CAN YOU BE A SOIL SCIENTIST AND A REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURALIST? “CLASH OF CULTURES” DISCUSSION

In the October edition of Down To Earth, we published, “A clash of cultures: why are soil scientists given a bad rap by some regenerative agriculturists?” by Prof. Robert White.

Building bridges between stakeholders with different perspectives helps to advance regenerative agriculture practice. One way of addressing contested issues is to provide opportunities to share and respect different opinions and understandings.

A lively discussion in the Soils for Life Facebook Group followed the publication of Prof. White’s article. We welcome all thoughtful comments; we’ve attempted to do them justice selecting two constructive threads from the comments.

Diverse communities

A homogenous group of soil scientists does not exist. Several readers referred to Nicole Masters and Christine Jones as two soil scientists who identify as both soil scientists and as regenerative agriculturalists. There are many examples where soil scientists participate in mainstream academia and collaborate with farmers who are implementing regenerative principles such as integrating crops and livestock, increasing biodiversity, and enriching soil carbon. Soils For Life is a member of the Soils CRC (Cooperative Research Centre), a program supporting such collaborations.

One major project within the Soils CRC is a collaboration between scientists and a group of ten leading regenerative farmers to design and implement a research project.

We’re looking forward to sharing the results of this innovative project.

Do these examples negate the “clash”? Probably not. They are helping to share knowledge and build a universal understanding.

The community of regenerative agriculturalists is equally as diverse as that of the soil scientists. There is no one view on whether it is necessary, or even appropriate, to use scientific data to prove the benefits of regenerative agriculture. On the one hand, those with a holistic emphasis on the physical, spiritual, and emotional elements of regenerative agriculture argue that reductionist approaches to science are unable to account for the systems perspective and do justice to the self- organising complex adaptive system. We may not yet have the tools to account for more holistic perspectives and the ecological basis of many regenerative practices. On the other hand, there are those who need proof to influence policymakers, neighbouring farmers, investors, and consumers. Both perspectives are valued and valid.

Soil formation

One thread of the discussion concerns the rate of soil formation. The comments in the Facebook discussion group illustrate how semantics can fuel the disconnect between soil scientists and regenerative agriculturalists. In this example, ‘soil formation’ is interpreted in two distinct ways and results in discord between some soil scientists and regenerative agriculturalists.

When referring to ‘regenerating topsoil,’ the rate of soil formation is orders of magnitude greater than if you are referring to ‘rock weathering into soil minerals.’ Identifying such distinctions can reduce conflict.

Building bridges

With a common focus on the role of carbon and soil biota in healthy soils, the overlap between the diverse soil science and regenerative agriculture communities is increasing. A variety of perspectives, be they grounded in science or lived experience, are useful when it comes to regenerating land. Respectful communication amongst all those with a stake in the future of our food and farming systems will enable progress in the quest for healthy soils, food, water and animals.

The Soils for Life comms team thanks all participants for your contribution to the Facebook discussion group. We encourage all stakeholders to stay engaged.


SOIL TECH PROJECT

The Soil Tech Project is an initiative of National Landcare’s Smart Farming Partnerships and is funded via a grant from the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources. The Project uses an agile development approach to bring together soil scientists from the University of Sydney, agtech software developers FarmLab and CorrelLink, and agronomists from AGRIvision to translate peer reviewed soil science into six digital soil management tools for a new soil management system for land managers. The grant was awarded to Andrea Koch Agtech in late 2018 and is managed by Andrea Koch and Robert Burdock.

Soil science research produced prior to 2006 was not able to take advantage of current connectivity technology such as smart phones, tablets or cloud storage. With the advent of these tools, internet connectivity and increased processing speeds, this “stranded” science can now be introduced to land managers and practical applications can be commercialised. While yet to be applied at scale for regenerative agriculture, the use of such tools has been particularly effective in broadacre cropping where agronomists and consultants, who sample soil over large areas, are able to optimise their sample locations, save time and improve accuracy. Geospacial datasets from Geoscience Australia have also helped to better zone and sample soil.

