Down to Earth- June 2020

June Edition

Alasdair Macleod

Message from Alasdair Macleod,
Chair of the Soils For Life Board

Narelle mentioned in her newsletter last month, the Soils For Life team has been busy during lockdown. Of course, it has not been possible to carry out any fieldwork, but a great deal has been achieved recently to strengthen the organisation and equip it to provide even more support to those farmers who are considering some changes to their management practices. In fact this month’s newsletter is full of resources and information from the Soils For Life team including a catch up with Rhonda and Bill Daly around the recent performance of their case study property Milgadara as well as education resources around bird surveying and water management strategies.
We are also sharing our submission to the Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act review.

Milgadara, Young NSW

Case study catch up:
How is Milgadara performing in 2020?

Bill and Rhonda Daly were one of the first Soils For Life case studies in 2013. They are fourth generation farmers growing sheep, cattle and crops on their property Milgadara in Young, NSW, as well as running YLAD Living Soils – a composting business that allows them to enrich not just the soils on their property but many others across the whole country.

Birds: How and why to measure them on your property

Results of repeated bird surveys, like repeated soil tests, can provide land managers with valuable information on how their land management is performing over time. In fact, the number and different types of birds​ found in different types of vegetation on a property can be used​ as a​ measure of​ management performance. Consistently recording the bird communities found on your property can provide you with valuable information about how the quality and extent of bird habitat has changed over time.

We encourage land managers to use the same bird survey technique
each time that they survey birds.

Bird Survey

To assist you to conduct robust and repeatable bird surveys, we have produced an easy to use bird survey template. Filling it out over seasons will provide more detailed and useful information about the bird life on your property than a simple species list.

Are you the next Soils For Life Case Study?

We are currently inviting farmers and land managers from across Australia to apply to be case studies. Although we are interested in applications from all enterprises, we are particularly looking for more representation of farmers working in horticulture, viticulture, dairying and cropping enterprises. If you think your property is a good example of the environmental, social, economic and production benefits brought about by your regenerative practices, please fill out our updated application form.

Above: Balala Station; fallen trees strategically placed to catch organic matter and slow water flow down the slope.

Water management in the land of droughts
and flooding rains:
Lessons from our case studies low rainfall areas

The list of challenges facing agricultural land managers could go on and on, but arguably the beast always lurking out there is water. Sometimes there is too much of it, but that is rare in our land of droughts and flooding rains. Usually the problem is that there isn’t enough. It is evident from the range of approaches mentioned across all our case studies that there are creative ways to make the most of big rains, with the ways and means depending on the land itself and resources available.

EPBC Submission

The Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act is currently undergoing independent review and recently sought input on a discussion paper. Soils For Life prepared a submission that reflects a consolidated perspective from our engagement with our case study participants and the broader agricultural community interested in regenerating agricultural landscapes and the expertise of the SFL scientists.
A draft report of the review is expected this month and the final report is due to be handed on down in October.

Landcare tribute to Major General Michael Jeffery

Our patron, Major General the Hon. Michael Jeffery, is honoured in the latest issue of Landcare in Focus. Landcare Australia presents a special tribute to a man who has long and passionately advocated for improvements in the health of our agricultural landscape.

Talking point: Regenerate Australia

Future Directions International, also established by our founder Major General Michael Jeffery, has recognised the strategic importance of soils and bio-systems in Australia. It has highlighted the declining health of soils as a national issue, and in their latest paper discuss the importance of restorating our soils to improve the productivity and resilience of our landscapes.

Acting CEO’s Report

Report from Acting CEO, Narelle Luff

Acting CEO, Narelle Luff.

This month our scientists have spent time out on regenerative properties in New South Wales and Queensland. In the coming months we will develop these into new case studies. In these new case studies, we will introduce soil testing to our assessments and expect these to add further strength to our comprehensive case study reports. This month we reintroduce you to Rothesay and highlight some exciting work that is occurring in the area.

We hope you are enjoying the education articles we have been preparing, this month we have an article about managing African Lovegrass. If you missed last month’s education topics here are links to articles we published last month on water management and measuring bird diversity.

