The wheels are in motion for a national framework that would support measuring, monitoring, mapping, reporting and sharing soil information to inform best practice management, decision-making and future investment.
The National Soil Action Plan 2023 to 2028 was endorsed by the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Senator Murray Watt with the support of all states and territories on November 28.
The action plan is the first priority under the National Soil Strategy 2021 to 2041, released in 2021, which acknowledges the importance of soil and the need for a national approach to protecting, managing and improving this vital resource.
The plan aims to develop a nationally consistent governance framework for soil information to ensure soil information is collected and managed to agreed standards.
Armidale-based Farmlab founder and CEO Sam Duncan is at the coalface of soil health issues.
He said a national framework would give farmers assurance on the value of the data they are already collecting.
"Many clients come to us with 20 years of soil data and aren't sure what to do with it," Mr Duncan said.
"There have been challenges around the various standards to which the information is collected. It is very hard to ascertain, in particular, changes over time because of how you have measured your soil in the past.
"It is then hard to identify what practices the farmer has implemented that they can put their hand on their heart and say, 'this had a positive effect on my soil health or soil carbon', or even a production benefit when it comes to soil management because we just don't have these standards in place."
Mr Duncan said he was excited about the implementation of a nationally agreed framework.
"We see a lot of soil data across the industry, and a lot of it is not fantastic - particularly the agronomic data coming out about our soils," he said.
"You can't grow crops when your topsoil is gone.
"We saw the dust storms a few years ago with the drought, and we are seeing with the flooding, huge amounts of topsoil being washed out, and that is having a really detrimental effect on the longevity of our soil fertility coupled with climate change."
The team at Farmlab has been working alongside the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO on the digital product, 'My Climate View', which is designed to help farmers make informed decisions to build climate resilience for decades into the future.
"We look at our clients' soil and carbon levels and their change in rainfall over the next 30, 40 or 50 years," Mr Duncan said.
"What we are finding, particularly in cropping land that is already marginal, the forecast from the Bureau is that these marginal cropping areas will experience a substantial drop in rainfall.
"It may go from 320 millimetres down to 250mm in the next 50 years, so cropping is no longer an option for those farmers.
"How do you mitigate against this? Well, some areas of your farm will still be useful for cropping, but it's about building resilience in the soil now for when this does occur."
While average rainfall may be lower in the future, Mr Duncan said we will still see some years of extraordinarily high and substantially low rainfall.
"Coming back to soil fertility and the ability to manage soil carbon in particular, which is the proxy for soil health, being able to sustain that through good management practices is really going to help farmers longer-term, and Australia economically to sure up against the risks we face with climate change and lower rainfall," he said.
"If our soil can store more rain and water in the drier years, we will have a better time during those years, at least when it comes to yields."
Mr Duncan said setting up the framework now, rather than later, was crucial.
"The work being done through CSIRO and the Bureau is preparing us, but this is another thing we need to get on top of to be prepared for the issues we face with the changing climate," he said.
"When it comes to the action plan, one of the major things we need to help educate and help farmers understand what they can do to affect change on their land.
"Farmers ask if there is anything they can do anything when it comes to soil carbon; this project is helping farmers answer that question.
"There are normally at least 10 things you can do to affect carbon positively; it's just knowing which ones are right for your operation."