Planned for release to coincide with World Soil Day on 5 December 2019 are two of the six digital soil management tools. The first guides the most appropriate soil sample selection points across paddock zones. These sample points link to a second tool which provides accurate digital soil mapping to determine soil attributes in paddocks to inform better decision-making for soil management. As a partner in the Soil Tech Project, FarmLab will be the initial host of the tools when they are released. These can be accessed via registration at http://www.farmlab.com.au.

Before the Project concludes in early 2022, work will be conducted on zone segmentation analysis, boundary line analysis, available water capacity in soil, and tools to support farm-scale seasonal forecasting.

To find out more, contact the Project Sponsor, Ms Andrea Koch at andrea.koch@akagtech.com.au or the Project Manager, Dr Robert Burdock at rob@soiltechproject.org.

NOTE FROM GREG HOSKING

Greg has worked as an Ecologist with the Soils for Life team since graduating from The Australian National University with a degree in Forest Science. Greg’s work with Soils for Life assists land managers to understand the history of their management practices and how the methods have affected landscapes over time. Outside of work, Greg loves being outdoors. His hobbies include birdwatching, hiking, trout fishing, and gardening.

BIRDS, BIODIVERSITY AND AGRICULTURAL LAND

Biodiversity is a term used to refer to the amount of living organisms found in any given area. Higher numbers of living organisms (types and abundances) indicate a healthier landscape. But this can often be challenging to measure.

However, unlike most other living organisms, the richness (that is, different types of species) and abundance of bird species can be observed and measured by most people with some small degree of skill. Different birds occupy different habitats in different seasons and different times of the diurnal cycle. Birds are typically easy to observe with a pair of binoculars and a field guide to the local bird species. Birdwatchers with a high degree of skill or “twitchers” are often able to identify and count birds by their calls.

Birds are a practical indicator of biodiversity

In healthy landscapes, seed eater, foliage grazer, insectivore, nectivore, omnivore, and carnivore birds can represent the full range of trophic levels. Changes in land use and management affect shelter, food, and habitat resources available to birds. Collectively, these characteristics make birds an excellent practical indicator to monitor and report the health of biodiversity on the property.

Suberp Fairy Wren. Photo: Belinda Wilson

Biodiversity plays a vital role in helping decision-makers to understand the ecological function, structure, and composition of ecosystems of land use types, including regenerative agriculture. Regenerative land managers often use birds as an indicator of ecosystem condition to assess the effects of land management practices on agricultural landscapes. Being able to observe changes in biodiversity, before and after adopting regenerative land management practices, can provide land managers with support and validation of whether what they are doing is working.

Bird surveys at Allendale

The Marsh family are leading figures in Australian regenerative agriculture. Since 2000 the family has supported ongoing bird surveys on their property near Boorowa NSW. Researchers from Greening Australia conducted the studies. Richard Thackway compiled and analysed the data. In 1980, 3% (20.6 ha) of the Marsh’s property was covered by native vegetation trees and shrubs. In 2012 that coverage had increased to 20% (82.4 ha) of the property. The progressive increases in the extent of trees and shrubs occurred because of the Marsh’s investment in revegetation on the property.

Greening Australia conducted the bird surveys at three sites, two located within revegetated areas and one location in a grazing paddock without revegetation. In 2000, an average of seven species of birds were observed in the revegetated places, and by 2017 this number had increased to 19 (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Extent of trees and shrubs compared to the numbers of bird species (Richard Thackway).

The increase in bird species observed on the Marsh’s property coincided with the expansion and development of the revegetated areas. As the revegetation aged, these areas provided resources for different bird species, including; shelter, habitat, nest sites and food. If these resources are not present in the landscape, selected species will not occur in an area, for example, the Superb Fairy Wren (Malurus cyaneus) requires a habitat of dense cover and low shrubs. 

Birds at Illawong

Bryan Ward is a Soils For Life case-study land manager. Bryan utilises birds as an indicator of biodiversity and landscape health. Investing in direct-drill seeding of native plant trees and shrubs species across much of his property resulted in improved habitat and resources for birds on his farm near Albury, NSW. Local ecologist Ian Davidson conducted a survey of birds in 2018. Ian found that the number of bird species on Illawong greatly exceeded the numbers found on nearby properties. Neighbouring farms had not invested in revegetation activities.

