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Appendix A: Soilhealth extension case study - Nathan Heath

Back to: Soil health for Victoria's agriculture - context, terminology and concepts

The North East Soil Health Action Plan (NESHAP)(DNRE 2001) was developed in response to growing community interest in soil health and research work that was being conducted locally and regionally on the impact of acid soils. A component of the plan was the identification of the regionʹs soil resources and soil health issues which were presented in the document, Soil Health in North East Victoria (DNRE 1999). Both documents are components of the North East Regional Catchment Strategy (NECMA 1997). The North East was the first region in Victoria to produce a strategy for soil health, and the plan outlines 11 key action programs that work towards addressing the key soil health issues in the North East. NESHAP was not formally endorsed by the government and remained relatively static primarily due to a lack of funding for its implementation.

A regional funding proposal was submitted to the Regional Catchment Investment Plan (RCIP) for a regional soil health implementation strategy, which was approved for a two year period until May 2007. A full time Soil Health Project Officer (SHPO) was employed in May 2005 as part of the implementation project.

Key soil health partnerships in North East Victoria

1. North East Catchment Management Authority (NECMA) and Landcare networks – NECMA have been proactive in their support to the implementation of the soil health project in the region. The Landcare network co–ordinators in particular have been crucial in supporting the delivery of soil health information through the organisation of meeting events, locations, and audiences.

2. PIRVic / Rutherglen Research Institute – The lack of an exisiting formal soil health extension network has meant that the extension program has been highly dependent on input and guidance from soil health researchers within PIRVic.

3. Other agency staff – salinity & soil conservation group project officers and managers – A number of the objectives of NESHAP are co–objectives of the North East Salinity strategy and soil conservation program. Many of the issues regarding soil health require a holistic approach to practice change requiring inputs from a range of agency staff and programs.

4. Goulburn Broken Soil health stakeholder group – A strong relationship has been established between agency staff developing a soil health strategy in the Goulburn Broken and the soil health group in North East Victoria. This has involved some job sharing and joint tool and resource development.

5. Biological farming groups – The Ovens Landcare Network (OLN) in NE has been particularly active in a soil health program and has enlisted the services of a private biological farming consultant. Workshops, trials and annual events have attracted large numbers of participants. A strong relationship has been developed between the OLN project personnel and agency staff to provide a more unified message to land users on soil health issues in North East Victoria. This has resulted in a range of benefits to both parties including assistance in the establishment and awareness of the DPI Soil health strategy and extension program in the region. However it is important that the message land users receive is both balanced and quantified. Currently there is a bias toward supporters of soil health biological farming methodology in the delivery of soil health messages in the community leading to variety of unproven and largely unchallenged claims being made on the merits of alternative soil heath practices.

Soil health strengths in North East Victoria

  • North East Soil Health Action Plan (NESHAP 2001) – The plan provides a valuable framework and direction for the long term improvement of soil health in North East Victoria. Most of the National Landcare Projects (NLP) with a soil health component in the region have aligned their project proposals with the aims of the strategy. NESHAP has been used extensively in the design, development and implementation of an extension strategy for NE Victoria. The SHPO position and the level of interest and degree of soil health activity in the region are largely outcomes of this document.
  • Land Resource Assessment of North East Victoria (LRANE) – Is a land capability analysis of freehold land within the North East Catchment Management Authority boundaries. This soil–landform model has been produced at a 1:100,000 scale and is a valuable resource for soil and landform identification, definition and distribution in North East Victoria. Training in the use of the LRANE has been included in all land user workshops, and staff training events conducted by the SHPO. The Tallangatta Valley Landcare Group project is using the model extensively in the design of a paddock scale soil health and management plans.
  • Interest and impetus in soil health in NE Victoria – There is significant interest in soil health throughout the North East region now. The introduction of a soil health extension strategy has occurred during this period of high community interest and this has facilitated implementation of extension work.
  • Rutherglen Research Institute – The quantity and quality of research that has been conducted in the NE through the Research Institute is respected throughout the community. Rutherglen staff have at all times provided valued assistance and guidance to extension staff.
  • Victorian Resources Online – This resource is not limited to the North East or soil health. As a readily accessible database of information on soil health for the region it is an invaluable primary resource. Its use is encouraged within the soil health extension program.

Soil health extension activity in North East Victoria
During the period May 16 2005 and May 16 2006 the SHPO has been involved in the following activities;
  • Preparation and delivery of 52 soil health related presentations to a range of Landcare, industry (BeefCheque and whole farm planning), community and agency groups. Media releases, radio interviews and articles for regional newsletters have also been produced during this time.
  • Four agency (DPI, DSE & CMA) soil health training days have been delivered both in the North East and Goulburn Broken.
  • Much of the extension activity in the region has been in response to community demand. There are 12 NLP funded projects operating within the NE totalling approximately $928,000 of NLP investment, all of which have some component of soil health in their focus. The SHPO has been involved in the design and support of 5 of these project proposals. Two projects in particular have considerable input from the SHPO, being based around increased landholder awareness of soil variation within the landscape, improved understanding of observed soil properties and use of this information to implement management strategies based around soil capability.
  • Much of the initial focus has been in relationship building and liaison with the range of groups interested in a variety of soil health topics in the community. Technical support has been provided where and when required, and co–ordination within and between groups through the provision of tools and resources has been a key role of the SHPO.
  • There has been a strong emphasis in working positively with other regional and statewide soil health projects and staff and complementary natural resource projects.

