HOW IS AN ECOLOGICAL REPORT PRODUCED FOR A SOILS FOR LIFE CASE STUDY?

An ecological report is produced for each case study in the Soils for Life program. To produce an ecological report the Soils for Life team follows a robust formula developed and tested by Richard Thackway, Honorary Associate Professor at The Australian National University and long-term member of the Soils for Life team.

Land managers typically keep production and financial records over time and have no written record of the regenerative management of their farm and outcomes of regenerative practices applied to their farm. Soils For Life ecological assessors use a handbook for preparing ecological reports. An assessment on “Pallerang”, a farm in the Mulloon Creek Catchment, is an example of the approach detailed in the handbook.

The ecological report quantifies what has happened ecologically on a farm over decades. A detailed ecological report consists of 20 to 30 pages.

The Soils for Life ecological assessor supports the land holder to develop a chronology of the production systems for the main land types their land. Production systems include time based paddock grazing, no-till cropping, minimum use and biodiversity protection, revegetation, controlling wildfire, controlling feral animals and weeds, and fencing water points and creek to exclude stock. The ecological assessor can liaise with the farmer remotely via telephone and email.

The land holder completes a graphic response to ten ecological assessment criteria which is the land holder’s interpretation of what has occurred ecologically on the property during their management.

The land manager provides reports, photographs and results of soil tests, and water and biodiversity surveys.

The chronology of production systems and the farmer’s graphic responses indicate the impacts of the land holder’s management decisions on the ecological health of the land.

Satellite imagery verifies the ecological transformation and health of the agricultural landscape. Ground cover and actively photosynthesising vegetation are analysed using satellite imagery. Ground cover on the property is compared to the surrounding district which provides an independent verification of the regenerative capacity of the land.

A three to five-page summary ecological report is produced by the Soils for Life team and included in the case study, promoted on the website and on the social media platforms.

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.


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.


THE RELATIONSHIP OF HABITAT AND BIODIVERSITY ON 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 of species and their abundances) i.e., biodiversity, indicate a healthier landscape. Due to the nature of most living organisms, it can be challenging to measure their abundance. Unlike most other living organisms, bird species richness (different types of species) and abundance 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. 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 of birds 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.

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 7 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. 

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.

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 the Marsh family and Bryan Ward manage their rural properties primarily for beef cattle production and have gained significant personal satisfaction by improving the biodiversity on their farms. Land managers who enable and promote enhancements in biodiversity 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 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.

A STARTING POINT TO BECOMING REGENERATIVE

In recent months regenerative agriculture has come into the public focus, the Prime Minister appointed a National Soils Advocate and and leading media organisations are regularly publishing articles about regenerative agriculture. Much of the eastern half of Australia is experiencing severe drought conditions. Regenerative agriculture could be the answer to Australia’s drought problem. Practitioners of regenerative agriculture improve the quality of their soil through various methods, which can result in improved water holding capacity within soil. Improving the water holding capacity of soil ensures that moisture is available for plants to utilise long after rainfall. Retaining soil moisture is one way to limit the effect of prolonged drought periods.

  Landholders are now asking the question:

How do I make my property regenerative?

This article outlines three steps.

Step 1

The first step to becoming regenerative is to understand the different aspects of a property and how the management practices of the property affect the landscape. Points of interest are soil type, vegetation type, water supply, and topography. Understanding how management practices affect the different aspects of a property is a critical component in becoming regenerative. A cattle grazier in the Albury area would implement management steps to become regenerative. A sugarcane farmer from Murwillumbah would take different actions. A land manager who understands the relationship between their management practices and the landscape is prepared and ready to implement strategic changes on their property. An example of this is Soils for Life case study farm, Future Farming Landscapes (FFL) Winlaton. FFL Winlaton purchased land in the Swan Hill region of Victoria and set about understanding the different aspects of the landscape before they transitioned to a regenerative management system.

