In a fast-changing world beset by unpredictable climate conditions, farmers cannot afford to ignore new technology.
Researchers at the University of Southern Queensland have developed the online Second Life virtual world to teach sugar-cane growers about climate change, environmental protection and the latest in farming techniques.
Educational videos show virtual farmers discussing new skills: for example, how to reduce water usage and fertilizer run-off.
"You can actually use this platform to show and demonstrate to growers a number of ways they can do things on their farm that they may not actually think about,” said Geoff Dell of the University of Southern Queensland.
The idea is to foster awareness among farmers about the new technological tools available to them to improve their output, and also to increase awareness of the need to protect water resources, especially in drought-prone areas. Researchers say the farmers' response has been good.
"Well they are pretty receptive except that they thought that the characters we used were a bit buff (muscular),” said Helen Farley of the university.
Use of avatars
Muscles aside, sugar-cane grower Stephen Calcagno said he thinks that using avatars is a good idea. "Because it's not a real person and it stands outside, I think you tend to focus more on the information that's being put forward,” he said.
But Calcagno acknowledged that it took him longer to get used to this novel approach to information-sharing than it did his son.
"At the start I did, I was a bit stand-offish on it. My young fellow (son) was really keen on it because anything on a PlayStation is good,” Calcagno said.
Australian researchers are working to make the program attractive to sugar-cane growers of any age.
"We like to inject some humor into it so we've got some funny little animals and some, you know, kind of, in funny sugar cane farmer joke,” Farley said.
Researchers said the pilot program has been so successful that they are now extending it to include 400 sugar-cane growers in Australia.