This week we held the first of three Australia-China Soil Organic Carbon Measurement webinars. This is a collaborative webinar program with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences focused on the importance of organic carbon for healthy soils and methodologies and technologies for measuring soil organic carbon across agricultural landscapes. This webinar program brings together leading Australian and Chinese soil scientists and associated experts in remote sensing technologies and big data to exchange knowledge and discuss potential scientific collaboration. We will share the recordings of these webinars as they become available. If you are interested in participating in these webinars please register your interest via admin@soilsforlife.org.au

Our friends across regen ag have been busy producing some great quality podcasts and webinars, we have collated them for you here. We are also pleased to link you to some important work by the Academy of Science on Soil condition after bushfires, this is part of a series which will also look at wildlife recovery, ecosystems and human health.

Lastly I would like to welcome Liz Clarke our new CEO on board. Liz starts in August but is already building relationships with a range of Soils For Life stakeholders.

Narelle Luff

Operations Manager / Acting CEO

Soils For Life appoints new CEO

Soils For Life appoints new CEO

Dr. Liz Clarke

Soils For Life is delighted to announce the appointment of Dr Elizabeth (Liz) Clarke as our new CEO .

Liz will bring with her considerable skills in leadership and management of projects in Australia and internationally, as well as previous experience in multiple roles as a researcher, educator, policy advisor and mentor. Liz currently holds visiting fellowships at ANU’s Fenner School of Environment and Society and the Institute for Land, Water and Society at CSU as well as being an independent consultant. She also holds a PhD in Human Ecology.

“Liz has wide experience in many different parts of the world,” says Chair of the Soils For Life Board, Alasdair Macleod. “Her strong academic record and her recent experience in project and program management for the Australian government, as well as internationally, make her a great person to lead Soils For Life into our next phase.”

Growing up in a farming family, Liz is a passionate advocate for regenerative agriculture. “I am driven by a deep desire to bring about meaningful change for people, food production systems, and landscapes,” she says. “I have a passionate interest and personal commitment to regenerative agriculture, combined with a lifetime of involvement in various aspects of agriculture, sustainability, and natural resource management.”

Based in Canberra, Liz will start with Soils For Life at the beginning of August. “I’m very excited to be taking on this new and exciting challenge in this important field,” she says.

Message from Alasdair Macleod, Chair of the Soils For Life board

Message from Alasdair Macleod, Chair of the Soils For Life Board

As Narelle mentioned in her newsletter last month, the Soils For Life team has been busy during lockdown. Of course, it has not been possible to carry out any fieldwork, but that has not stopped the team from working on a number of different fronts.

Firstly, there has been a good deal of ‘back office’ work to bring the operations of Soils For Life up to the standard required to support our activities going forward. This has included the appointment of new management accountants who have already demonstrated their worth by quickly getting on top of the finances.

Secondly, Soils For Life has secured operational funding for the next four years from the Macdoch Foundation. This support will enable the team to continue the case study work , but also look to branch out into other activities in due course.

Thirdly, applications for the vacant role of CEO have been pouring in! I am pleased to say that we have received applications from a wide range of high quality candidates. A sub-committee of the board comprising myself, Charlie Maslin and Eve Crestani will be working through the candidates over the next few weeks and we hope to make an appointment before the end of July.

Lastly, it is clear that interest in regenerative agriculture continues to grow strongly and Soils For Life will be riding this wave of interest in a number of different ways. Of course, the programme of case studies will continue and, now that lockdown is coming to an end, the team will be keen to get back into the field. There is also work being done on an application for project funding to the Commonwealth Government’s Future Drought Fund. This is an excellent initiative, being administered by the Department of Agriculture, which will support activities that build drought resilience. For what is regenerative agriculture about if it is not about drought resilience? We feel that Soils For Life and the consortium of parties that are being assembled alongside us, will deliver a strong proposal which I hope we will be able to tell you more about in due course.

In summary, a great deal has been achieved to strengthen the organisation and equip it to provide even more support to those farmers who are considering some changes to their management practices. In fact this month’s newsletter is full of resources and information from the Soils For Life team including a catch up with Rhonda and Bill Daly around the recent performance of their case study property Milgadara as well as education resources around bird surveying and water management strategies. We are also sharing our submission to the Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act review.

