‘Project 25’ – farmers, water quality and on-farm decision-making

Aaron Davis
Led by: Dr Aaron Davis, JCU


Project Summary

Landholder concerns surrounding the credibility of broad-scale water quality monitoring and modelling initiatives in the GBR catchment area is emerging as one of the key cane industry engagement challenges for promoting significant farming practice change, and delivering water quality improvements. Based around small, sub-catchment scale water quality monitoring in a key cane growing region of the GBR catchment, Project 25 utilises a bottom-up approach to integrated sub-catchment monitoring and intervention to identify ‘hot spot’ sub-catchments through localised water quality monitoring. The Project emphasises industry ownership and control of monitoring design, and delivery of locally targeted water quality data to provide confidence in on-farm decision making and practice change.


Project Description

1. What problem the projects seeks to address and how it will do this

The most recent Great Barrier Reef catchment report card (tracking Reef Plan improvements in management actions and resultant water quality load reductions towards Reef Plan targets) highlights that pesticide and particularly nitrogen reduction trajectories in the Qld sugar industry fall well below desired target reductions. Recent global experiences suggest that spatially identifying and prioritizing landscape ‘hotspots’ of pollutant generation for management intervention, and small catchment-scale water quality monitoring in collaboration with landholders are among the most promising strategies for reducing water quality pollution. This proposal relates to a funding extension for current NESP project 2.1.7 – ‘Engaging with farmers and demonstrating water quality outcomes to create confidence in on-farm decision-making (“Project 25”)’. Based around small, sub-catchment scale water quality monitoring in a key cane growing region of the GBR catchment, Project 25 utilises an integrated monitoring and intervention framework to identify ‘hot spot’ sub-catchments through localised water quality monitoring.

Project 25 utilises a different principle to traditional ‘top-down’ water quality monitoring, instead emphasizing a ‘ground-up’ approach where local canegrowers ‘steer’ program design and subsequent research and extension efforts in identified sub-catchment hotspots. While existing monitoring programs have tended to focus monitoring at spatial and temporal scales largely removed or irrelevant to farmer decision-making, Project 25 focuses on locally targeted water quality information delivery to relevant landholders. Water quality monitoring is based around integration of relatively traditional monitoring approaches (discrete sample collection for subsequent laboratory analysis) as well as emerging real-time (sensor-based) monitoring approaches. The development of real-time information and feedback on local water quality dynamics is a relatively novel approach to landholder engagement that is yet to be meaningfully explored in natural resource management programs. Project 25 will trial these new technologies from both the perspective of an engagement-extension tool and their reliability in water quality monitoring applications.

Much of the initial effort in Project 25 to this point has been dedicated to design and implementation of the broader scale catchment water quality monitoring program, and the industry engagement necessary to establish robust trust frameworks and faith in the overall process. A major evolution of Project 25 (and evidence of cane industry faith in the process) is agreement to its recent partnership with CSIRO to include the Project as a key theme (GBR Water Quality) within the CSIRO ‘Digiscapes’ Programme (more information in related research below). The Digiscapes initiative will identify how landholders can best use local environmental information (near real-time water quality, weather, crop production data) to alter management decision-making on farm, and ultimately change farming practices. There has also already been stakeholder steering committee agreement that monitoring needs to move ‘up the catchment’ to target smaller grower collectives. While Digiscapes will add new sites to the current Project 25 network, this proposal is aiming to also add two additional sites at finer multi-farm or even farm scales to the project to test finer scale provision of local environmental data to growers.