Step 2

The second step is to seek knowledge from regenerative land managers. The best advice is available from those farmers who operate a similar enterprise in the same landscape. Soils for Life has published numerous case studies about regenerative land managers throughout Australia. Further advice is available from regenerative agriculture consultants in diverse regional areas. The information and knowledge gained from communicating with regenerative land managers and consultants can be used to decide what strategic changes to make to the management practices of the property. Developing a plan which outlines the changes and the desired impact of those changes will provide a clear goal in the process of becoming regenerative.

Step 3

The third step is to stick to the plan. Set small manageable goals that can be achieved. Small goals are stepping stones on the path to becoming regenerative. Achieving small goals encourage us to continue and help to increase the resilience of the enterprise. Robert Quirk from Stotts Creek NSW is a Soils for Life case study farmer. The Stotts Creek case study is due to be published in the next few weeks. Robert provides an example of a land manager setting small goals to achieve the overarching goal of improving landscape function and health on his property.

Following these three steps won’t guarantee that a property will become regenerative. However, it will help the land manager to understand the impact that their management decisions have on the landscape they operate within.

Article by Greg Hosking. Greg Hosking is a member of the Soils for Life team. Greg is an ecologist with an interest in understanding how and why agricultural landscapes change over time.

INTERVIEW WITH MAJOR GENERAL MICHAEL JEFFERY: THE NATIONAL SOILS ADVOCATE

A Future Directions International interview by Geoffrey Craggs, Research Analyst, Northern Australia and Regional Development

The National Soils Advocate:

“As the Soils Advocate, I have been tasked by the Prime Minister to increase awareness of and advocate the critical importance of conserving and improving agricultural soil and landscape conditions to: benefit the environment; enhance agricultural productivity and realise continuing economic benefits; and secure sustainable food production systems.”

Key points:

  • The National Soils Advocate role is to progress the national objective to protect, restore and maintain the health of the Australian agricultural landscape in order to guarantee food security and sustainable farming communities.
  • The role requires wide engagement and communication with Federal and State Governments, the scientific, research and technical communities, land managers and farmers as well as the broader Australian community at all levels.
  • Scientific research and development, followed by education and training for farmers, land managers and food producers will be key to future food security.
  • Research conducted and published by independent and not-for-profit organisations will be important to enabling wide understanding issues.

Read the full interview on the Future Directions International website.

SOIL, PRODUCTION AND ECOLOGICAL BENEFITS OF TREES ON FARMS

A number of recently published Soils For Life case studies demonstrate that revegetation activities have on-farm production and environmental benefits, ranging from animal productivity improvements to soil protection and provision of ecological habitat.

Approaching revegetation activities can be as diverse as the trees and shrubs being planted. Here’s a snapshot of some of the production, soil and ecological benefits trees provide.

Production benefits

Revegetation comes with costs, so a logical question is what are the benefits to the farm business.

Trees provide shelter for livestock, pasture and crops. One study in Australia estimated that tree plantings in the form of shelterbelts can reduce windspeeds by up to 50% with significant benefits to pasture, livestock and crop production. Livestock farmers, Martin Royds (Jillamatong) and Bryan Ward (Illawong), two of Soils For Life’s recent case study farmers, both attribute increased animal comfort to their tree plantings. On both these properties, revegetation has been an important element of their regenerative management practices. More research on the relationship between grazing animal productivity and tree shelter would be beneficial to support this type of regenerative management.

Trees also provide additional income streams on farms. For example, on another of our recent case studies, Brownlow Hill on the Cumberland Plain in NSW, Edgar and Lynne Downes manage 225 ha of Forest Red Gum Grassy Woodland under the NSW Government’s biobanking scheme. Under this scheme, they are paid to maintain the integrity of the vegetation. The Future Farming Landscapes at Winlaton participates in a similar program in Victoria (the Bush Tender Program).

Soil health benefits

From physical protection of soil to improving soil fertility, trees are as much an asset to the soil as soils are to trees.

One of the most commonly understood advantages of revegetation on farms is soil erosion control. For example, on Illawong, Bryan Ward planted trees above and inside existing erosion gullies and on bare rocky ridges. These plantings have stabilised the soil, slowed down the water flow and improved soil water infiltration on his property. The water quality on his dams is one clear indicator that he has erosion under control.

