A conference organised  by Wheatbelt Natural Resource Management  in York last week promoted practices to help farmers maintain a productive and environmentally sustainable agricultural industry.

Held on March 26 and 27 in the town hall and attended by 200 people, it was entitled, Talkin' Soil Health, and brought together some of Australia's most notable soil scientists and others involved in land management.

Wheatbelt NRM chairman, Jim Sullivan , said the conference was an opportunity for the group to show how it was addressing a diverse range of natural resource issues to make rural communities more sustainable. It hoped to have 3,500 people or 10% of the population in the Wheatbelt actively engaged in improving the environment by 2015, he said.

"The Wheatbelt NRM is involved in projects including protection of woodlands and their fauna and flora, water quality, river management, soil erosion, salt land reclamation, tree planting as well as a range of related products and conservation issues," Mr Sullivan said.

The conference was opened by former WA governor and governor general, Major General (retired) Michael Jeffrey, who was recently appointed by the Prime Minister as Advocate for Soil Health. He said that the fragile soils in WA needed special attention. An ever increasing demand for food worldwide meant it was vital for farmers to do all they could to keep their soil healthy.

There was a need to produce 70% more food by 2050 while the availability of arable land was decreasing by 1% a year. "Supplies of resources including fertilizers and water would be critically short. "Soil, water and vegetation were strategic assets in Australia and must be managed in an integrated way," he said.

Furthermore, city people needed to be educated about the importance of sustainable development. Australia should also encourage other countries to adopt sustainable methods of farming by sharing its scientific knowledge and experience, he added.

Federal Minister for Agriculture, Senator Joe Ludwig, presented a short address at the conference. The federal government recognized the importance of improving soil productivity. "There were rewards by way of improved production for those who practised sustainable farming," he said.

Among the speakers at the conference were Dr Christine Jones  founder of Amazing Carbon, who spoke on the process of carbon flow and nitrogen fixation and its importance in the soil building processes. Professor Andrew Whiteley from UWA  spoke on DNA signature work related to soil microbes and how it was being used to generate data on types and levels of key microbes in soil. Executive  director of the WA No Till Farmers Association, Dr David Minkey, talked about the use of knife points or zero tillage machines by WA farmers as well as possible threats to conservation agriculture.

Other speakers were Dr Hayley Norman from the CSIRO on the way saltbush could improve the profitability of livestock systems and environmental outcomes; assistant research professor at UWA, Dr Geoff Woodall, on using agroforesty to protect and enhance wheatbelt soils and senior lecturer at Curtin University, Dr Sarita Bennet, on the benefits for sustainability of growing perennials.

During the conference participants also viewed a number of DVD's showing case studies where  innovative approaches to sustainable farming were being implemented in the Wheatbelt. Day two of the conference included a number of practical workshops and a field trip to the WANTFA trial site at WA College of Agriculture - Cunderdin.

Wheatbelt Natural Resource Management is based in Northam. Its web address is and telephone 9670 3100.

Lindsay McNeill

Above: The Prime Minister's Advocate for Soil Health, Major General (retired), Michael Jeffery presenting his opening address to the soils conference in York.
Below:  Dr Christine Jones  addressing the conference on the process of carbon flow and nitrogen fixation and its importance in the soil. She is accompanied on the stage by (L-R) NRM chairman, Jim Sullivan, Major General Jeffery and Boyd Kickett who gave the welcome to country.