Farming for sustainable soils
The first phase of the program was funded entirely from the Sustainable Practices chapter of the Australian Government Caring for our Country Program.
In July 2013 the Australian Government confirmed support for a second (five-year) phase of the Farming for Sustainable Soils program. The Victorian Government (DEPI) also agreed to provide support through the Land Health Program. DEPI allocated resources (EFTs) equivalent to $150,000 per annum.
Soils in the North Central CMA region are some of the most productive and yet challenging country in Australia. The gross value of agricultural production equates to approximately $1.5 billion per annum from some 2.8 million hectares. The project focuses on dryland soils that are predominantly used for cropping and grazing. Seventy percent is inherently sodic and prone to dispersion, poor soil structure, and consequential wind and water erosion. In this context, there are considerable opportunities to secure the future of agricultural production by further adopting sustainable farming practices to improve hydrological performance.
The limitations to plant growth, imposed by problems with soil structure, are manifested through poor water entry and root penetration of the uppermost subsoil horizons. The condition is widespread, particularly across the northern plains and foothills of the catchment, limiting the performance of crops and pastures. Poor soil structure also alters the hydrology and causes increased runoff and water erosion. Measurements of actual soil loss are scant, but most contemporary assessments suggest loss rates ranging between one to seven tonnes per hectare per year.
The challenges associated with soil management and land protection seldom arise due to poor agricultural management. For the most part they arise from the inherent properties of the soils bestowed by geology and geomorphology. Generally, farmers and farming communities are poorly equipped with the knowledge, information and resources they require to explore sustainable management practices consistent with local conditions and enterprises.
The Farming for Sustainable Soils program aims to protect and regenerate the soils of north central Victoria by working collaboratively with local farming communities.
The program encourages responsibility amongst local groups to identify and adopt sustainable farming practices consistent with local conditions, local enterprises and experiences. This process provides the opportunity to consolidate and share experiential local knowledge acquired by individuals over many years of farming. Group members benefit from knowledge sharing and the discussion it generates with their neighbours and colleagues.
FSS unites local farmers in a purposeful program by tackling soil issues as a community. Groups are supported by a local part-time facilitator who assists in the development of a blueprint for implementation over each successive growing season.
At the conclusion of phase one of the FSS program (June 2013), eight large FSS soils groups were active across the region. Each group covered an area of at least 400 square kilometres forming a semi-contiguous community-based land management regime or group. The area stretched across the middle and lower reaches of the four main river basins of north central Victoria. A total of 651 farmers were actively involved as FSS members who were responsible for the management of about 260,000 hectares of land. Collectively, the eight FSS groups organised and undertook more than 600 baseline soil assessments, 250 trials of sustainable practices, and 100 training and knowledge development activities.
In March-April 2013, a review of the FSS program was undertaken to evaluate progress against agreed targets. It was shown the program was achieving the established levels of farmers adopting more sustainable land management practices. A copy of the report is available, upon request, from the North Central Catchment Management Authority.
The first phase of the project started in September 2009 and concluded in June 2013. The second (five year) phase commenced in July 2013