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Northern rivers Soil Health Card: A monitoring tool for farmers developed by farmers

Abigail Jenkins

NSW DPI Wollongbar Agricultural Inst., Bruxner Hwy Wollongbar NSW 2477 Email


In 2002 a group of NSW farmers expressed a need for a soil health monitoring tool. They developed the northern rivers Soil Health Card (SHC), following two facilitated workshops, based on a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) format and a focused TAFE course was run. Facilitated workshops were used to assist the group in identifying and describing meaningful measures of their soil health, rather than measures of soil productivity. A major value of the exercise was the farmer involvement that allowed the card to be customized to fit the needs of the individual(s) using it.

In choosing meaningful indicators, the group was required to consider matters such as sensitivity to change, ease of execution, and ease of interpretation. The group also used the workshop time to decide on the levels they would set as good, bad and moderate for interpretation of each indicator. A SHC serves multiple roles. It is a user-friendly self assessment tool and also promotes mutually beneficial dialogue among farmers and technical specialists. In the initial stages of development it can function as an awareness raising tool but later it can serve to focus group discussion on soil issues and encourage long term monitoring and dialogue about soils and the relationship between management and soil health.

Three key learnings: (1) Active participation through the workshops was a vital ingredient, for ensuring ownership of final product, and hence greater use of the tool. (2) In most cases the SHC served to strengthen co-learning, partnerships and communication between farmers, facilitators and specialists. (3) Participatory learning combines scientific knowledge, life-long field experience and a range of philosophical approaches.


Dialogue, farmer participation, self-assessment, monitoring


Generally information on soils has been seen by farmers as decidedly ‘unsexy’, boring and overly technical. This widely held view may have greatly hampered efforts to extend soil information and enable both land managers and extension agents to improve soil management. Many farmers are interested in their soils and realize its importance in their enterprise, but they may have not been able to access information that seems useful or logical. Lory de Bruyn and Abbey make this observation in their 2003 paper (p 287) addressing farmers’ soil sense. They postulate that part of the reason soil monitoring packages have not gained acceptance by farmers and are not widely used may be “explained by “….disregard of local knowledge and design failure rather than adoption failure by recalcitrant end users”.

The aim of this paper is to show how a group of farmers in the Northern Rivers Region of the NSW north coast developed their own soil health monitoring tool. Also mentioned are the benefits of the whole process beyond the card itself and reasons that certain aspects did or did not work. While many people will be interested in the content of such a tool, it can be argued that the process of designing the tool is just as important and interesting. It is this process, I believe, that makes the Northern Rivers SHC an effective extension tool. It is the farmer participation which has facilitated engagement and increased awareness of soil health issues and enabled farmers to self diagnose and solve their own problems (as described by Lobry de Bruyn and Abbey, 2003).

Relevance of information is one of the most important factors when designing any extension program. Nowak and Leopold cited in Doran and Safley (1997 pp22) say “practical tools for soil quality and health assessment by producers must aid their comprehension of the concept of soil health and be useful to them within the context of their normal work.”

Collecting information is not a new activity for farmers as most already collate information about things such as crop yields and rainfall. Thus it makes sense to use a course of action that will garner this skill and set down some information for them to use the information they gather in their decision making.

It is widely acknowledged that top down ‘technology transfer’ models of extension are limited in their capacity to facilitate a change in attitude, let alone practice. A process of engaging farmers that prompts them to become their own researchers, observers and decisions makers (Roling 1995) is far more beneficial. That is, an approach that promotes their own discovery is more likely to encourage farmers to become further interested in their soil and thus actively manage it in a more sustainable way. A means is needed that does not attempt to describe problems and solutions for farmers but enables them to observe things themselves so they can define their own problems and develop their own solutions (Roling 1995).

A SHC, put simply, is a practical tool that can enable anyone interested in their soil to monitor soil health. The idea was developed by the Natural Resources Conservation Service: Soil quality institute of the USDA (United States Dept. Agriculture), which defines it as a simple rating system that people can use to evaluate and monitor soil health or compare practice effects on soil health. Essentially it is a collection of a few (usually around 10) easy tests to monitor the health of soil. The tests are carried out every 6 to 12 months.