Alasdair Macleod, Chair of the Soils For Life Board

The 10 things our ecologists look at when conducting field visits on farms

The Soils For Life team provides professional assessment of properties that are using regenerative landscape management practices. Our case study program considers the quadruple bottom line of each property by looking at the effects of regenerative agriculture practices on a farm’s production, economics and ecology as well as the social implications of these practices.

As well as conducting extensive desktop research, our ecologists conduct field trips to assess first hand the impacts of regenerative agriculture on the ecology of the farm. They chose ten criteria to represent the regenerative and productive capacity of each major land type on a farm.

Here are the ten things that they are looking at when they visit a farm:

Image from our case study Jillamatong

1 – Resilience to major natural disturbances

Resilience to major disturbances includes the following factors depending on the agro-climatic region (wildfire, drought, cyclone, dust storm, flood, frost). A major natural disaster or natural disturbance event can occur at any time. Some disturbances give a warning, such as a windstorm or electrical storm preceding a wildfire or a flood. Once a disaster happens, the time to prepare is gone. Lack of preparation can have enormous consequences on farm life including social, ecological, economics and production.

2 – Soil nutrients including soil carbon

Soil organic matter (SOM) plays a vital role in influencing available soil nutrients. Generally for every tonne of carbon in SOM 15 kg of phosphorus, 15 kg of sulphur and about 100 kilograms (kg) of nitrogen become available to plants as the organic matter is broken down. It is vital to know how much carbon we have in soil so that we can roughly estimate the potential supply of nutrients. SOM releases nutrients for plant growth, promotes the structure, biological and physical health of soil, and is a buffer against harmful substances.

3 – Soil surface water infiltration

Soil texture and structure greatly influence water infiltration, permeability and water-holding capacity. Of the water entering a soil profile, some will be stored within the root zone for plant use, some will evaporate, and some will drain away. In agro-ecological settings, by increasing water infiltration, permeability and water-holding capacity this will usually act as a stimulus to improve ecological function. Management regimes that promote the capture and utilisation of rainfall where it falls generally enhances ecological function.

4 – Biological activity in the soil

Soil biology affects plant and animal production by modifying the soil physical, chemical and biological environment within which plants grow and persist. The ratio of fungi to bacteria is important for land managers to understand – too many bacteria can indicate an unhealthy and unproductive soil.

In healthy soils, there is a good balance between fungi and bacteria; invertebrates including arthropods and worms are usually present. Collectively these form a vital part of a plant nutrient supply web.

A wetland from our Fairhalt case study

5 – The physical properties of the soil

Soil is a medium for plant growth, given the right environmental conditions. In some agroclimatic regions, the naturally occurring surface layers (A horizon) have historically been adversely impacted by inappropriate land management regimes. Major and moderate loss of the A horizon either through water or wind erosion may have diminished the ecological function of the soil as a medium for optimal plant growth.

6 – Changes and trends in the reproductive potential of plants

Grazing production systems rely on an ecosystem’s inherent capacity to bounce back after grazing and natural climate events (e.g. wildfire and drought). Where regenerative land management regimes have been implemented to build or rebuild the reproductive potential of plants and pastures, we look at the observed outcomes on plant/pasture reproduction, germination, establishment, development and maintenance.

7 – The extent of tree cover

Tree cover in agricultural landscapes provides important ecosystem benefits, including mitigation of soil erosion; shelter for pastures and crops; improved animal welfare; enabling added revenue from stacked (multiple) enterprises; habitat and breeding sites for pollinators and predatory insects birds and animals; improved salinity management; improved interception of rainfall; and improved aquifer recharge.

8 – Status of ground cover

Ground cover in agricultural landscapes provides important ecosystem benefits. The quality of ground cover provides essential protection to keep the soil cool against direct, searing summer heat by reducing evaporation and protecting bare soil against raindrop splash and wind erosion. A dense, matted ground layer of pasture grasses slows overland flows during the intense rainfall events and assists with infiltration of rainfall, thus mitigating soil erosion and replenishing soil moisture. Ground cover also provides essential habitat and breeding sites for pollinators and insects and birds and other biodiversity. Land management regimes that promote higher levels of ground cover and biomass in critical growing seasons generally enhances ecological function.