Both the Marsh family and Bryan Ward manage their rural properties primarily for beef cattle production. The improvements in biodiversity observed on the Marsh and Ward properties are the results of their regenerative landscape management activities in an agricultural setting. By improving the extent and condition of native vegetation, both land managers improved the health of their landscapes.

Both landholders have gained significant personal satisfaction by improving the biodiversity on their farms. Land managers who enable and promote enhancements in biodiversity can receive multiple benefits:

  • Enabling researchers to conduct standardised bird surveys in space and time on their properties can lead to a sense of achievement for land managers.
  • The aesthetics of a visually appealing landscape are a boon to farm managers and visitors alike.
  • Farming families can enjoy the seasonal and annual cycles that result from enhancing the local biodiversity.

Biodiversity also brings improved social health and wellbeing and contributes to the health of the local and regional landscapes.

Greg Hosking is an ecologist. Honorary Associate Professor Richard Thackway is a Research Scientist. Both Greg and Richard are members of the Soils for Life team.

THE QUIRK FARM STORY

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A fish kill in 1987/88, caused by leaching from acid sulphate soils, and a divided community set the scene for Robert Quirk’s journey as a cane farmer turned “accidental, but willing, scientist”.

He’s since developed, and implemented, a set of regenerative practices that are recognised as best management for cane farming. Robert uses a holistic approach, combining engineering and agronomic solutions, to drainage, soil health and nutrient management.

FARM FACTS

The Quirk Farm, Stotts Creek NSW

ENTERPRISE: Sugarcane (100 ha), Cattle grazing (17 ha)

PROPERTY SIZE: 117 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 1801 mm

ELEVATION: 0.5 m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Prevent release of sulphuric acid from farm into the Tweed River and reduce waterlogged soil impact on sugar cane productivity.

INNOVATIONS

  • Laser levelling and automatic pumping system to stop flooding
  • Leaving cane trash to decompose after harvest
  • Applied urea to cane trash to assist in decomposition
  • Applied lime
  • Introduced mounding/raised beds to grow sugar cane
  • Utilised a ‘bed renovator’ machine to prepare for planting
  • Introduced winter cover crops into the crop rotation

KEY RESULTS

  • Significant reduction in input costs.
  • Increased soil organic carbon levels from 1% up to 8.8%.
  • Improved pH from 1.8 to 5.6.
  • Increased number of harvests (ratoons) from 4 -6 years.
  • Understand causes and mitigate sulphuric acid from releasing into waterways impacting aquatic life.

INTRODUCTION

Robert Quirk implemented innovations such as laser levelling his cane fields and mounding the cane rows to ensure that water drained correctly off his property and didn’t mobilise the acid sulphates in the soil.

During this time Robert Quirk became aware of the danger of climate change, this caused Robert Quirk to alter his management practices in an attempt to build carbon in his soil and reduce inputs. Robert Quirk reduced the amount of fertilisers, insecticides and pesticides used on the property as well as leaving the cane trash to lie on the field post-harvest. Robert Quirk also introduced other innovations such as an automatic pumping system to remove flood water from the cane fields and a bed renovator machine to prepare the cane fields.

Robert Quirk found that through his innovations soil organic carbon levels increased from 1% in the 1960’s to currently 8.8% on different points of the property. The pH of the property also increased from 1.8 in the 1980’s to currently stand at 5.6. Robert Quirk’s innovations have greatly improved the health of his soil whilst managing to control the threat of the acid sulphates underneath his cane fields.

THE QUIRK FARM STORY

The practices Robert Quirk has implemented on his property have led the way for sugar cane farming around the world.

ECOLOGICAL HEALTH

In 1987 Robert Quirk set out on a path to improve the ecological health of his property and the nearby waterways.

ECONOMIC HEALTH

Robert Quirk has significantly reduced the cost of his inputs whilst maintaining good production levels.

HEALTH AND WELLBEING

Robert Quirk has gained immense satisfaction through reinventing himself and his management strategies.