On Jillamatong, Martin Royds’s paddock layout works in concert with the tree plantings to provide soil fertility benefits. The fence lines run upslope to the more elevated country, where many of the trees are planted. With this paddock layout, the shelter provided by the trees lures the cattle up to the tops of slopes enabling the livestock to transfer nutrients, in the form of manure, from the more fertile flats to the upper slopes of the farm. The improved nutrient status of soils on the upper slopes of the farm impacts pasture quality and productivity.

Ecological benefits

Providing habitat for native fauna is a key ecological function of trees on farms. And, besides the conservation value, enhanced biodiversity has the added value of natural pest control.

On Illawong, one of Bryan Ward’s revegetation strategies involved fencing off remnant paddock trees and direct seeding native vegetation around the trees. He has effectively reversed scattered tree decline on his property and created tree patches with diverse structure and composition. These patches have led to a resurgance of native fauna on his property. A bird survey in 2018 reported 53 bird species over a 30 minute observation period. This confirms that the trees on Illawong provide critical habitat, shelter and food for native fauna.

On Jillamatong, Martin Royds has used lanes of trees to connect neighbouring forested hills and made efforts to ensure tree plantings include understorey species. A focus on connectivity and also an emphasis on vegetation structure has enhanced the habitat value of the trees on his property.

The examples drawn from the recent Soils For Life case studies that are described here, while not an exhaustive list of what’s possible with trees, do demonstrate two clear points:

1.Reasons and approaches to revegetation depend on context and management objectives.

2.Revegetation, when part of a holistic management approach, provides production, soil health and ecological benefits that cannot be separated from each other.

Article by Madeleine Florin

EVERY DROP IS PRECIOUS

A world water crisis for drinking and agricultural purposes is the gravest threat facing our civilisation. This warning isn’t mine — it’s the sober, consensus view of international business leaders, expressed through the World Economic Forum this year.

The forum cautioned that water crises easily could deteriorate into famines, failed states, wars, disease pandemics, refugee floods and bigger climate impacts. It was underscored by a UN report predicting that by 2030 world water demand might outrun supply by as much as 40 per cent. These are focal issues for Australia to consider urgently as we look to our future physical security and plan how to improve our own water management as a key component of maintaining a healthy landscape. Every Australian knows we live in a dry continent, subject to droughts and flooding rains, a land where every single drop should be deemed precious and managed accordingly.

So what do experts say happens to every 100 drops of rain to fall on our continent?

  • Two end up in dams and water storages.
  • Two are lost as city run-off.
  • Ten end up in our rivers.
  • Thirty-six soak into the soil.
  • Fifty drops are evaporated into the atmosphere, including from run-off, largely because they can’t filtrate a carbon-deficient, compacted soil.

And what do we control and redistribute? You’re right: the 14 per cent we can see. We largely ignore the other 86 per cent.

Thus, our big problem is not so much a lack of rain or even its distribution, it’s the enormous losses that occur from excessive evaporation, losses that will only increase as temperatures rise.

Put simply, we must ensure more of the 50 drops soak into the soil to the root zone of the plants, not only to help them grow but to be transpired by these plants through their leaves back into the atmosphere, where about two-thirds of them fall again as mostly local rain.

Award-winning Slovakian hydrologist Michal Kravcik calls this the “small water cycle” and says that maximising coverage of our landscape (including our cities) with green will increase it; conversely, bare landscapes will unhappily reduce it.

A biodiversity of green ground cover also increases essential soil carbon, every gram of which can help facilitate the retention of up to 8g of water and vice versa.

In summary, a healthy, carbon-rich soil enhances the small water cycle, which in turn retains more water in a cooler soil, generates greater local rainfall, reduces fire intensity and, importantly, helps to create essential cloud cover.

Without getting technical, there are many ways to restore the small water cycle, including slowing the movement of water, riparian zone repair (the interface between river and land), wetland and flood plain restoration, revegetation, managed grazing and limited till and pasture cropping.