9 – The diversity of tree and shrub species

Intensively managed agricultural landscapes typically adopt management regimes that simplify the diversity and number of species of trees and shrubs for pasture and crop production. Where regenerative land management regimes have been implemented there has been an observed increase in the number of tree and shrub species.

10 – The diversity of grass species

In many grazing production systems, the implementation of regenerative land management regimes can improve the variety of pasture plants (annuals and perennials). In turn this can improve pasture production, animal nutrition, protect natural resources (soil and water) and build the capacity of farming systems to adapt to future production and environmental challenges. The intensity of the grazing management system will determine the health and vitality of pastures and their longevity.

The management and selection of the perennial pasture species for a grazing production system should be based on considerations of climate, soil conditions and performance of pasture species under different management regimes.

Read about how land managers have improved each of these ecological criteria on their farms in latest case study reports. You can search them by state or sector here.

Are you farming using regenerative agriculture practices? Why not consider applying to be a case study.

CEO’s Report

from Acting CEO, Narelle Luff.

It has been my pleasure to support the Soils For Life team whilst we seek a new CEO. It hasn’t always been easy with my new (home) office also being a school and childcare centre!

The view from my new office!
Kangaroo grass thriving in my backyard after Canberra’s autumn rain

During the COVID-19 lockdown the Soils For Life team has been finalising case studies commenced before travel and social distancing measures were implemented. Salisbury is the last of these to be published.

The team has also been working to design a comprehensive evaluation plan for the case study program and we have been looking at ways we can develop education resources to support learning. We hope these resources will act as a catalyst for you to take some action on your property or to seek a new path of professional development through further reading or training.

The team at Soils For Life are relieved to see some changes to the travel and work restrictions and we expect our field teams will soon return to farm visits. We will continue to publish our monthly newsletter however over the coming months instead of publishing a new case study with each newsletter we will republish a previous case study and alongside this we will publish an education resource.

It is our plan to develop field days for the new case study farms. When there is greater certainty about social gatherings we will start scheduling these events. We will keep you informed via our website, newsletter and our socials.

Finally, we have revised the case study program application form. We value feedback from our audience and case study participants and have taken the opportunity to simplify the application form after speaking with farmers. Learn more about being a case study participant here and find the application form here.

Our team are here to help, so if you want to have a chat or want some assistance to complete the application give us a call.

Narelle Luff

Operations Manager / Acting CEO

Meet Katharine Brown

Katherine Brown recently joined the Soils For Life project team, bringing with her a wealth of knowledge and curiosity about soils. We asked her what she finds most fascinating about soil in this Q and A.

Q: What do you find so fascinating about soil?

A: There are an infinite number of fascinating facts about soil! If I were to choose one, it would be that “each soil has had its own history. Like a river, a mountain, a forest, or any natural thing, its present condition is due to the influences of many things and events of the past.” That’s a quote by soil scientist Dr Charles E. Kellogg from 1938. When you observe a soil, you gain an understanding of its past (how it formed), its present (how it functions), and its future (how it responds).

Q: You’ve been a soil scientist for 20 years now. What has been the most exciting thing/change you’ve seen in your career?

A: I am encouraged by the growing consensus on the significance of soils and the value of soil information. In particular, the recognition that soil is a finite natural resource and that soil condition will determine the extent society, the nation and the planet will benefit from ecosystem services. I am equally encouraged by the increase in the number of women soil scientists in what continues to be a male-dominated profession.

Q: What’s your new role with SFL and what will you be doing?

A: As a Soils For Life Project Team Member, I will be researching the benefits of regenerative agriculture on the soil, encouraging the adoption of land management practices to improve soil condition, sharing soil science knowledge with my colleagues, community and regenerative farmers, and increasing my understanding of regenerative agriculture practices.

Q: What’s one myth about soils you’d like to see busted?

A: That the “magic” happens in the topsoil. To understand the past, present, and future of a soil, we need to dig deeper!

Q: If you could change one thing about how people think about soil what would it be?

A: I would like to dispel two common thoughts:

1. That we can take from the soil without giving back.

2. That soil is dirt. Dirt is inert. Soil is alive.

Read more about the expertise on the Soils For Life team here.


