Fostering debate - a range of opinions

The history of farm land management in Australia – there are two different versions

Introduction by Patrick Francis
Dr David Smith AM FAIAST, wrote the following essay in about 2014 in response to what he saw as a lack of scientific rigor associated with advocacy for some “natural” farming methodologies and an alarming gap in knowledge about the contribution agricultural science has made to on-going farming practice change in Australia. David died in 2017 but left an important legacy for southern Australian agriculture – education of thousands of agricultural scientists at the University of Melbourne School of Agriculture. For a more detailed review of Australia’s farming and agricultural science history David Smith wrote “Natural Gain” which was published in 2000.
For me the key take home message from this essay is that scientific data on which to make decisions about farming practice is critically important. Furthermore scientific methodology provides a framework for any individual to make a contribution to new knowledge and practice change irrespective of his or her ideology. Thirdly, new scientific knowledge and practice change is on-going. What Smith does not cover in this essay is the ability of ideology in some farmer’s minds to outweigh scientific processes and evidence. This relates to the Achilles heel of the scientific method which is its inability to accommodate multiple variables which are difficult to measure, particularly in those factors outside of productivity and profit. Some farmers will put equal or more weight on other factors such as farm land biodiversity status, niche consumer requirements, livestock welfare and personal health. It means that while the scientific method is continually developing practice changes which are proven to benefit food and fibre production, business profitability and ecosystem functions, for some the inputs needed, outputs achieved, and non-target consequences are unsatisfactory for their way of thinking. In the end recipients of information and knowledge need to be able to distinguish between scientific evidence, anecdotal evidence, and ideology, then make decisions based on their personal preferences.

There are two versions of the present state of Australia’s farmlands:

Version A. The miserable state – ‘ Thus ‘ 60% of the lands are degraded, erosion is rife, soil water is poorly understood and badly managed… agencies do not cooperate….’

Europeans, mostly from England, settled the Australian continent around 1800. They brought European crops and eventually grazing animals along with their cultural practices – and set out to farm the lands. They did not appreciate the differences between the soils in the new land and those at home so they were puzzled at the low yields. In due course they blamed this on to the soils being old and poor – though some recognised it was in fact because some soils were immature, developing on new basalt and recent wind-blown sands.

They cropped and cropped and the soils became degraded with widespread erosion. Much of the rain that fell ran off into the gullies, making them deeper and wider. In Victoria, when a north¬westerly wind blew, the Mallee ‘came to town’. Various agricultural institutions were established, Departments of Agriculture and Agricultural Colleges by the states and Faculties of Agriculture by the universities. From these emerged research scientists and some better informed farmers but it was all to no avail.

They did not seem to discern the critical questions: they did not understand management of the meagre rainfall; they over grazed their pastures and didn’t appreciate the value of deeper-rooted species; they did not understand the place of organic matter in soils. Worse, the various agencies did not cooperate in the use of their resources: the scientists in them seem to work alone and were resistant to change.

Yields continued to decline, degradation of soils continued, erosion was rampant. Two hundred or more years later, in the 2000s, things were miserable indeed – about 60% of farmlands were degraded. The remaining farmers had little idea of how to manage grazing and they spread chemicals that did great damage to the soil. They could not manage water run-off.

From the undulating country of the slopes of the Great Dividing Range in New South Wales a prophet emerged. Peter Andrews, a horse trainer who had previously run his horses on a small property near Adelaide, where he had found that chicken manure worked wonders on his land, bought a property there.

Peter set to work to fix the erosion: to slow creek flow he invented rough dams, made of the natural materials – logs and stones. He worked the catchments from the top down and absorbed a lot of the rain – and somehow didn’t notice the soil conservation agencies. He encountered scientists from some of the agencies but found them a waste of time – ‘they were hamstrung by a fear of change1. And there was poor co-operation between the agencies.
He found he did not need fertilisers – it was ‘the natural inputs of air, sunlight and water’ that made the difference. Not being very well ‘schooled’ in biology, he accepted that plants took up carbon from the soil, along with other nutrients. He urged the use of natural materials for composting, that fertilisers hinder plant growth, that legumes poison stock. He encouraged weeds in the pastures -he wrote’ there isn’t a pasture anywhere in Australia…. more productive if it had weeds growing in the grass’. He made the discovery that deep-rooted plants were good. He fed gum leaves to his livestock, ‘great fodder’. He spoke confidently of his holistic management and invented the term Natural Sequence Farming to loosely embrace his activities.