The art and science of bringing these components together as a co-ordinated whole form the basis of visionary Upper Hunter Valley grazier Peter Andrews’s “natural sequence farming” philosophy.

Pleasingly, wise farmers and Landcare groups are implementing many of these measures — but, unfortunately, they face the lack of a nationally co-ordinated water and evaporation management plan, something our new Water Minister, Barnaby Joyce, may care to examine.

Our cities experienced water shortages during the millennium drought, but these are nothing to the scarcities likely to come as populations swell, demand soars and accessible sources of water dwindle.

One answer is to recycle our urban water: all our storm water, our domestic waste water, even the effluent from our sewerage systems. With modern technology this can all be cleansed to a standard even higher than it was originally.

Another reason to recycle water, rather than expensively desalinate seawater, is to recapture all the nutrients that are being lost to the bottom of the oceans, so we can reuse them in food production. Earlier civilisations did this for thousands of years. There is a huge but manageable challenge for urban planners and architects along with tremendous commercial opportunities to design advanced, hygienic, low-cost systems that recapture and recycle water and nutrients.

A further way to manage our water is through the use of underground dams — also known as water banking or managed aquifer recharge — where excess water is pumped down into a convenient aquifer in the wet season, then pumped up again for agricultural use or to water a city in the dry. Presently, we inject about 50 gigalitres of water a year in trial schemes in places such as the Burdekin, Adelaide, Perth and the Namoi Valley.

Storing our water underground, where it can’t evaporate and is naturally cleansed, is a thoroughly Australian solution to a classically Australian problem. Let’s do more of it.

By storing more water in our landscapes and soils, and in aquifers beneath our farms and cities, by recycling and wise conjunctive management of all water sources, we can ensure a water-safe future in a world becoming less water-secure by the day. The knowledge embodied in this “blue revolution” will become one of our greatest exports — potentially worth billions — as well as our humanitarian contribution to nations facing acute water scarcity.

This, in turn, will help lessen the risks of conflicts, famines, state failures, refugee floods and pandemics that may imperil our own security in future. Water and its proper management could be Australia’s special contribution to a safer, more sustainable world.

Michael Jeffery is the national soils advocate. He is a former army deputy chief of staff, state governor and governor-general.

This, in turn, will help lessen the risks of conflicts, famines, state failures, refugee floods and pandemics that may imperil our own security in future. Water and its proper management could be Australia’s special contribution to a safer, more sustainable world.

Michael Jeffery is the national soils advocate. He is a former army deputy chief of staff, state governor and governor-general.

AUSTRALIA CANNOT REMAIN SECURE IN A FOOD AND WATER INSECURE WORLD

Michael Jeffrey is a senior Australian Army officer and former Governor-General of Australia.

The great crises of this century are predicted to involve water, soil and food. While financial failures and political and religious disputes claim the headlines, the reality is that we need to feed up to 10 billion people by the 2060s in a world where the resources to do so are becoming scarce.

History has shown on many occasions that when food supplies fail, governments fall and people fight. The opposite is also true: a well-fed world is a more peaceful world. Most of the instability today is in those regions where soils and water are scarce and food supplies unreliable: well-fed places such as North America, Europe and Australasia are far more peaceable. Hunger is one of the underlying triggers for division and conflict.

It is time for Australia to demonstrate leadership and expertise in restoring the health of our landscapes and, in so doing, to assist others in critically vulnerable regions to do the same — because if we don’t, the refugees fleeing famines and wars across land and water borders may be in the millions. We have two white papers on the policy table — agriculture and defence — and it is time to connect the two.

When we shop for our food in the supermarket, few of us spare a thought for the soil that produces it. Yet without that 15cm of precious topsoil we wouldn’t be here today. The trouble is, the soil is vanishing, degrading. You can see its drivers in our incised creeklines and the impact of bushfires. You can see it in the big dust storms that sometimes grip our continent, you can see it in our turbid rivers and streams. You can see it in the loss of coastal corals, including the Great Barrier Reef.

