Military method in soil fight

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Paul MurrayThe West Australian
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Anyone who has been to Wiluna knows the flat desert landscape is covered in some of the leanest and oldest soils on the planet.

From that harsh environment in 1937 sprang former WA governor and governor-general Major-General Michael Jeffery, who within sight of his 80th birthday is three years into a battle to make Australians think differently about soil.

Maj-Gen. Jeffery was back in WA last week drumming up support for farmers who are developing new methods of growing feed and crops and regenerating often degraded land.

In 2012, Julia Gillard appointed him as Australia's first Advocate for Soils and he's now trying to interest the third Prime Minister in forming national policies from a scattergun approach to the issue.

"Of the 39 soil types found in Australia, only four now have the adequate levels of carbon needed to hold water and support microbiological and fungal action in the soil," Maj-Gen. Jeffery said.

"In respect to water use, 50 per cent of our annual rainfall needlessly evaporates because it cannot penetrate the soil. This evaporation totals 25 times the quantity of water in all our dams and five times the quantity in all our rivers."

With military precision, Maj-Gen. Jeffery has broken down the fight into a series of strategic operations being run by a non-government, not-for-profit registered environmental organisation called Soils for Life.

His two targets are Fixing the Paddock, which harnesses the work of innovative farmers, and Fixing the Policy, which involves lobbying politicians to support his work.

Last week he was hosting State bureaucrats and scientists on a trip to Ian and Dianne Haggerty's farm at Wyalkatchem in the central Wheatbelt, which has become one of Soil for Life's pin-ups.

It is 20 years since the Haggertys decided to go farming, bought the property and, immediately confronted with a drying climate, set about finding ways to retain moisture in their soils.

Their wheat and sheep operation uses a web of practices built around no-till land management, worm-based biological fertilisers, closely monitored paddock rotations, older grain varieties and planting saltbush and acacia on saline areas to set up a holistic farming system.

In his room at the Weld Club, a stone's throw from his old digs at Government House, Maj-Gen. Jeffery peels back the layers of the problems farmers face until he gets to the corporate world. "We as consumers have to realise that farmers are often not getting a fair price for what they grow," he said.

"That leads them to push their land too hard.

"The supermarket chains have to look at this and whether they are also driving farmers too hard.

"We have developed a system of business that only looks at this year's bottom line. Many problems are coming to a head because there is not enough strategic thinking in government or private enterprise."

Maj-Gen. Jeffery wants every primary and secondary school in Australia to have a fully-operational market garden as a way of teaching children how things grow and how the soil works.

"How do we reconnect urban Australians to our farming roots, " he said.

"We won't fix this problem unless people in the cities can understand it and what it means to them."

He then flicked to a global perspective, drawing on work done by the Perth-based research institute he started in 2000 after finishing his term as WA governor, Future Directions International, which has been supported by local titans like Andrew Forrest, Kerry Stokes and the McCusker family.

"The big food bowls of the world are under great stress," he said.

"California has about 1 1/2 years of water left in its aquifers.

"China's agricultural land is degraded, lots of the soils are poisoned, the rivers are in poor shape and too many dams are stopping flows. This is also true in Africa and the Middle East.

"We can't be the world's food bowl as some people say because we just don't have the ability to produce enough.

"But we can export our knowledge if we get the things right that we are investigating now. We have 21 case studies under way now and we are building to 100, hopefully with the involvement of the CSIRO.

"And then we need long-term research data over 20 to 100 years so we can understand how our landscape works and fix it."

More information at www.soilsforlife.org.au .

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