Is a ‘food crisis’ the next big hit for humanity?

By Julian Cribb FRSA FTSE

The global ‘just-in-time’ industrial food and supermarket system is not fit for purpose in guaranteeing food security.

As the world reels under corona virus and the resulting economic meltdown,  another crisis – far more serious – appears to be building: the potential collapse of global food supply chains.

For those who cry “We don’t want any more bad news”, the fact of the matter is we have landed in our present mess – climate, disease, extinction, pollution, WMD – because we steadfastly ignored previous warnings.

The first warning of a corona pandemic was issued in a scientific paper in 2007 and was blithely ignored for thirteen years. In it, the scientists explicitly stated “The presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb. The possibility of the re-emergence of SARS and other novel viruses from animals or laboratories and therefore the need for preparedness should not be ignored.” [i] 

Similarly, in 1979, the World Meteorological Organisation warned “… the probability of a man-induced future global warming is much greater and increases with time. Soon after the turn of the century a level may possibly be reached that is exceeds all warm periods of the last 1000-2000 years.” [ii] And climate warnings have been coming thick and fast ever since, to scant avail.

Now we have a new warning from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, a cautious body if ever there was one, that states “We risk a looming food crisis unless measures are taken fast to protect the most vulnerable, keep global food supply chains alive and mitigate the pandemic’s impacts across the food system.” [iii]

Border closures, quarantines and market, supply chain and trade disruptions are listed as the chief reasons for concern. However, like many national governments, FAO insists “there is no need to panic” as world food production remains ample.

This, however, depends on fragile assumptions. It assumes that farmers and their families do not get sick. It assumes they will always be able to access the fuel, fertiliser, seed and other inputs they need when supply chains disintegrate. It assumes the truck drivers who transport food to the cities do not get sick, that markets, cool stores and food processing plants are not closed to protect their workers. That supermarkets continue to function, even when their shelves are stripped bare. All of which is starting to appear tenuous.

There is never a ‘need to panic’ as it does not help in resolving difficult situations. But there is definitely a need to take well-planned precautions – as we have failed to do in the cases of climate and corona virus.

The looming food crisis starts from three primary causes:

  • The global ‘just-in-time’ industrial food and supermarket system is not fit for purpose in guaranteeing food security. It is all about money, and not about human safety or nutrition. Its links are fragile and any of them can break, precipitating chaos – especially in big cities.
  • The agricultural system we know and love is becoming increasingly unreliable owing to climate change, catastrophic loss of soils worldwide, shortages of water and narrowing of its genetic base. Farmers are struggling with their own pandemics in the form of swine fever, army worms and locusts. This unreliability will become increasingly critical from the 2020s to the mid-century.
  • The predatory world economic system now punishes farmers by paying them less and less for their produce, driving them off their farms and increasingly forcing those who remain to use unsustainable methods of food production. This is causing a worldwide loss of farmers and their skills and destruction of the agricultural resource base and ecosystem at a time of rising food instability.[iv]

The reason that a food crisis is far more serious than either the corona virus or its economic meltdown, is that the death toll is generally far larger. More than 200 million people have died in various famines over the last century and a half, and many of those famines led to civil wars, international wars and governmental collapses. That is why we need to pay attention now – before a new global food crisis arises. Not brush it aside, as so many inept world leaders have done with the virus.

The Spanish have a well-learned saying that “Lo que separa la civilización de la anarquía son solo siete comidas.” [v] The French and Russian Revolutions both arose out of famines. WWII arose partly out of Hitler’s desire to capture Soviet farmlands in order to avoid another WW1 famine in Germany. Many modern African wars are over food or the means to produce it. The Syrian civil war began with a climate-driven food crisis. Indeed, there is growing evidence that lack of food plays a catalytic role in around two thirds of contemporary armed conflicts. As US former president Jimmy Carter has observed “Hungry people are not peaceful people.” [vi]

Food failures bring down governments and cause states to fail. In 2012 a drought in Russia and the Ukraine forced them to cut grain supplies to Egypt and Libya – where governments promptly fell to popular revolutions. It was a strange echo of history: in the third century a combination of climate change and a pandemic caused a failure in grain supplies from North Africa, an economic crash and, ultimately, the end of the Roman Empire.