The ABC, accepting its responsibility to spread wisdom about farming, published a book Peter had written – Beyond the Brink’ – in which he described how the farming lands of Australia could pull back from catastrophe: cease planting legumes, which only poison stock, stop using mineral fertilisers, which poison the pasture etc. The ABC staff was so impressed that it presented his story on TV – as An Australian Story, just in case some people missed this important documentary, they did a second session with him.

Peter’s views are broadly endorsed by a retired army Major-General, Michael Jeffery, later Governor-General. He had formed the view that there was widespread devastation of land – he suggested 60% -, that scientists and farmers were ignorant of soil water relations, that grazing practices were poor, that soil organic matter was not understood and chemicals and fertilisers were over used.

He managed to enlist the help of some 20 farmers who had degraded properties so were trying new things and organised them as a Soils for Life movement. Their stories were published as a sort of manifesto and captured the imagination of some people, including the Prime Minister, an urban lawyer. She became enthusiastic and in October 2012 she added soils to the list of her government’s ‘top priorities’ – and appointed Michael Jeffery as Soils Advocate, attached to her office. He said he planned to use Peter Andrews as one of his lieutenants because he has offered to help the educational institutions with their teaching materials.

Version B. The science-based state – ‘After perhaps a century of farming, organisations were established to research problems, and working with farmers there has been a remarkable transformation of farm lands, with farmers leading the world in the 2000’s.’

The first European settlement of Australia was on the east coast at Botany Bay, where the soils were derived from sandstone, a poor beginning. The settlers tried various crops but many were failures – to feed the people of the small colony, wheat was even imported from India. The settlers explored the continent and tried farming in other areas.

After a few years the best prospects for cropping wheat – the staple – were found across the Divide and to the south of the continent in areas with moderately reliable winter rain and a variety of soil types, especially lands across the south of the continent.

As one would expect, initially the practices used were those of the ‘home’ land, the UK – and there was little understanding of the special features of the new environment. Different things were tried, such as inclusion of a bare fallow in wheat rotations. But the increased yields were a delusion: it was soon realised that any gain was at the expense of soil organic matter and thus soil structure.

Locally selected/bred varieties gave useful gains and there were some interesting inventions, like the stump-jump plough, the stripper harvester and the fertiliser spreader. About 1880 news came from the UK of the value of phosphatic (P) mineral fertilisers and trials were laid down. Results were good – showing promise for increased yields.

Meanwhile subterranean (sub) clover had been accidentally introduced from the Mediterranean region, brought in fodder for animals being shipped from Europe. It gradually, rather unobtrusively, spread across the south of the continent where there were large areas of acid soils. It was not until it ‘met up’ with P additions that it flourished and was – in the early 1900s – recognised as an important pasture plant in the development of vast areas.

One fascinating aspect was discovered by Yvonne Aitkin at The University of Melbourne: the clover needed a cold effect to trigger flowering. The winter air coming over the Southern Ocean took longer to supply this cold than in Europe, where the air came over land. Thus clover was transformed from a stunted roadside plant in Europe to a much leafier plant, fixing a lot more nitrogen (N), and providing much more fodder for grazing animals than in Europe. Thus its utilisation became the focus of much research.

People became ‘legume lovers’ – clovers for acid soils, medics for alkaline soils, lucerne for deep soils – and these became the major contributor to regeneration of landscapes, banishing soil erosion, raising pasture productivity and crop yields. This raised the organic matter of soils and sequestrated a great deal of carbon. The arrival of sub clover could reasonably be claimed as the most important single event in the economic history of Australia. It has fixed on average more than five billion dollars worth of nitrogen (N) every year and will probably go on doing so for hundreds of years.