During the year to May 2006 a number of DPI programs and projects within the North East also contribute with a soil health component. These include;–
  • Whole farm planning and Environmental Management Systems programs.
  • BeefCheque and Target 10 contain a significant soil health component.
  • The Salinity group and soil conservation (Catchment project officers) group work towards addressing the salinity and erosion programs within NESHAP.

Issues relating to soil health extension in North East Victoria

Soil health project timeframes and focus
The improvement of soil health takes many years, and yet most projects and employment contracts are targeted at short (2–3 year) time frames. Reinforcement of messages and follow through on project outcomes outside of these time frames is required if practice change is to be achieved.

The improvement of soil health in the region is highly dependent on the success of other agency and industry projects. The adoption and implementation of holistic Best Management Practices (BMP), including farming to land capability, establishing deep rooted perennials and maintaining a vegetative cover should be the focus of a soil health extension program for the region and not soil health per se.

Incorporating land holders in the design, implementation and evaluation of BMP programs is essential, as land holder ownership and understanding of the components of BMP implementation appear to be weak in the community. There is an opportunity for a combined multi agency and community demonstration farm type model where wide ranging natural resource BMPs are adopted and examined. A similar model was used in the Meat Research and Development Council (MRDC) Sustainability Monitor Farms in New Zealand. ( mafnet/publications/rmupdate/rm4/rm4001.html). Under this scenario if personnel or projects change an established resource that can be used to benchmark, monitor and follow through on practice change is maintained in the community.

The use of Landcare groups for soil health extension work
The use of the Landcare network for the delivery of soil health programs and workshops developed by the Soil Health Project Officer has merit however it limits the potential audience to active Landcare participants. Logistically, given the current high demand for soil health extension services in NE Victoria and the relative limits of staff resources appealing to a wider audience is difficult. The focus within projects is on numbers of events or products produced with very little qualitative analysis of the effectiveness of these events or products. Short project and contract time frames further reinforce the need for utilising Landcare networks that enable you to meet your project deliverables.

The alignment of project priority areas and soil health interest
The guiding document for the implementation of soil health extension in the North East indicates 8 priority areas where soil health extension should initially be focussed. These priority areas have been identified because of the risk of salinity and water quality issues and do not necessarily reflect where the majority of interest in soil health lies within the community and balancing the demands of the community and the objectives of the project can at times be difficult. Demand for soil health work is occurring primarily in the sheep and beef hill country grazing environments where the range of soil health issues impacting on production, the physical and financial limitations in addressing soil health issues, and limited number of soil health programs previously targeted at this sector has contributed to the keen interest in soil health projects and workshops.

Agency resources are already being invested into the priority areas of water quality and salinity and a slight re–alignment of roles within DPI (particularly the sharing of acidification extension with the salinity group) would enable more flexibility in the location of soil health extension in the North East. It also highlights the importance of establishing catchment condition indicators for other soil health criteria, for example organic matter, subsoil pH, soil structure degradation and soil loss, that may help direct soil health activity to areas where it is most required.

Soil health extension network & succession planning
There are only three full time Soil Health Project Officers or managers in DPI Victoria – one in North East Victoria and two in South West Victoria / Corangamite, this limits the opportunity for shared activity, resource development and training for staff. Training is limited towards more generalised groups who have only a partial interest in soil health in their roles. There is currently no succession planning for soil health extension in North East Victoria. The limitation of a two year employment contract for the Soil Health Project Officer and lack of certainty about the position in the future is already impacting on the ability to commit to longer term project proposals. This is an important consideration for groups planning soil health projects in the region.

There are few opportunities for continuing on a career pathway in extension within DPI. It appears that senior extension officer roles do not exist and remuneration is limited to a grade 3 scale. Similar job positions within NSW are attracting DPI Victoria staff from the NE region, with 15–30% increases in salary typically quoted.

Soil health extension versus soil health research on a statewide basis
One of the roles of an extension practitioner is to feed back key information from field observations concerning perceptions towards and uptake of practice change information or new technology, to the researchers involved. Extension personnel are also crucial in helping shape the output of research data into forms that are tangible and relevant to the target audience. Within the organisation little opportunity exists for this process to work effectively. The large discrepancy between the number of staff involved in soil health research and those involved in extension within DPI is problematic. Soil health has a range of definitions within the community which often differ to those of researchers. An extension officer’s role is to be the link between these definitions.

In the North East region an example of the mutual benefits of developing strong linkages between extension and research is beginning to emerge between the SHPO and Soil Biology Platform at Rutherglen Research Institute. The SHPO has been included in the Soil Biology Platform meetings providing input on both extension and community activity and needs. The Soil Biology group has also used the extension network for input into possible training programs and projects both inhouse and with other agency and industry groups. The advantages for the extension personnel is a clearer understanding of the research being carried out by the Soil Biology Group, enabling more authoritative communication within the community, and an increased understanding of the technical aspects of soil biology. A plan is currently underway to conduct a more formal soil biology training event in the near future and to provide assistance in the development of tools and resources.