While there is ‘no need to panic’ over food, there is a very clear and urgent need for plans to forestall major shortages around the world. Yet, there is very little evidence that governments worldwide are preparing to head off a food crisis, other than to reassure their citizens, Trumplike, that there isn’t a problem.  However, lack of trust by citizens in their governments has already prompted a global rush to stock up on staple foods which has ‘upended’ the vulnerable ‘just-in-time’ food delivery system in many countries.[vii]

Over four billion people now inhabit the world’s great cities – and not one of those cities can feed itself. Not even close. None of them are prepared for catastrophic failure in fragile modern food chains, on which they are totally reliant. It would appear almost nobody has even dreamed of such a thing. We are sleepwalking into something far larger and far more deadly than corona virus. The delicate web of modern civilization is fraying.

What is to be done? The short answers are:

  • Introduce emergency urban food stocks
  • Compulsory reduction of food waste at all points
  • Prepare for WWII-style rationing if needed
  • Pay farmers a fair return
  • Increase school meals programs and food aid to the poor
  • Encourage local food production and urban food gardens
  • Develop a global emergency food aid network as a priority
  • Reinvent food on a three-tier global model encompassing: regenerative farming, urban food production (and recycling), accelerated deep ocean aquaculture and algae culture.

There are few crises that cannot be avoided with careful forward planning, including the ten catastrophic risks now facing humanity as a whole. [viii]

It is time we, as a species, learned to think ahead better than we do, and not listen to those who cry “no more bad news, please”. They only lead us into further crisis.

*Julian Cribb is an Australian science author. His book Food or War describes what must be done to secure the world’s food supply.


REFERENCES

[i] Cheung VCC et al., Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus as an Agent of Emerging and Reemerging Infection. Clinical Microbiology Reviews Oct 2007, 20 (4) 660-694; DOI: 10.1128/CMR.00023-07

[ii] World Climate Conference 1979, http://wmconnolley.org.uk/sci/iceage/wcc-1979.html#flohn

[iii] FAO. Will COVID-19 have negative impacts on global food security? March 2020. http://www.fao.org/2019-ncov/q-and-a/en/

[iv] These issues are extensively analysed in my recent book Food or War, Cambridge University Press, 2019. https://www.cambridge.org/us/academic/food-or-war

[v] Civilization and anarchy are only seven meals apart.

[vi] Carter J., First Step to Peace is Eradicating Hunger. International Herald Tribune, June 17, 1999.

[vii] Lee A, How the UK’s just-in-time delivery model crumbled under coronavirus. Wired, 30 March 2020.

[viii] Cribb JHJ, “Surviving the 21st Century”. Springer 2017. https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-319-41270-2

A NOTE FROM THE DEPUTY CHAIR

APRIL 2020

Above: Charles Maslin embarking on some “slow travel” aiming to ride a push bike from Perth to Pambula.

What a turbulent time, with so much of the economy and people’s lives thrown into total disarray due to the corona pandemic. When will life pre-2020 resume? Fortunately most farms can continue on as “business as usual”, maybe with less social interaction, but relatively normal farming operations being able to be maintained.

On a positive note, a large part of the eastern states have had great autumn breaks, some the best in recent history. Sadly, other areas just a stone’s throw away, remain gripped in drought…and many land management issues still abound, not hidden by a film of green.

At the Soils For Life office work continues on, with all staff working from home. Later this month the ‘Fairhalt’ case study will be published and next month the ‘Salisbury’ case study will be released. We are always on the lookout for new case studies, so please contact us if you would like to apply.

In the “office”, Narelle Luff has been doing an outstanding job as operations manager, keeping the new “at home workplace” going in as full swing as practicable. Recently there have been new additions to staff: Jen Richards as Communications Manager; Katherine Brown from a soil science background; James Diack, an Agricultural Scientist; and Rebecca Palmer-Brodie from the field of social science. Welcome all to the S4L team!

Other happenings include the refinement of our website to make valuable information and contacts easier to access. We continue to post on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and are now active on LinkedIn as well. Any feedback on any of these is always welcome!