Concurrently with recognition that there was widespread land degradation and erosion it was realised that more scientific input was required. From late in the 19th century various agencies were developed to attack the problem: state agriculture departments, agricultural colleges, then faculties 3 of agriculture. There was emphasis on the use of carefully designed experiments with controls. There was no clinging to the European ways, rather, strong emphasis on innovation and improved technologies and in due course the methods used by Australian farmers had little in common with Europe: they farmed the Australian way!1

There was emphasis on scientific knowledge and research, writing, reading, debating: groups like agricultural bureaus and landcare flourished. The researchers built on the basic sciences, especially chemistry and geology and plant and animal physiology, integrating it all into a special Body of Knowledge, great reams of literature, later many gigabytes as well. Research included both field and laboratory studies, with sophisticated data analysis, and more recently computer modelling.

The resultant thoughts have been reviewed, challenged and presented to the appropriate audiences in lucid writing aimed at adoption of best practice and also convincing the public of the responsible management of resources.

Information was disseminated to farmers through effective public agriculture departments and later by private advisory services also. Colleges and universities trained scientific personnel, and carried out research into problems and searched for new knowledge. One very significant research cluster was at the Waite Institute, the Agriculture School of Adelaide University, which had been established with a bequest by Peter Waite to ensure that more science underpinned farming.

Fortuitously, the new Division of Soils of CSIRO was co-located with the new Waite Institute in the mid-1920s. Through the years of the Depression and World War II impetus in developing new knowledge and technologies was maintained by generous bequests by others, following the example of Peter Waite.

The Waite, as it came to be known, had been largely staffed by graduates of the earlier established Melbourne School – like Richardson and Trumble and Adam – having a good understanding of the need to continue soil and plant improvement. Though the student body was not large, it included a good proportion of rural people – South Australian was not highly urbanised2.

Part of the degree course was spent on the main university campus: basic sciences were strong, and the remarkable Professor J G (Joe) Wood, a world leading botanist and plant ecologist, made a strong contribution. The latter part of the course was spent at Roseworthy College, essentially introducing students to the low rainfall wheat growing environment, which characterises so much of SA3.

At that stage Roseworthy stood out above other agricultural colleges in the amount of research and plant breeding, having attracted Dr John Millington from WA – he taught Agriculture Part I. His emphasis was on regenerative agriculture – P and legumes to build up soil organic matter, improve moisture penetration and storage and increase crop yields. His book, Wheat Growing in Australia, co-authored with Dr Alan Callaghan, is essential reading for those coming new to a study of cropping.

The dynamic Bob Herriot, who was in the late 1940s establishing the SA soil conservation service, came to speak to the students. He had a very clear message: ‘go forth and transform the landscape; reduce water run-off; capture as much as possible of the water that falls; build up the soil organic matter; keep soil cover”. Students went forth – with a very clear message. Some taught in secondary schools, some were involved in research, some in farmer advisory services, some went home to family farms.4. Herriot was not alone, this same message was spread by Downes in Victoria and Knowles in NSW.

Much of the early experimental work on P application to grazing land was carried out at Kybybolite Research Station in the south east of SA, from about 1920, with landscape improvement work at least quadrupling grazing capacity. John Russell of the state Department of Agriculture, later of CSIRO, carried out what is now considered seminal work on soil organic matter and carbon sequestration5. This in due course was complemented by work at the Pastoral Research station at Hamilton, Vic.

Meanwhile Colin Donald had joined the Waite and was establishing himself as a great agronomist, carrying out important research and writing very significant reviews. His memorable work on leaf area index ensured that forever there would be special consideration of the plant in grazing management.

His earlier work at Crookwell, NSW, defined the essential composition of soil organic matter – a compound of C, N, S, P, in fixed proportions. This made clear the importance of fertilisers in carbon sequestration in soils – C from the atmosphere via photosynthesis, N from the atmosphere via nodules on the roots of legumes, S mostly from soil, P rarely from the poor soils of Australia, mostly from superphosphate (which also contained S).
Bruce Cockroft, working in northern Victoria, had a big impact on the understanding of soil structure and productivity, especially under irrigation. Reading about the work of Donald and Russell and Cockroft is essential for anyone coming new to the soils field.6

In due course the University of Melbourne School of Agriculture7 strengthened its position in studies of the soil/plant/animal complex. Geoffrey Leeper was a great, well-established power in soil science and in 1956 the dynamic animal scientist Derek Tribe had arrived, so strong integration of soil/plant/animal management was taught. There was heavy student demand for the course – a quota allowed in 70, about half of the applicants.