Worldwide, according to estimates by American scientists Bruce Wilkinson and Brendan McElroy, humans dislodge about 75 gigatonnes of topsoil from cropland every year. To make that huge number more comprehensible, it means that every meal we eat costs about 10kg of soil. As author Julian Cribb puts it: ‘‘We’re devouring our planet.”

At the same time the world’s cities are expanding so rapidly that by mid-century it is estimated that together they may cover an area of land the size of Australia.

Meanwhile the energy sector and cities are competing for farmers’ water. All this makes the future of the world food supply highly problematic, even with better redistribution and a concerted effort to reduce waste.

While Australians manage their landscapes a good deal better than many nations and are supported by some excellent science, about 60 per cent of our continent is degraded and in need of restoration. We know from the experiences of our best farmers that the damage is repairable, that with the right knowledge, technology and investment on the part of governments and the community we can reverse the cycle of degradation to produce positive economic and environmental outcomes.

This is know-how we can share with the world that it desperately needs.

Unfortunately, we Australians also have a love affair with cheap food. Few realise that our tiny economic signal — paying farmers minimally for what they do for us — ends up as increased stress on the landscape, as lost or degraded soil, lost water, lost native species.

We need to rethink the destructive economics that externalise the true cost of food, and not only pay our farmers a fair price for what they produce but also reward them as stewards of the agricultural and pastoral landscape on behalf of urban Australia. This is a job they now perform for free and under considerable limitations.

It’s not just about protecting soil but water too. The proposed solution is to build more dams — but useful as some may be, dams lose water through evaporation. What we need most is to store more water in the root zones of our soil by managing it better and increasing soil carbon.

Again, good farmers across the continent have already proved this is possible but their wisdom is not yet a national wisdom. Of every 100 drops of rain that fall on this continent we store just two drops in our dams and 10 in our rivers. Half the rain that lands on Australia evaporates wastefully.

If we could store just a few of those lost raindrops in our soils by re-greening our continent, it markedly would improve our food and water security in a world becoming less and less secure in those commodities.

In recent decades Australia has made what I regard as poorly thought-through cuts to the science that underpins our soils and water. To me, as a soldier, it’s like disarming as conflict looms. Without that knowledge it is going to be very hard to sustain our food supply into the future.

It is therefore pleasing to see the federal government’s recent agricultural research, development and extension strategy moving to correct this. As national soils advocate I am proposing we formally measure long term the economic and environmental outcomes (including soil carbon) from 100 of our best farmers across Australia, and share their knowledge where appropriate nationally and globally. This concept is already attracting substantial overseas interest, including from the US.

People sometimes ask me why, among all the great issues that surround us, I’m so focused on soil and water. Well, as a soldier I know that when people starve they usually fight; that having sufficient food and water is fundamental to world peace.

As governor-general I was privileged to visit farms and rural communities across this great nation and overseas to see first-hand the impact of poor management of our landscapes and — much more hearteningly — that the damage could be reversed by wise conservation farming.

But the thing that really concentrated my mind was being a grandparent. It forced me to ask myself: what can I do to help ensure a safer, healthier and more sustainable world for my grandchildren and their future children? A secure supply of healthy, nutritious food and clean water is the basis of a better world for everyone.

Australians are learning from our aged, demanding and arid continent how to better manage drought, fragile soils, scarce water, climatic shocks, floods, bushfires and native landscapes.

We are becoming quite good at it — but with the right investment we can be better still. And we can take that knowledge to a world in increasingly desperate need, both as an export and as a humanitarian gift.

Australia cannot remain physically secure in a food and water insecure world. We are not isolated from the stream of history. But we can play our part in shaping a tomorrow where the risks of hunger, famine, crisis and conflict are lower than they are today.

Michael Jeffery is the national soils advocate. He is a former army deputy chief of staff, state governor and governor-general.

TO SAVE THE PLANET, WE MUST SAVE THE SOIL

Major General The Honourable Michael Jeffery, AC, AO (Mil), CVO, MC (Retd), is Australia’s National Advocate for Soil Health, and the Chairman of Soils for Life. He has written this guest blog post as part of the 2015 International Year of Soils.