On another front, I have been embarking on some “slow travel” aiming to ride a push bike from Perth to Pambula…where is Perth I hear you say! The ride is as a fundraiser for the country education foundation, to raise funds for rural students to get opportunities in education that they would otherwise miss out on. Have a look at cef.org.au/charlie for more info. Unfortunately with borders closed, I was able to ride from Mildura to Narrandera and then Adaminaby to Pambula before the lock down, covering about 750km of the state.

What does this have to do with Soils for Life? Quite simply, “slow travel” enables me to observe changes in the landscape and differences in management between places in a district. The management of ground cover, species diversity, riparian health and weed infestation are some of the things which stand out…the seven days of bike travel so far seemed to go faster than the two of car travel to get there….with so much more to be observed when travelling at a slower pace!

It really makes me realise that we still have a long way to go with environmental stewardship and the long term health security of this land we all love. There is still much to be done to get the Soils For Life message out there…and implemented!

Loving the smell of healthy soil!

by Kirsty Yeates

Bill and Rhonda Daly (Milgadara), Dr Shane Powell (University of Tasmania) and Kirsty Yeates (Soils For Life) (front, L-R) join these farmers to talk about their needs in designing a tool to monitor soil biology.

The Soil CRC is all about giving farmers the knowledge and tools they need to make decisions on complex soil management issues. Soils For Life is proud to be a partner in what is Australia’s largest collaborative soil research initiative. The recent eNose Workshop in Young, NSW with the University of Tasmania was certainly an example of the focus on farmers!

There aren’t too many on-farm ways to assess and monitor the health of soil microbial communities. We all recognise that delicious, earthy smell of healthy soil or recoil when we smell a soil that we just know isn’t right. Using these aromas, researchers from the University of Tasmania (UTAS) are leading a Soil CRC project to develop an electronic nose (the ‘eNose’) to help monitor and diagnose soil health.

Dr. Rob Hardy in the lab building an eNose prototype.

There are some real challenges to building a tool to monitor soil biology. Dr Rob Hardy (UTAS) is exploring ways to build a suitable sensor array from low cost, off-the shelf components. To make sure the technology is useful, useable and provides the information that farmers are looking for, Dr Shane Powell (UTAS) teamed up with Kirsty Yeates from Soils for Life and we headed out to Young to find out what farmers think.

Bill and Rhonda Daly, from Milgadara, are well known at Soils For Life for their long-term focus on building healthy living soils as well as sharing their knowledge. You can read about their story here. It was a great place to start and they were only too happy to host us, along with a group of farmers from around the region for the day.

A tour of YLAD’s compost facility demonstrated how to quickly build a healthy, humus-rich compost. Getting the temperature right, as well as the soil moisture, the right microbes and ratio of carbon to nitrogen inputs were all critical to high quality compost.

Bill and Rhonda show us around YLAD’s compost facility.
Great compost takes precision. Here’s Bill Daly monitoring the conditions in this newly
forming compost pile.

It’s been a long dry period but with a quick, intense storm the night before we moved out to the paddock to see mushrooms popping up through the soil. It was perfect to dig into the soil and see what we could smell. 

Even after a tough season, a short sharp storm the night before had fully soaked in and we easily dug into the soil. 

As a microbial ecologist, Shane Powell, knows only too well how complicated living soil can be. She shared insights into the many roles that the microbial communities have: nutrient cycling, decomposition, causing disease, suppressing disease, building soil structure and even promoting plant growth.

Dr Shane Powell shares insights on soil biology and leads the workshop to find out what farmers need in an ‘eNose’ tool.
An early assembly of the ‘eNose’ using off the shelf components.

From here, we moved into a pretty lively discussion. Everyone shared what problems they were trying to solve and talked about the type of things they were prepared to do to find out more about their soil biology. A lot of ideas were generated about how the device could be used and what it could add to the information farmers currently use to help manage their soils.

For everyone that came along to talk about soil biology and share their ideas, we say thank you! This is what the best, collaborative science is all about. Space to focus and think about what farmers really need, as well as support from the science community to develop much needed new technologies and understanding.

There’s a lot to do but keep your eye out and we’ll let you know how the project goes.