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  • Rob Banks SoilFutures

Introduction and soils for new industries

Brief articles. Introduction and New Enterprise development

1. Soils are the basis of our industry

Understanding soil is a bit like understanding spaghetti! Soil is a complex and changeable beast that with a wide range of properties, all of which impact on our production systems. Soil forms the basis of our production systems world wide. With modern thinking, a lot of government approach to the rural landscape is focused on water and vegetation management which many seem to think includes soil management. This is not necessarily the case.

A lot of people in rural enterprise do not place enough emphasis on their main resource, their soils. A lot of people on the land concentrate on the products that come out of their enterprise, such as meat, wool, grains or fruit and the quality of their produce, and rightly so because this is the end product of hard work and what pays their way in life. Many managers are halfway to better soil management, by concentrating on aspects of their soil fertility, or erosion and groundcover management in cropping systems, however, many of these activities can tend to treat the soil as a static growth medium, a hydroponic system which just happens to be in the ground. Many of them don’t maintain the soil resource or build the soil into something better.

An old and very experienced soil conservationist once said to me:

If you stuff your stock, you can sell them and start again. If you stuff the vegetation, you can re-sow/re-plant, etc. If you stuff up your soft and cuddlies, you can import them in from some where else [providing that they are not already extinct]. If you stuff your water, you can clean it up, filter it or etc. But if you stuff up your soil, it is stuffed for a long, long time: and you have probably stuffed up every thing else as well.

This saying has stuck in my mind ever since. Australian soils have mostly taken hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of years to form and with few exceptions are either not forming any more, or are forming so slowly, that it is hard to grasp. Our soil, more than anything underpins our existence in the northwest, as with everywhere else.

Through the next few articles, we will have a look at some aspects of soils and their management in northern NSW and consider how things can be done better. We will examine the traps and pitfalls of different approaches to land management and how we can improve our soil management by matching our management to the soil in such a way as to improve productivity as well as improving our soil. I have been fortunate enough to visit many of the places in our region where best practice soil management is happening with extraordinary results. There are lessons we can all learn from the best managers and apply, in our own way and according to our resources in our own soil and management systems.

 

2. New Enterprise – Getting the right soil for the job is critical – an example from Citrus

Much of the time these days, farming and grazing is as much about innovation as crop and stock management. We see this quite often with the development of new enterprise such as the olive industry, or the budding citrus industry. It is wonderful to see people thinking about what they can do to diversify their current enterprise, or to change enterprise successfully because of water cuts or market changes. A word of caution though, many people tend to leap into new enterprise without considering their soil resource and its ability to support a new production system.

Soils can be manipulated considerably for new enterprise, however there are limits to how much you can do to a soil to make it suitable for a new crop type. People considering going into citrus from irrigated farming for example are most exposed to risk of failure in this region because of inappropriate soil characteristics. Beware of the trap of thinking that you can just plant and water and fertilise the trees and they will grow. Changing to citrus requires careful consideration of soil qualities that are easily overlooked if you are used to growing conventional irrigated crops in NW NSW.

Among many other soil characteristics citrus trees require a waterlogging free environment, and a root zone which is not highly alkaline, and does not have free lime present. Many of the heavy clay soils in irrigation systems in NW NSW and southern Queensland have high pH (are alkaline), and have an abundance of free lime. Additionally, a lot of the available irrigation waters are highly alkaline which may result in a long term increase in pH.

There are degrees of suitability of soil for citrus production vary according to relative degrees of these potential soil and water characteristics. Soils where the subsoil and has lime at 50 cm but the materials above are lime free and relatively neutral can be mounded to create a root zone free of lime. Water that is slightly alkaline can be treated with acid to lower the pH and turn the dissolved calcium rich material into gypsum instead of lime, which will be beneficial for citrus production.

The word of caution is, as usual, look before you leap. If you are considering changing enterprise to citrus or some other new enterprise, consider what soil resources you may have to support this enterprise. You may find that your soils and existing infrastructure will support your new enterprise, or you may have to make drastic changes because of soil limitations. It may even be that there is no area on your property where your new venture can be carried out due to the soil properties.

Since this article was originally prepared a decade ago, I have done soil surveys for citrus, pawlonia plantations, pecans, oil mallee plantations, hemp and truffles. The work is always interesting and often a client has not only purchased a site, they have already tried to grow their favoured product and failed before getting help. The costs of doing it this way are astronomical. Even hemp, which is relatively easy to grow, has such high irrigation water requirements to crop in drier areas relative to other crops that the numbers do not stack up. You need to consider climate and soil first. It may well be possible to grow a crop on the moon if you have a limitless budget, but is it worth it when you can grow that crop next door?

The bottom line is that if you are prepared to invest a lot of money in a new enterprise, it is worthwhile to invest in a soil survey to determine how suitable your land is and what part of your land it should go on. With proper planning and preparedness, you will be able to make a sound investment which will hopefully deliver long term results for your business.

 

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