The graduates – and those in the other states -poured out into the field with basically the same message and clear understanding of the fundamentals. It was especially strong in WA, with people like Underwood and Fitzpatrick. The development of the vast Esperance sand-plain was in progress. If ever there was a convincing argument about not ‘returning to the original landscape’, this was it.8. The leap in productivity was from virtually zero to more than 10 sheep/ha.

At Universities there was a strong group of graduate students researching aspects of The Knowledge. Some of these were staff of state agencies, on leave to take a higher degree. There were many published papers – enlarging The Knowledge. Overall, huge progress was being made in developing the scientific basis for improving land management.

Agriculture departments were well resourced by most state governments through the latter decades of the 20th century. By the end of the 1970s most of these were performing strongly. The Department of Agriculture in Victoria must have surely been one of the most potent forces ever assembled in Australian agricultural history. There were about 1500 scientists staffing about 15 very good research institutes scattered around the state. Much of their work related to improvement in land management.

There had been excellent recruitment, not only local university graduates, but also from abroad. Young Tim Reeves from the UK, stationed at Rutherglen Research Station, provided magnificent leadership9 in increasing productivity and improved land management in northern Victoria using ‘ley’ farming before he moved on to great international work. John Griffiths, also from the UK, was posted to Walpeup in the Mallee, spending most of his career there, becoming Mr Mallee! The Mallee no longer comes to Melbourne when there is a north west wind!

In fact right across Southern Australia there were excellent research stations: Wongan Hills, Katanning, Esperance, Minnipa, Kybybolite, Walpeup, Horsham, Hamilton, Rutherglen, Wagga, Temora.

Cooperation between departments and universities was part of life, in WA and SA a strong CSIRO element as well. Periodically there were especially productive groupings like the Centre for Crop Improvement set up by Professor David Connor with combined resources from The University of Melbourne and the Crops Research Institute at Horsham.

Governments of both persuasions recognised the importance of getting the progressive messages across through such programs as the National Soil Conservation program (1983-1992). This provided for education, training, demonstration, research, publicity, technical assistance and planning. During the 1980s this funding helped demonstrate that effective soil conservation action required the integration of biophysical, economic and social aspects of problems with group learning and public participation.

Landcare became a national program in 1989, leading to the year and decade of Landcare 1990-2000. The state of our resources was evaluated in the National Land and Water Resources Audit. The Natural Heritage Trust was set up by the Australian Government in 1997 to help restore and conserve Australia’s environment and natural resources. A huge number of community groups and organisations have received funding through the Trust for environmental and natural resource management projects. The program ceased on 30 June 2008 and has since been replaced by Caring for Our Country.

A variety of groups such as the Grasslands Society of Southern Australian and the Birchip Cropping group have drawn together the action people – the farmers – and scientists. In our judgment we had the organizational framework in place, there was excellent collaboration, and landscapes are being improved.

There was abundant evidence that degradation was being remedied, fertility of many naturally poor soils was being improved, and that with good farmer adoption productivity was improving. Of course, there were pockets of ignorance and/or resistance, people who wouldn’t listen, or who operated on different paradigms – like ‘natives are always better’, ergo, it is naughty to graze sheep when we could graze kangaroos (could we? imagine drafting!).

And Tim Flannery with his ‘dig out the roses’ on Australia Day 2002 and earlier his book Future Eaters, which in essence is based on the dubious paradigm ‘if the future isn’t the same as the present we have eaten it!’ Jared Diamond, a friend of Flannery, included a chapter on Australia in his book Collapse. He grossly misrepresented the Australian cropping scene, described something close to Version A above – The Miserable state. His chapter was generally refuted eg in a two-part piece in the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science & Technology (AIAST) journal in 2005.10

Despite the long and strong support for the main body of scientists through rural radio and TV programs like Bush Telegraph, Country Breakfast and Landline, parts of the ABC have harboured a jaundiced view – or remained ignorant – of the mainstream progress. They published Peter Andrews’ book Beyond the Brink and featured him in Australian Story, both reviewed for the Journal Agricultural Science in 201011. Some of the rebuttal is covered below.