Other opportunities for improving the linkages between research (PIRVic) and extension (CAS) include;
  • CAS involvement at the initiation of PIRVic research projects.
  • A workshop between PIRVic and CAS staff involving staff from both the soil health and practice change groups to clarify respective needs and establish a formal process to improving linkages.
  • The establishment of a formal committee or co–ordination position within the organisation as a liaison point between research and extension activity.
  • Look at the possibility of more collaborative PIRVic & CAS projects and funding proposals.
  • Making allowances in PIRVic work commitments and funding proposals for more engagement with CAS staff.

Tools & Resources required for soil health extension in North East Victoria

1. Collation and collection of regional soil health data – There is a significant quantity of historical data relating to soil in NE Victoria which needs to be collected and collated. Accessible information to historical trial data would be beneficial to the soil health extension program. Clarification and quantification of what new data needs to be collected (eg. Land holder soil test results) and how it is to be used or presented is also required.

2. Specific and targeted soil health monitoring tools – Significant time has been invested in developing new or existing tools and resources for extension activity in the North East. There are a range of resources available, but these are now becoming outdated and do not reflect where the community interest in soil health lies. They also make little use of current practice change, or adult learning theory. A number of 'best guess' estimates for a variety of risk assessment monitoring tools is required. For example, a suitable drainage classification system, soil compaction risk index, soil phosphate loss risk and a simple soil health assessment.

3. Larger scale support on soil acidification issues – A priority issue in NE Victoria is soil acidification. Awareness is widespread within the farming community however the ability to address acidification is limited largely by the prohibitive cost of carting lime in to the region. The implementation of BMPʹs to reduce acidification often requires large–scale changes to current management which many landholders are reluctant or financially unable to implement. A larger, more concerted effort is required to address this issue. For example investigation into lime cartage alternatives, soil testing subsidies, targeted publicity campaigns and potentially soil acidification BMP monitor farms as significant practice change will be difficult solely through the action of extension staff.

4. Specific training in soil biology – There is particular interest in soil biology within the NE community and this is reflected in the range of soil health projects and requests for information relating to soil biology. There is significant community interest in biological farming practice programs in North East Victoria and an increase in the range of soil biological amendments and products available to land holders. Much of this operates within knowledge gaps of agency staff. Training in specific soil biology topics would be highly beneficial.

5. Evaluation and monitoring program – Surveys relating largely to water quality have been carried out in the region but are limited in their soil health scope. Gathering information on the uptake of BMP's and the issues and resources impacting on their adoption is a key requirement of the extension program. We need Information on the range of soil health practices currently being employed in the region, as well as how extensively the soil health message is permeating within various community and industry sector groups.

The North East region has benefited from the identification and prioritisation of soil health issues through NESHAP and much of the current soil health momentum in the region could be attributed to the work done in the production of this action plan. There is considerable interest and action taking place in soil health now in the region and from an extension perspective this makes implementing programs and projects comparatively easy. The following recommendations would assist to further improve the quality and effectiveness of the implementation of NESHAP:
  • Succession planning on the future of the soil health program in the North East is required now to ensure that the current interest and momentum in soil health activity is carried on not only into next year but also well into the future. A mechanism needs to be in place to reinforce the importance of soil health and soil health best management practice implementation in the community. The focus should be on long term community based activities such as localised soil health monitoring programs and multiple NRM best management practice monitor or demonstration sites, rather than revising the tools or resources in soil health which traditionally have quickly become outdated.
  • Much of the current soil health implementation focus has been on the activity of the SHPO, and it is important that other programs and priorities articulated in NESHAP are also targeted. Revision of NESHAP is required to review priority areas in soil health and to design strategies that ensure soil health is adequately addressed in all our NRM programs.
  • Co–ordination of soil health programs, tools and resources at a state level is required given the limited resources currently available for soil health extension activity and the demands being placed on staff by the community. A workshop between PIRVic and CAS to promote better co–ordination between staff and to clarify the needs of each group would be of benefit.
  • There is opportunity for closer and more collaborative programs with biological and organic farming systems programs. Fundamentally there is often very little separating the concepts and methods used between a number of the approaches towards soil health improvement being suggested currently. Articulation of where views may differ on BMP is important for the community.
  • A measured response is required from PIRVic with regard to some of the claims being made by the biological farming sector. A reminder to land holders of the importance in substantiating claims with data and the analysis of the costs and benefits to any practice change exercise. It is necessary to reinforce the message that soils vary widely and a one shoe fits all approach to soil health is potentially costly and or damaging.
  • A better understanding of the state of the soil resource in the North East is required. This could be achieved through benchmarking parameters such as organic carbon, macroporosity and subsoil aluminium.
  • A regional survey of soil health practices is required to indicate how the understanding and implementation of best management practices within the community is progressing. What the perceptions on soil health are, and what alternative practices being used in addressing soil health issues is essential in measuring the success of the extension program and also to better plan strategies for the future.
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