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Sarah Strutt

Sarah, can you tell us about your career so far. How did you end up working in extension?

My ‘working in extension’ seed was sown when growing up on a large grains/sheep/cattle property near Echuca, Victoria. I completed a Bachelor of Forest Science at Melbourne University with the broad goal of working in land management. Keen to work in the north, I was excited to land a job in the Kimberley as Industry Development Officer with the WA Department of Agriculture with a focus on rangeland management and extensive beef production.

Opportunities to bring graziers and farmers in the Ord River Irrigation Area together for training, to tackle common issues and learn from each other, led me to support extension for horticultural farmers too. During 10 years in this role, I built my knowledge and skills from training, mentoring from extension specialists and most importantly from my own successes, failures and associated input and feedback from pastoralists and farmers.

Personal circumstances, demand and opportunity enabled me to be successfully self-employed for the next 10 years. Most projects I was engaged to do were facilitating and supporting businesses and groups to collaborate to overcome issues/seize opportunities and develop skills, capacity and resources to support management.

In 2011, we moved to Townsville for my daughters’ secondary education. I got work with AgForce assisting graziers to adopt best management practices for productivity and the environment by accessing ‘Reef Rescue’ water quality improvement grants. Most recently, I was a manager in the Reef Guardian Program team with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. This program recognises, grows and supports a network of environmental stewards influencing community stewardship of the Reef and its catchment.

Do you have any achievements from your career that you’re particularly proud of?

In my first year in north Queensland, I connected with 40 graziers, established working relationships with 16 of these to assist them to develop a total of 38 infrastructure projects valued at $2 million. These projects leveraged $940,000 Reef Rescue grant funding towards the works. Working with these graziers was a great opportunity to learn about the region, integrate my extension skills and experience with knowledge and experience gained working for the government implementing industry support programs.

How would you describe extension? 

I developed my understanding of extension, during many hours driving around properties with Kimberley graziers. Coming into the region knowing very little about the land and industry it sustained, I had to learn from them. I seized this time to ask about their land, practices, business, aspirations, challenges and ideas.

Our conversations often challenged them to clearly explain what they did and why. That sometimes triggered them to question this. We identified issues and knowledge gaps (for all involved), talked about what relevant data/research was available; what others were doing; explored barriers to change and bounced around ideas about what could be done to overcome these.

We developed relationships that led to us working together to improve their businesses, land management, benefit their industry and region. We each brought different skills to this working relationship and drew in other people, seeking new information and skills to overcome the challenges and progress towards their aspirations for their business, industry and region. I had a gut feeling this was extension – the strange term I’d never really understood.

How does your current role differ from traditional roles in extension, such as industry development officers?

To run a successful farming business, growers draw upon many people, organisations and programs for information or support. They also work with others that place demands on their business.  Consider each of these to be ‘tiles’. A tile may be a traditional extension program, a research provider, the seller of farm supplies, a grower, an industry/regional grower group, a quality assurance program etc. 

My current role is to be ‘grout between the tiles’. Hort Innovation’s extension initiative is about making the most ‘effective floor’ upon which to deliver the best possible return on levy investments for horticultural growers. The role focuses on looking for, and enabling, opportunities for linking and collaboration between ‘tiles’. It seeks to build on horticultural extension that is working well and overcome weaknesses and gaps in extension.

What region will you be working in? How will your work bring benefits to this region?

I work across the Northern Australia region, taking in current and emerging horticultural producing areas from Broome through the Northern Territory and north Queensland, extending down to Rockhampton. In this region, opportunities include the ongoing development of northern Australia and securing domestic and international markets’ confidence in the sustainability of our practices, particularly in the Great Barrier Reef catchments.

There is also the prospect of developing niche markets and exploring supply chain alternatives. These are significant multi-industry opportunities that will benefit from collaboration and extension effectively integrating research and development across horticultural sectors and the region. 

What key projects are your team working on at the moment?

My focus is on getting feedback from industry and delivery partners to finalise the draft extension plan for the region and start to implement the agreed actions in the plan. These actions aim to drive demand, foster area-wide management of plant health and sustainable growth of northern horticulture; and ensure growers and others impacting their industries are getting the information and support they need.

To that end, I will be seeking opportunities to enhance the efficiency and impact of levy investments in northern Australia through cross-project and cross-industry connection and activity, building skills and networks of extension personnel to give the best value to growers. I will also be helping northern industries and delivery partners get ‘northern needs and priorities’ heard and responded to in investments and project design and delivery.

How can growers and industry get in touch with you?

However, you prefer! I like face-to-face contact whenever practicable and will be trying to meet growers and delivery partners across the north in my first few months in the role. I would welcome invitations to anything you believe may enable this.  You can call/text me on 0427 147 964 or email sarah.strutt@horticulture.com.au.