One of the special triumphs of scientists and farmers is the more efficient use of soil moisture. In refuting Jared Diamond’s work, graphs were included of wheat yield per unit of winter rainfall from 1970 – steadily increasing up to publication in 2005. Following better than expected performance of many farms on the drier edge of the cropping zone, a review was published12 of the ways in which these lands have been ‘greened’ – a process that is the very antithesis of the degradation.

Modus operandi
This body of scientists has developed a well-accepted way of operating. The paradigm is: observe, listen to ideas, distil them, then, essentially, set out comparative experiments to test: analyse statistically to discern real differences, incorporate into models. Encourage adoption by farmers, using media and farmer groups. One of the problems scientists have is that they are really committed to rational analysis and evidence-based decision making and expect others to have the same approach. The rules of engagement with people of other points of view revolve around research and analysis, sharing the written word, reading each other’s evidence. It is a shock to find other people who will not so engage.

Farmers have accepted that their operations must be with precision based on knowing. They analyse, compute, model, decide. They accept continuing change, evolution, never arriving; the adjective often used, conventional, is a misfit. It is accepted that adoption is progressive; there are early adopters and laggards – usually for their own individual reasons, but sometimes because their piece of the landscape is different.

Overall, the system is not friendly to dogmas; there is no acceptance of fixed rule-based solutions that will work forever. Regarding organic, for example, there is much more use of soil conserving and recycling practices, and of legume-based systems outside organic agriculture than within it. This means that mainstream farming has elements of ‘organic’ in so far as they have been tested and proven, as the most efficacious way of achieving aims. Most importantly, it is an open system. New ideas are always welcome for testing.

Wherein lies the truth?
So there are two versions of the history of land management and the situation in Australia today. Wherein lies the truth?

The nomination by the (then) Prime Minister of Major General Michael Jeffrey as national Soils Advocate, makes it imperative that the real history be accepted, and that the future be planned on this reality. In appointing him she declared soils had become ‘top priority ‘of her Government.

His Soils for Life movement is based on version A, the Miserable State. He speaks of 60% of soils being degraded, of continuing bad farm practices, of ignorance of soil water relations.
Perhaps the most fundamental difference between Soils for Life and the long established approach of the main body of scientists and farmers relates to process; the latter see a dynamic system, with a gathering and feeding ideas, encouraging new thinking by farmers/scientific discovery, testing with soundly designed experiments, evaluating and if appropriate encourage adoption – as the essence of sustainable agriculture, rather than any set of ‘conventional’ practices set out for everyone at any one time.

In stark contrast the Soils Advocate writes – ‘we can’t continue to mismanage the landscape as we have done’, ‘change is required now’, ‘the program is expected to take up to 15 years to complete’ and ‘a 15 year program of changing from current practices to leading ones that will be truly sustainable’. This is the antithesis of the body of scientists approach. The adoption of zero-till is a classic example: just an odd farmer testing it 25 years ago, now most of the Australian wheat crop is sown by zero-till! Obviously, at times a specific program of adoption of a particular practice may have a time frame.

Matters for discussion.
Soils for Life have set out a program enlisting about 20 landowners across Australia to assist -described in somewhat flowery language – and using some ‘in’ terms like holistic’…. ‘high performance regenerative landscape and water management facilitated by comprehensive strategic coordination’ -…. ‘by adopting a practice of high performance regenerative landscape management, the natural balance will be restored…… – ‘fighting the trend of continued degradation … with heavy reliance on external inputs.’.

Many of the activities now ‘discovered’ have been key features of mainstream farming for generations eg one Soils for Life person, Haggarty in WA comments ‘it is a combination of a number of things: maintaining ground cover, building soil biology and humus content and careful use of chemicals…maintaining ground cover and a deep root system is the key’. ‘through the practice of specialised monocultures soil has lost its natural inputs in not only carbon, but also nitrogen and phosphate, relying instead on costly artificial fertilisers’.

