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Are we treating soil like dirt?

Australia historically has very infertile and fragile soil compared to other parts of the world but rather than fall into crisis mode, some are encouraging us to see the opportunities this presents to improve the earth on which we feed our future generations.

It’s a discussion Dr Michael Crawford, CEO of Australia’s Soil CRC will facilitate at evokeAG. 2020, the Asia Pacific’s largest agrifood tech event.

It’s not uncommon to see a farmer grab a handful of dirt and smell it. Healthy soil smells good. But why? That’s exactly what Australia’s leading soil scientists and experts are discovering through the development of an eNose. The eNose will “smell” the soil (via gas sensors) and then translate this gas fingerprint into microbial health metrics. It’s just one of the many projects undertaken by Dr Crawford’s team at the Soil CRC.

“There’s very few rapid, cost-effective, and reasonably accurate in-field tests available to access and monitor the health of soil and microbial opportunities. The eNose means that farmers will have a tool which can sniff, interpret and analyse their soil health so they have a benchmark for making improvements,” said Dr Crawford.

It’s these advances in real-time, in-field soil technology which Dr Crawford insists will encourage more farmers to monitor the health of their soil.

“At the moment, some farmers send a soil sample away for a test once before a new cropping cycle and this process is a bit tedious and also doesn’t provide you with instant results. The other issue with this is that your paddock’s soil condition can change three or four times in that same cropping cycle but you are still working off the initial test. The latest technology helps to address this issue and has come a long way but there is still a way to go.”

Dr Crawford says that despite the drought, farmers are more open and receptive to conversations about soil health and its importance.

“It’s hard to focus on strategies to improve the health of your soil when you are in the middle of a drought. There are other, more immediate impacts which take your attention away. However, drought is a good time to start thinking about your soil health and getting some advice because we know that caring for your soil leads to better water holding capacity, it stimulates the soil biology making nutrients more readily available, it makes it easier for roots to penetrate and it improves the fertility,” said Dr Crawford.

Michael Gooden, Regional Agriculture Landcare Facilitator at the Riverina Local Land Services and evokeAG. 2019 delegate said a major focus for their region is encouraging farmers to increase their ground cover.

“We are aiming to get our farmers who participate in our projects to have a minimum ground cover benchmark, this changes depending on land class and location. It acts like mulch for the soil, it helps protect the soil from wind, rain and temperature extremes and it is also an important food source for soil organisms,” said Mr Gooden.

Going forward, Dr Crawford says he wants farmers who look after their soil to be financially rewarded through interest rate reductions, reduced insurance premiums or increased real estate values. The Soil CRC are currently working with banks, valuers and farmers to determine what the incentives will be and how good soil management will be best measured.

At evokeAG. 2020, Dr Crawford will lead a discussion called ‘Are we treating soil like dirt?’. The panel will delve into the benefits of adopting a soil management plan as well as the latest innovative technologies to help farmers improve the condition of their soil. Dr Crawford has one message which he wants to leave with the 1,300 delegates at the Royal Exhibition Building in February.

“To grow a good crop or pasture, you need healthy soil. We hope to shed light on some of the latest tools and technologies to monitor and measure soil health and performance. We need farmers to take measurements in real time and make decisions, such as fertilizer application, based off the data presented to them.”

Check out the full evokeAG. 2020 program.

evokeAG. 2020 took place in Melbourne at the iconic Royal Exhibition Building on 18-19 February 2020. Contribute to the food, farm and future conversations by using our #evokeAG hashtag and follow evokeAG. on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram.

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