World Soil Day, (5th December) is the one day in the year that the United Nations asks us all to think about the role of soil in our daily lives. Farmers already know the central importance of the soil to their business and its future. However, current crop production levels are often maintained by increased inputs, such as fertilisers, pesticides and technology which can mask losses in production due to reduced soil quality.
A new project, SoilCare, is investigating ways in which soil quality can be improved through cropping systems and techniques, benefiting both the profitability of farms and the environment. Such soil improvement is necessary to break the negative spiral of soil degradation, increased inputs, increased costs and damage to the environment.
The project brings scientists from 16 countries across Europe together to work on trial plots where cropping systems will be tested to find out how improving the soil can boost and sustain productivity. Working on 16 trials across Europe that represent not only different climatic conditions but soil types and crop types, the project is looking to solutions that can be easily adopted by farmers. All of the test sites have been chosen because they have access to significant bodies of historical experimental data which can supplement the trial data. This approach, together with consulting stakeholders throughout, ensures that any promising systems or techniques can be quickly made available to the farming community.
Dr Julie Ingram, from the Countryside and Community Research Institute at the University of Gloucestershire, said,
"One of the products of this project will be an interactive tool to allow decision-makers to select cropping systems that will benefit the soil, and so guard one of our most valuable assets. In the past, the scientific community assumed that just doing the research was enough. Through SoilCare we are working with farmers, but also leading machinery manufacturers and policy-makers to make sure they are aware of the findings. One of our most important goals is to ensure that farmers and the agricultural industry know about the results of these trials, so there can be a shift to soil improving cropping systems across Europe."
Project co-ordinator Dr Hessel based at Wageningen Environmental Research said;
"Farmers have known for years that the secret to their success lies in the soil, and we as scientists are actively working with them to find answers that both benefit the soil but also improve profitability. Through this project, we can consider problems such as compaction, weed management, water availability on sites that we have decades of data about. As we have a range of locations, we can consider a diversity of crops such as olives in warm, dry areas through to rye in colder climes as well as pulses and oilseeds. "