role that agricultural advisers play in the acquisition, utilisation, generation and transfer of knowledge about soil best management practice and to elicit the factors that enable and constrain these knowledge processes. Conceptually, the research draws on approaches to knowledge and knowledge processes in agriculture from the allied disciplines of rural geography, rural sociology and extension science. An actor-oriented Agricultural Knowledge and Information System (AKIS) approach provides the basis for examining adviser interactions with both the research and farming communities. While the AKIS describes the factors that enable and constrain how advisers engage in knowledge processes in terms of connections across institutional interfaces between research, advice and farming, an actororiented approach, which understands knowledge processes as social processes operating across social interfaces, enables exploration of how individual advisers behaving as autonomous agents resolve these constraining and enabling factors. The- study, combining quantitative and qualitative methods, employs an extensive postal questionnaire survey of a 163 agricultural advisers from across England and three detailed case studies where sustainable soil management is a central theme, namely: the Landcare Project; the UK Soil Management Initiative; and the SUNDIAL Fertiliser Recommendation System. The data describe an advisory community with a range of involvement, concerns and competence in soil management. Patterns of acquisition and utilisation of knowledge about soil best management practice revealed by the questionnaire data suggest that advisers are actively seeking and using knowledge about soil management, although some are more constrained than others in accessing it. These patterns, however, only provide a partial understanding of the complex knowledge processes in which advisers engage as they operate at the boundaries between science and practice. As such, qualitative data from the case studies are used to reveal that, in bridging the different institutional cultures and life worlds of research and practice, advisers encounter different understandings and expectations of soil best management practices. Rather than simply acquiring, utilising and transferring knowledge, the data reveal that advisers negotiate, adapt, transform, generate and integrate knowledge about soil as they struggle to reconcile the principles of research-based soil best management practice with the practical and business constraints of the farm. In doing this advisers, and agronomists in particular, tend to closely align themselves with the interests of the farming community and as such are more likely to reject or question soil best management practice. In addition the apparent lack of advisers' competence and skills in certain knowledge intensive soil best management practices and their reliance on experiential knowledge further explains their reluctance to engage in soil best management practices derived from national research. Integration of knowledge through dialogue and understanding emerges as key to overcoming these tensions and providing the basis for facilitating sustainable soil management. Advisers are shown to have a central role in integrating knowledge from research and from farmers. The processes and relationships that enable this integration are identified. The thesis concludes with some policy relevant suggestions to improve the effectiveness of advisers' participation in the transition to sustainable soil management in England. These include: exploiting a diverse and flexible advisory community; improving advisers' skills and expertise; instilling in them confidence to provide credible and practical soil best management practice; and improving the quality of communication between the advisers, researchers and farmers. Future research directions are reviewed in the context of the proposed implementation of Soil Management Plans on all farms in England as a component of cross compliance within CAP reforms.