Is paying people to take part in discussion groups ‘sustainable’?

The topic of people being paid to take part in discussion groups was a hot topic of debate at today’s Nuffield Ireland Conference.

A returning Nuffield scholar from 2016, Roberta McDonald, questioned whether it was sustainable going forward if discussion group participants were paid to take part.

McDonald delivered a presentation, titled ‘Innovation Disruption of Farmer Development Programmes’, earlier this morning at the conference.

The main objective of McDonald’s report was to “innovatively disrupt the norms of farmer development programmes in order to create a vibrant, challenging and worthwhile learning environment for farmers of the future”.

Along with her fellow scholars, McDonald then took questions from the floor during a question and answer session.

She said: “I don’t have research or facts behind it, but going off of interviews, meeting people and discussing with both farmers and advisors – people who were part of the very stable discussion groups prior to the initial payment programme – I actually found that more people coming in nearly disrupted the norms of how that group worked.

“Because you had people from outside the area, there’s trust issues; but they built on it. Some groups have thrived and others have faltered a little bit.

What happens when you start paying people to be involved in some of these groups [is that] the value that is put on knowledge seems to deteriorate.

“Again, this is assuming that the knowledge is in the group – they are basically being paid to hear each other talk. I don’t want to write it off completely; it does help to get people – who maybe, otherwise, didn’t think of getting involved – to get involved.

“But how sustainable is that going forward if their view on improving themselves is something that they should be paid for, rather than paying for?”

She highlighted that the idea of paying farmers to partake in these discussion groups creates a poor culture and mindset among farmers when it comes to self-improvement.

By being paid to take part in a discussion group, the logic of a farmer seeing the value in getting advice to help utilise an extra tonne of grass on their farm or to increase their milk solids etc is hugely diminished, she argued.

“You can pay them and they will come out. It leads to increased numbers, rather than increased quality in learning,” she concluded.