Another added component of this proposal relates to the appraisal and identification of sociological and structural drivers of successful water quality engagement programmes. Some of the key considerations in original selection of the Russell-Mulgrave catchment related to its manageable size, and simplicity in land uses and hydrology. Early indications suggest the current project model is successful in promoting industry buy-in and engagement toward localised and very targeted water quality monitoring. One of the key information gaps with Project 25, however, relates to issues surrounding its transferability and scalability and how key learnings from the project can be best utilised and modified to inform similar projects elsewhere. Several other cane industry focused monitoring programmes such as the Sandy Creek Sub-catchment Water Quality Monitoring Project (Wallace et al., 2017) and Herbert Water Quality Monitoring Program (O’Brien et al., 2015) also offer relevant context and comparisons to Project 25 experiences. Projects with similar trust framework-based objectives to Project 25, such as Project Cane Changer (http://www.behaviourinnovation.com/canechanger/ ), utilise human behaviour components to design, implement, and evaluate industry wide programs to understand the day-to-day challenges facing cane farmers and to recognise, value and accelerate their efforts to adopt farming practices that help protect the Reef.

There is substantial upcoming government investment earmarked for similar projects (https://www.qld.gov.au/environment/agriculture/sustainable-farming/reef-major-projects), and fit-for-purpose technologies to support these programs (https://openinnovation.com.au/static/downloads/sbir/SBIR%20Pilot%20-%20Reef%20Water%20Quality%20Monitoring%20-%20Challenge%20Overview.pdf). It is, therefore, critical that lessons and learnings emerging from the Project 25 as well as these other models (for industry, scientists, and NRM support) can inform a range of broader extension activities in other regions relating to water quality issues. We propose a formal review and SWOT (Strength, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) – style analysis of similar recent programs to identify key differences in program delivery that affected practice change outcomes on-ground. This will include a review of the sociological outcomes from Project 25 and similar programs, as well as Case Studies outlining project design, framework development, end-user engagement and technological-sociological integration. This process will identify mechanisms for the scalability and transferability of collective GBR water quality monitoring initiatives into other geographic locations or farming systems.


Adding a social research component: NESP TWQ Hub Project 25


Integrating new technologies or monitoring practices within farm businesses and agricultural sectors is widely appreciated as a challenge. Where these new approaches generate information or seek to inform farmer decision-making about environmental performance of their operation, as well as productivity, the difficulty and complexity of that challenge increases. Insights from the scientific literature on agricultural decision-support systems, technology adoption and agricultural innovation systems highlight the importance of effective, local collaboration between farmers, scientists and other service providers (such as extension specialists) in the process of designing, trialling and evaluating the benefits and risks of these technologies and their deployment. The benefits of collaborating in this way can be understood as three propositions:

  1. the use of the technology can be more readily tailored to local needs and conditions and therefore more successfully embedded in local farming systems
  2. it presents an opportunity for farmer and expert, scientific knowledge to be integrated more effectively and for joint-learning, and,
  3. improves trust in the data / information source and its application to on-farm and wider decision-making.


The proposal is to incorporate a participatory social assessment activity within Project 25 in order to test the above propositions. The assessment would:

  1. Elicit project participants assumptions, expectations and concerns about the monitoring technologies;
  2. Monitor participants (growers, scientists and others) attitudes towards and experiences with the technologies, information and collaboration over time;
  3. Identify strengths and limitations of the approach to inform ongoing adaptive management and delivery of the project; and
  4. Identify issues related to scalability and/or transferability of the approach to other locations or farming systems.


2. How the research will be undertaken, including what is in and out of scope

Some of the proposed funding will be used for continued monitoring of existing sites in the program and maintenance of equipment beyond the current schedule timeframe of Project 25 (ending 2018). New components of the project will relate to additional of two new monitoring sites and sociological research conducted by CSIRO and joint JCU-CSIRO review and design recommendations for future industry engagement programs. The sociological research methods used in this activity could potentially include interviews, focus groups or social survey instruments with participants; observation at field days or project workshops or other interactions; and/or social network analysis of participant advice and information networks over time. The activity would draw on and link with the existing collaboration between Project 25 and CSIROs Digiscape application domain in the GBR (Thorburn, Webster). As an initial estimate the activity would require 0.2FTE of PDF (Fielke) and 0.2 Senior Research Scientist (Taylor).

Inclusions (in scope) focus on effective engagement with end-users and stakeholders on project outcomes in major sugarcane growing catchments of the Wet Tropics and other major cane growing regions (lower Burdekin, Mackay-Whitsunday). Exclusions include any extension of research beyond cane growing to other commodities.


