Program spotlight: Investing in high performance soils

| Posted Feb 09,2024

Program 1 of the Soil CRC is focused on human aspects of soil management. Led by Professor Catherine Allan from Charles Sturt University, the program undertakes economic and social science research to help farmers achieve their soil stewardship and profitability goals.

“Australian farmers are often encouraged — or even forced — by markets, policy settings or shifting social norms to make management decisions that have the potential to damage soils, farm profitability and public good,” Professor Allan explained. “Program 1 encourages practice change by finding ways to shape markets and support grower groups.”

The program aims to deliver a publicly accessible package of information and capacity building activities for researchers, farmer groups and Soil CRC partners. There are three related outputs in the package that support and enable opportunities to accelerate change and build adaptive capacity.

The first output involves using markets to reward farmers for improved soil stewardship. A three-year project led by Professor Mark Morrison from Charles Sturt University (CSU) found there is potential and willingness for some consumers, and others in the value chain, to reward soil stewards by paying more for their agricultural goods.

“A series of related projects, headed up by CSU’s Dr Nicholas Pawsey, has been investigating financial market rewards,” Professor Allan said. “Based on the emerging insight from these projects the Soil CRC economics team has another project investigating the potential role of certification as part of market activation. This is complemented by a law-focused PhD study.”

The second output relates to farmer acceptance and use of approaches to soil stewardship, which includes developing a better understanding of what drives farm management decisions.

“Dr Hanabeth Luke from Southern Cross University and her project team completed the first round of six comprehensive social benchmarking surveys last year, and a new project to re-survey farmers in north central Victoria, central west New South Wales and the Western Australia wheatbelt is now underway.”

Other activities in this output area include a farmer group-focused project, which builds on prior Soil CRC research on adoption to critically evaluate modes of farmer engagement and knowledge sharing.

Four PhD research projects are also associated with this area of social research, examining understanding of soil management norms and intuition in decision-making, the role of gender, as well as knowledge sharing of regenerative farming.

The third output relates to innovative and effective ways of operating and collaborating in complex and uncertain situations.

“Since the start of the Soil CRC, we’ve gained new knowledge through four projects focused on innovation, and on-farm economics and risks,” Professor Allan said. “One project, led by Professor David Falepau (CSU), recently guided five farmer groups in building their adaptive and entrepreneurial capacities. Another project, led by Dr Nathan Craig from West Midlands Group, is developing a tool to help farmer groups decide which innovations to support and promote.”

Other projects are seeking to move beyond simplistic economic analysis of practices, to better reflect the reality of making decisions within complex social and ecological systems. This includes economic considerations related to regenerative agriculture (led by Sosheel Godfrey, CSU) and organic fertilisers created from waste (led by Richard Culas, CSU). One PhD student’s work is complementing this output with research into the economics of soil amelioration.

Professor Allan highlighted the importance of the linkages among projects across the program. For example, data from the social benchmarking survey has been used to inform the market-focused research.

“Over the next three and a half years, more data will be shared among projects in Program 1, fostering the emergence of new ideas and enabling the development of integrated information on the social and economic aspects of improved soil stewardship,” she said.

Program 1 is a collaborative effort involving researchers and participants from 11 grower groups, seven universities and five industry partners, along with six Soil CRC PhD students.

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