And more from the Advocate: ‘efficiency gains can come from modifying existing farming and processing practices at little or no cost. These can include the use of more energy efficient engines, the use of compost and precision fertilisers, irrigation monitoring and targeted water delivery, adoption of no-till farming practices, the use of less input-dependent crop varieties and adaptive animal breeds’. (Much of this sounds very much like the agriculture we have practiced, constantly striving for efficiency). And’ restoration of the fundamental systems will regenerate the health and resilience of our landscape so it can bio-sequester and draw down current and past carbon emissions to safe levels into stable sinks; secure and restore the essential rainfall and natural water ecology on which our biosystem, ecology, communities and life fundamentally depends; and regenerate vegetation that supports the biodiversity essential to maintaining the cycle’.

Tested ideas
Many other ideas or practices have been analysed, researched and absorbed – or dispatched. One example is ‘restoration of the natural landscape’. Surely they cannot mean this for much of Southern Australia! Many natural landscapes carried quite sparse vegetation as the soil had been leached of P, and even S, over the millions of years of exposure. There was only a modest legume content to the vegetation, so N was usually low.

In other cases it was a young landscape, Post-Miocene, such as the huge areas of sand-plains – wind-blown parent material – and the Victorian basalts, and soil fertility was low. It was all quite a contrast to the European and North American landscapes with recent young soils mostly formed from richer parent material under glaciers and so protected from leaching.

Rather than aiming to return to what was, we have in our life-time, by what some might see as unnatural processes, generated huge increases in productivity – and improvement in soil health. The key has been bringing back the P from the islands where birds at the top of the sea food chain had deposited it, and applying it to introduced legumes (mainly pastures, but also crops) thus fixing vast amounts of N. Huge increases in herbage growth have been made possible, far more than in the natural landscape. Co-effects have seen increased soil cover, largely eliminating erosion, conservation of water and sequestration of considerable amounts of carbon.

Another major issue is use of chemicals: Soils for Life allege mainstream scientists use chemicals and inorganic fertilisers too readily. In this they lean strongly toward the organic movement. They misunderstand the context of such use. Use in mainstream commercial farming has been based on logical, scientific analysis, not prejudice.

So much of the material used in organics is unknown in content of critical nutrients. Further, the logistics are usually bad – there could never be enough organic nutrients for broad areas of commercial farming and the cost in money and energy would be horrendous if there were. Concentrated inorganic compounds will remain the nutrients for the bulk of farming. It has been implicit in the general evolving system that chemicals must be used sparingly and precisely. It must be understood that farmers use them because they are the most efficacious way to treat large areas of crops and achieve the higher yields needed to feed the world, minimising energy inputs and transport costs.

Supply of organic materials of appropriate composition is always a problem except around intensive animal raising and/or winter keep as in Europe. From time to time the sums must be done again, but current international data suggests that world wide use of organic systems might feed about 3-4 billion people with the present land base.

Critical evaluation
Much material from Soils for Life underlines the need for testing with tight controls: one property uses specially formulated humus compost claiming improved wool quality and higher lambing %, though no comparative figures are given. One wonders whether part of the effect was from lower carrying capacity – very common with organics.

In the same vein the Soils Advocate suggests avoiding monocultures by planting other things in the crops. This has been researched and is clearly understood. The only documented examples of gain from intercrops are found in cereal/legume mixtures grown at low fertility and consequent low overall yield despite the N contribution from the legume component. Yield of main crops can easily be reduced. Apart from under-sowing very low rates of, say, clover for the later pasture, it is not practicable.

Much is made of rotational grazing (sometimes dressed up with the extra word holistic] and the assertion that farmers have considered the needs of the animal and ignored the plant. Rotational grazing is advocated as the answer in every situation and its development attributed to Alan Savory from East Africa.

Most scientists know that he didn’t invent it – and his version is much cruder than the variants used here. In fact various paddock rotations and set-stocking have been compared in sets of grazing plots at various times and places in Australia over the last 50 years or so. Regarding lack of considering the plant, teaching and practice has included consideration of ground cover, growth stages and leaf area (see above, Colin Donald’s work on leaf area index, taught to generations of students).