3. Trial programmes/case studies to improve physical environment, if relevant

While the specific trials are yet to be fully negotiated with stakeholders, user experiences with real-time data provision and farm and possibly paddock-scale trials are likely to be implemented in upcoming Project 25-Digiscapes collaborations with the local cane industry. Case studies of results, and associated user experiences, are very likely from these programmes.


4. Details of related prior research, if relevant

Results from the first year of Project 25 sub-catchment monitoring results have recently been compiled and presented back to the stakeholder technical steering committee and also the local broader sugarcane industry (in part). This prior research, and industry acceptance of results, form a strong basis for Project 25 moving forward.


5.How the project links to other research and/or the work of other Hubs.

Related research

  • Project 25 has recently partnered with CSIRO to include the Project in the ‘Digiscapes’ GBR water quality theme, part of their ‘big six’ future science platforms (https://www.csiro.au/en/News/News-releases/2016/The-big-six-CSIROs-plans-for-our-future). The aim of Digiscape program is to aid agricultural industries through development of next generation decision support tools such as sensors, data visualisation, artificial intelligence and assisted decision making to generate timely and relevant advice and insights to allow better choices for more productive and sustainable outcomes.
  • Project Cane Changer. Funded by the Queensland Government Department of Environment and Heritage Protection, Cane Changer is driven by the CANEGROWERS organisation, in partnership with human behaviour experts from Behaviour Innovation (Chief Executive Officer Dr John Pickering). The project draws on evidence-based principles of psychology and human behaviour to design, implement, and evaluate an industry wide program that aims to understand the day-to-day challenges facing cane farmers and to recognise, value and accelerate their efforts to adopt farming practices that help protect the Reef. The project will be rolled out across Wet Tropics cane fields over the next two years.
  • NESP – Project 1.8 Sub-catchment scale monitoring, modelling and extension design to support reef water quality improvement
  • The Paddock to Reef Integrated Monitoring, Modelling and Reporting Program (Paddock to Reef program). Small catchment water quality and grower practice data from Project 25 will eventually be used to calibrate and improve current P2R modelling capabilities in the target catchment.
  • The Great Barrier Reef Catchment Loads Monitoring Program. Project 25 already collaborates with the GBRCLP program in providing end-of-system context to the results of finer-scale small catchment monitoring in the Russell-Mulgrave catchment. Real-time water quality monitoring at GBRCLP gauging stations is also being integrated with Project 25 data as part of the Digiscapes collaboration.
  • DAF Reef Water Quality cane extension strategy. Presentation of Project 25 data is also presented in conjunction with QDAF extension programs in the Russell-Mulgrave catchment relating to improved fertiliser management trials and communication strategies.


NESP 2017 Research Priority Alignment

Project 25 emphases small-scale, industry-driven and local ownership of water quality monitoring for behavioural and practice change. The proposed program addition will further identify how this model can be more broadly administered in other regions. This proposed project particularly aligns with the NESP 2017 Research Priorities under Themes 1 and 3, namely;

Theme 1: Improved understanding of the impacts, including cumulative impacts, and pressures on priority freshwater, coastal and marine ecosystems and species

  • Develop practical improvements to land management practices that will influence behavioural change and improve outcomes for tropical water quality and ecosystem health.
  • Improve our knowledge of cumulative pressures on environmental and social values of the Great Barrier Reef to determine more effective management actions.

Theme 3: Natural resource management improvements based on sound understanding of the status and long-term trends of priority species and systems

  • Combine existing indicators and monitoring programmes to develop a cost-effective integrated monitoring programme to support natural resource management, evaluate results and communicate trends.

Explore the opportunities for citizen science and Indigenous participation to improve tropical water quality awareness and outcomes.


Project Keywords

Nutrients; Sugarcane; Spatial targeting; Monitoring; Practice change.


Project Funding

This project is jointly funded through JCU, CSIRO and the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Programme.


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