Soil Health – No Longer a Dirty Subject

Monica Haynes
August 7, 2017

Soil health is important to Wet Tropics farmersTerrain's Regional Landcare Facilitator shares how "soil health" changed from a controversial topic to a standard paddock conversation.

In late 2012, three agronomists from Central America travelled to the Wet Tropics to deliver courses on regenerative agricultural practices.

Farmers learnt how to make biologically active fertilisers to revitalise their soil and jump-start their production outputs, and how to monitor the results simply and cheaply.

The courses were subsidised through Regional Landcare Facilitator (RLF) funding, and drew the attention of an influential Landcare group. Fiona George, the Regional Landcare Facilitator, was summonsed to explain why thousands of dollars had been committed to supporting a “snake oil” workshop in the district.

Eighteen months later, growing interest from the farming community about soil biology, and concern about increasing production costs and decreasing yields prompted a two-day soil health forum in Babinda and Walkamin. A record 170 people attended.

Internationally renowned soil ecologist Dr Christine Jones, agro-ecologist David Hardwick, microbiologist Dr Chandra Iyer, and a raft of local leading farmers presented. Extensive evaluation of the event showed that farmers wanted still more information about soil management.

The answers came through Digging Deeper – an intensive soil health program developed by Ms George. The program moved extension in an exciting new direction through its hands-on approach to investigating what is going on beneath the surface.

Good soil knowledge is an essential part to helping farmers make decisions that will increase yield and profitability. The program saw 51 ‘soil psychologists’ graduate. It meant that farmers from a whole range of industries were better equipped to boost the health of their soil, and improve environmental and productivity outcomes.

In the wake of Digging Deeper, two Wet Tropics Soilcare groups have formed - Wet Tropics Soilcare Inc, and an as-yet unnamed group in the Herbert district. They are both leading the way in bringing cutting-edge information to farmers in a practical, hands-on setting.

In January 2016, Wet Tropics Soilcare committed to hosting the second National Biological Farming Conference in Cairns, with in-kind support from the RLF. They were awarded $50,000 in Sustainable Agriculture Small Grants funding from the Commonwealth’s Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, and sourced another $90,000 in private sponsorship.

In late 2016, almost 500 delegates joined 40 exhibitors and 50 speakers at the event to hear stories from farmers, scientists and agronomists about the benefits of taking care of their soil. Gabe Brown was among them. A regenerative agriculture farmer, he travelled from the United States to give a keynote address at the event and said, “We are now profitable every year, regardless of price.”

The RLF program has heard, and responded to, the need for information and improved skills in soil health. Workshop facilitation, soil health extension programs, innovative agriculture forums, an inter-region bus tour to visit likeminded farmers, and coordination of the widely acclaimed National Biological Farming Conference (2016) are all part of putting cutting-edge, credible information and skills into the hands of farmers to build confidence to innovate and change the way they farm.

Just five years on from that adversarial response to regenerative soil management approaches, Wet Tropics farmers are arguably among the most soil literate in Australia. The CSIRO publication Soil Health, Soil Biology, Soilborne Diseases and Sustainable Agriculture by Dr Graham Stirling et al has become essential reading for farmers serious about reversing yield decline, and Sugar Research Australia (SRA) use it in their soil health masterclasses.

Soil health is no longer a dirty subject; it is ingrained in the paddock conversation as Terrain NRM and industry continue to support farmers to improve environmental and production outcomes.

The Regional Landcare Facilitator Program is an initiative of the Australian Government Department of Agriculture and Water Resources.