I have been appointed by the Federal Government as Australia’s first Advocate for Soil Health. As the Advocate, I raise public awareness of the critical role soil plays in underpinning sustainable productivity, delivering high quality ecosystem services and helping to meet global challenges, including food security and climate change.

2015 has been declared the International Year of Soils by the United Nations General Assembly, and I hope that by the end of 2015 we can establish a simple message in the minds of the broader Australian public. That is –

  • that soil underpins life as we know it
  • that at home and abroad our soils are under threat from degradation, competing land uses and the demands of a booming world population
  • that we have the knowledge and means to change the way soils are managed and in so doing to reverse degradation, boost productivity and build a sustainable future
  • that now is the time for action.

The world has to almost double its sustainable food production by 2050 to meet a projected population increase from 7 billion to perhaps 10 billion, and it has to do this when the globe is losing around 1 percent of its arable land annually. Soils are becoming less fertile through run-down of nutrients and carbon, eroded through overgrazing and ground cover removal, and wildfires are burning the equivalent of the continent of India every year. Critical aquifer water supply for irrigated agriculture in China, India, Africa, the Middle East and even California is running out, and most of the great rivers passing through populated areas of the undeveloped countries are heavily polluted.

These are indeed very serious and complex challenges. But what I am excited about is that we can equip ourselves to better deal with these impending challenges. By managing our soil, water, vegetation and biodiversity in an integrated way – in our vast agricultural landscapes and even in our own backyards – we can reverse land degradation and support sustainable production.

Fundamentally, we need to ensure that our soils have a healthy structural, mineral and biological balance. An important step in achieving this is to increase the amount of organic matter and carbon in the soil. The carbon content of soil is one of the key indicators of its health and is a master variable that controls numerous processes. It is the carbon content of soil that largely governs its capacity to absorb, retain and supply moisture within the soil. A well-structured soil, high in organic matter and soil carbon essentially acts as a sponge, releasing retained moisture slowly for plants and animals to maintain production over a much longer period. Soil carbon also helps support a healthy balance of nutrients, minerals and soil microbial ecologies, improving soil fertility. Through this, healthy soils promote vigorous plant growth and plant and animal resistance to disease and insect infestation. Diverse vegetation adds organic matter to the soil and provides a protective cover to control evaporation and soil loss through wind and water erosion.

“We all have a role in the responsible management of our soils and landscape.”

This integrated system turns sunlight energy into the food and fibre we need – and provides the ecosystem services that are fundamental to human survival. We need to support this natural system to perform optimally.

So who is responsible for this management? We all are. In Australia, our farmers and graziers between them manage almost 60 per cent of the landscape, so it is imperative that they all learn, understand and apply good soil management – which many already do. I also take every opportunity to stress that urban Australians need to better understand the importance of rural and regional Australia, in terms of food production, the provision of clean air and water for all Australians, the value of the natural environment and the social contribution made by rural communities.

We can all get involved, be it through the practices we apply in our own gardens and backyards, through volunteering with Landcare, or, a personal favourite of mine, establishing school gardens nationally, such that our young people can be taught about the science underlying food production and landscape processes, including by focusing on soil biology, photosynthesis, the water cycle and the fundamental role that green cover can play in reducing carbon emissions.

It is possible that the impending global food, water and climate crisis may be the most significant challenge humanity faces this century and, ultimately, it all devolves around how we look after our soil.

The 2015 International Year of Soils provides the ideal platform from which to renew our focus on this critical issue. May I suggest, that “to save the planet, we must save the soil”.

Learn more about the regenerative landscape management practices promoted by the Advocate for Soil Health.

PETER ANDREWS’ MANAGEMENT OF VEGETATION & SOIL HYDROLOGY

Peter Andrews took over management of Tarwyn Park when it was severely degraded and salinised. He spent many years researching and applying innovative ways to restore landscape function, based on building soil condition and managing water movement through the landscape. Today the property is a leading example of regenerative landscape management.