The emphasis has been on allowing pasture species to produce maximum herbage, flower, set seed and regenerate – essential parts of these experiments. Then economists have done their bit and the higher costs of subdivision and water points have been factored in to calculations of gross margins, which are not always greater with rotational practices.

In fact, part of the historic success has been the gathering and handling of ideas coming from anywhere including those under the Soils for Life banner. They are part of the normal chatter of rural life, providing ideas to be picked up, developed, set in context and become part of research projects, tested.

These examples illustrate the reason that Soils for Life disturbs mainstream practitioners. And then, to cap it all the Soils Advocate is currently rewriting the textbook! The teaching base behind the demonstration properties will be turned into learning packages to be delivered by existing educational institutions, “but they must teach the true way,” he says.

The way forward
If the appointment of an Advocate for Soils – or for Plants or for Animals or for Crops, for that matter, is to have any real value it is imperative that there be some clearer understanding between the established – and in this case proudly successful – groups. A good starting point would be recognition that Version B is a historical record of land management that can be substantiated, that we have developed some and regenerated other lands, largely eliminated soil erosion, greatly increased water holding capacity and set farmers on a path of continuing fertility improvement.

Our farmers long ago ceased using European methods and now farm the Australian way. These methods have been widely promoted by consultants and other scientists virtually throughout the developed world  – and in some developing countries for decades. We have made our contribution to world food production and are well placed to go on doing so.

We can share with Soils for Life our comprehensive understanding of soil carbon sequestration and carbon farming, alarmed that they have cited a target of 5% of soil organic matter. A bit above 2% is a realistic value for much of our farmland and that this will often mandate the addition of substantial amounts of N, P and S fertilisers, normally in mineral form.

We can also share with Soils for Life the view that the nation must be ever vigilant in managing its soils resources, that agricultural research must not be starved of resources, that there must not be division and duplication of effort.

Where such knowledge and activity is concerned, process and integrity matter more than eminence. Provided his argument is sound and substantiated the lowliest graduate student can publish in the most prestigious journal, challenging the most senior professor. And in this case, writing in the Journal of our profession, if we ignore public statements that reflect badly on many members of our profession, we betray the colleagues of our past.

For this reason we request acknowledgment that the message that agricultural scientists have promoted for decades, the core of the courses in land management that we have taught, is acceptable, and a recognition of the work of the agricultural science/natural resource management profession. Ensuring proper engagement, integrating all of the activities and fairly benefiting from having a Soils Advocate who can whisper in the ear of the Prime Minister will be a challenging task.


1 See David F Smith, Green Myths about Australian Farming, Quadrant August 2009
2 For instance I had a farm background and was from the district where sub clover had been first identified, molybdenum deficiency defined, and P readily adopted. I had worked on seed harvesting, and a family member had previously attended Roseworthy.
3 This was to stand me in good stead for my first graduate appointment on Eyre Peninsula.
4I went to Eyre Peninsula to teach agriculture in the school. EP is an interesting area with considerable low rainfall country and alkaline soils – but very positive farmers. They avidly took u the legumes plus P approach. I was to take a Masters degree in the plant ecology and land-use of the area.
5 John Russell, Soil fertility changes in long term plots at Kybybolite SA Aust J Agric Res Vol 11 1960
6 Aware of Michael Jeffery’s interest in soils in 2010 I drew his attention to these works. Also my book Natural Gain (NSW Press, 2000).
7Dr Jack Wilson and I joined their team in 1958.
81 especially appreciated this, as my family’s farming fortunes had shifted to Esperance in the 1950s. Through this I came to know Bill Crabtree, later ‘no-till Bill’ very well. He lived and worked at Esperance.
9 Tim had visited me some years before at the university. In November 1979 my first executive act as Director General was to make Rutherglen Research Station independent with Tim as Director.
10 David F Smith, Jared Diamond in Collapse, A two part rebuttal in the Journal of Agricultural Science, May and Sept 2005. Several US universities have used the rebuttal and a copy of it was placed with Jared Diamond’s work in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.
11David F. Smith review of Peter Andrews book ‘Back from the Brink’ and the ABC TV programs on Australian Story, in Journal of Agricultural Science 2010.
12David F. Smith, ‘Greening the Desert Boundary’ Quadrant July 2011.

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