Grains Research and Development

Date: 01.04.2004

Farmers succeed in quest for soil centre

By Brad Collis

Five years of persistence by a small group of growers and their local shire CEO will culminate this year in Australia’s first dedicated soils research centre. Money has been raised from private and government sources to finally get the Kojonup Soils Centre off the ground in the small southern wheatbelt town, 300 kilometres south-west of Perth.

The centre will undertake research and soil testing programs and will be an extension of the University of Western Australia’s soils research program.

The push for the centre came from two local farmers, Robert Sexton and Bill Harrison, after they started organising seminars on soil and other sustainability issues. When up to 400 farmers began turning up and paying $100 to attend, they realised they were not the only ones worried about their farms’ long-term wellbeing.

“At first we felt a bit nervous talking about ‘green’ issues, but more and more farmers started coming out of the woodwork. We soon realised that everybody was drawing the same conclusions – our farms were not sustainable, but there was no knowledge to help us change,” says Mr Sexton.

“You can have the best seeding and harvesting operations, but everything stands or falls on your soils – and there was a gradual realisation that we really knew nothing about this resource.

“That’s how the idea of a specialist soils research centre started, because the other factor is the new generation taking over our farms is tertiary educated. The sons and daughters want facts and detail; they won’t cop generalisations like a lot of us older farmers did.”

Mr Sexton and Mr Harrison took their quest to Kojonup Shire’s chief executive, Wally Lenyszyn, who gave the administrative backing they needed to start lobbying.

The shire hired a consultant to prepare a feasibility study, initially into a soils testing facility, which on its own did not look promising. The idea stalled for some months until University of Western Australia soils specialist, Professor Lyn Abbott, heard of the proposal and suggested expanding it to cover research through a joint venture between the university and local groups.

Since then the plan has been backed by state and federal governments, as well as the shire council, and when it starts operating around the middle of the year it will have created numerous highly skilled jobs for the town.

Professor Abbott believes the centre will play a key role in disseminating information about soils. “It will provide an opportunity for discussion and investigation of challenging questions raised by land users,” she says. Professor Abbott says that while some soil issues can be specific to local soil conditions, many have much wider relevance: “So although the centre will be based in Kojonup, its vision is wide-ranging.

“The centre will highlight the role of soils in productive farming systems and help land managers identify farming practices that are most suitable for their conditions.”

For Robert Sexton and Bill Harrison the centre will be a reward for persistence, although Mr Harrison, who recently retired, looks back on their efforts, and their lives as farmers, with a little alarm: “Ever since boyhood we simply believed that to improve the soil you applied fertiliser.

“Well of course that didn’t last, but again and again our questions remained unanswered. “I now realise we understood nothing about the basis on which we were earning our living. And you look around and realise everyone’s the same. No one knows, really, what the soil is, how it works and how we need to manage it to make the most of it.

“That’s why we want this centre – a place that studies soils and nothing else, and then for that knowledge to spread right around Australia.”

For more information:
Professor Lyn Abbott, labbott@cyllene.uwa.edu.au