Peter and his son Stuart, who now manages Tarwyn Park, hosted a field day on 14 April to explain the methods used and show the results achieved. Read on for some of what we learned and for images from the day…

Peter Andrews explains his philosophy of soil hydrology management to Field Day participants.

Plants colonise land according to the land’s potential to host those species. The first colonisers, that we often call ‘weeds’, establish in degraded and disturbed soils. Their function is to build up nutrients and soil structure and enable other plants to follow. As nutrients develop in soil, so more valuable plants inhabit the landscape.

Accordingly, there is nothing to be gained from removing ‘weeds’ early, because the greater the biomass to harbour increased nutrients and produce organic carbon, the faster the progression to more desirable species. We need to sponsor and replicate natural processes of plant succession as a function of landscape regeneration.

Weed’ species are important to help return nutrients to degraded or exposed soils.

When asked about the controversial use of willows in his landscape, Peter explained, “Yes. I have planted 3000 willows. Look along the creek and see how many have survived among the casuarinas. Of course, the casuarinas would not have survived in that creek line without the willows. So what did the willows do that was wrong?”

Peter Andrews uses willows to stabilise creek banks and act as pioneer species. Fast growing willows protect the slower-growing casuarinas, which eventually dominate the creek lines.

Participants raised their perceived concerns with willows, however, the strongest objection seemed to be that they are an introduced species. Peter responded, “Willows are early colonisers that stabilised the creek system to allow the casuarinas to develop. Sure, they are an introduced species … and so are we. And the hard footed animals that have so damaged our native environment over the past two centuries … they are introduced species also.”

Clearly, willows can be used as just another management tool to help regenerate the landscape.

It was also noted by NRM specialist in attendance, Peter Hazell, “The willows that have survived in the creek are weeping willows which are not listed as weeds of national significance.”

Stuart and Peter Andrews hosted an informative day.

Similarly with the management of soil hydrology, we need to replicate natural processes. We need to develop flow patterns that slow water and have it moving through the soil to distribute soil nutrients and support vegetation – rather than flowing across the top. Vegetation growth in turn protects the soil, moderates temperature and reduces evaporation.

Field Day participants were treated to a demonstration of the different way water interacts with the soil when its flow is slowed. By placing some straw mulch to divert the flow across the gradient of a farm track, the benefits of diversion and filtration were illustrated: the water spread more widely and was absorbed, rather than running off – even on the well-compacted track. We can mimic these practices in our landscapes to restore healthy hydrological function.

Peter demonstrates and Stuart explains the simplicity of management of soil hydrology and nutrient transfer.
Field Day participants observe what happens when the flow of water is slowed.

By revegetating higher ground and using these areas for stock shade, this also allows for the transfer of nutrients and carbon up and across the landscape. In managing this however, we need to be careful that stock camps do not develop as sources of potential gully erosion. Active management, observation and response are critical components of regenerative agriculture.

Soils from sandstone cliffs have been improved from years of management which replicate natural processes.

The innovative solutions on display at Tarwyn Park are tools to increase productivity and to overcome many of today’s farming issues including:

  • declining fertility (and low soil carbon)
  • dryland salinity
  • stream, gully and wind erosion
  • watershed dislocation
  • lack of biodiversity
  • lack of farm water availability especially in times of drought
Costa Georgiadis takes part in the Field Day.
Costa always on the lookout for great soil.
Management of soil hydrology helps develop soils rich in organic carbon.

The health of the Tarwyn Park landscape and its soils are the best evidence that Peter Andrews’ soil hydrology management practices can work. If you work with landscape processes, you will reap the results.

As summed up by Peter and Stuart:

Slow the flow
Let everything grow
Careful where the animals go
– and filter is a must to know

Peter challenges beliefs – and gets everyone thinking.

Watch the original ABC Australian Story episodes on Peter Andrew on the unofficial Tarwyn Park, Peter Andrews & NSF website or read the transcripts.

Find out about future Tarwyn Park activities via the Tarwyn ParkTraining Facebook page.

Walking the spectacular, thriving paddocks of Tarwyn Park.
Thanks to Anne O’Brien who shared her photos of the day with us, some of which are included here.