A SHC and the tests that appear on it are developed by a specific group of users (i.e. mainly farmers). In this way each card is customized to fit the needs of the individual(s) using it and ownership of the tool encourages greater use. This approach was employed in the hope that the number of farmers actively managing their soil in the region would increase, with farmers’ understanding of the effects of their management on soil health. Doran and Safley (1997, pp21), in discussing soil health, state that “facilitating producer participation …is essential to the development of practical production systems and assessment approaches which address the needs of both producers and society in general.”

The Northern rivers SHC exercise had two objectives:

1. To develop a tool that was useful for the farmers involved and to promote it to other farmers in the area.

2. To use a farmer driven participatory process as a means to promote use of the tool on farms.

Soil health monitoring has also been claimed to serve multiple roles. Doran and Safley (1997 pp20) note that “there is some evidence that a concern for soil health may lead land stewards to production practices that indeed improve soil characteristics”.


A SHC is developed through a series of facilitated workshops based on a format developed by the USDA. Available through the website (USDA 2005).

The Northern rivers SHC was developed by a group of primary producers representing a range of industries and one urban gardener. The group attended a TAFE (Technical and Further Education) course designed specifically for them and took part in two facilitated workshops, one before and one after the soils course. The steps followed were;

  • Workshop 1. To define soil health
  • Soils course (TAFE) (one half day per week for 9 weeks)
  • Workshop 2. To select soil health indicators and design layout for the card
  • Use and refinement of SHC in field.

The workshops are a vital part of the process to assist the group in thinking about meaningful measures of Soil Health, rather than measures of soil productivity. In choosing meaningful indicators, issues such as sensitivity to changes of management, ease of execution, ease of interpretation and validity - all need to be considered. The group also uses the workshop time to decide on the levels they would set as ‘bad’ ‘moderate’ and ‘good’ for interpretation of each indicator. In soliciting feedback for this paper one participant noted “some of these levels were set by the tests we borrowed/adapted. Other levels were set by people with appropriate expertise…….. we did not set the levels without expert opinion.” As the activities of the group had put participants in contact with people and information that they trusted, this was an easy task and not one that inhibited the development of the Soil Health Cards.

Workshop 1 was used to define a SHC and address how it is complementary to other soil tests, such as laboratory chemical tests, rather than exclusive. Most importantly it stressed the importance of farmers driving the process. Three open ended questions were posed to encourage participants to think about soil health and how measuring it would be of use for their particular needs. It was emphasised that they were setting out to develop something that was useful and valid in terms of a management tool particularly for them. The three questions posed were:

How would you describe soil health?

What are you hoping soil health measures would tell you?

How would you measure it?

The second question was an important one to address before any debate on different indicators was entered into. Thinking about ‘why’ they want to measure lead the group to choose indicators that were most suitable for them and related to the issue of meaningful indicators mentioned previously. Indicators used to measure differences over time may be different to those used for management effects, or comparing paddocks or making comparisons between farmed and undisturbed soils.

In the session ‘How would you measure it?’ a brainstorm about the question was followed by an exercise in which soil samples were used. This helped to reinforce the points that indicators need to be valid, meaningful and sufficiently sensitive to changes. The group was asked to assess how the indicators (collected in the brainstorm) ‘worked’ on various soil samples. How would the indicators chosen be affected by things such as different management techniques, would they be sensitive enough (or too sensitive) from year to year or even season to season? That is, would it be easy to tell if the change in the indicators chosen was due to management or other larger factors, such as climate or seasonality?

Finally the group was asked to note down their three most relevant soil health indicators and the terms used to describe them - keeping in mind all that they had addressed in the workshop. Participants were asked to keep these with them throughout the TAFE course they attended. As new information was presented, they were asked to keep asking themselves the questions from the workshop in order to refine their choice if needed. This question then formed the basis for the second workshop following the TAFE course.

Workshop 2 followed the TAFE Course and involved selecting the indicators and the layout of the SHC. Again participants were asked a series of open ended questions. Firstly the question, “What are the three indicators you think are most important for a Soil Health Card?” (asked at the end of Workshop 1) was repeated. Each person put their three choices on three separate ‘post-it’ notes and stuck them on the wall. Once everyone had finished all the contributions were read out to the group. The group was asked to lump similar indicators together, and then observations were made about why indicators were lumped (or kept separate).

Following this, the group was asked to vote on the three best indicators for their situation. This presents the opportunity to discuss what makes a good indicator. Aspects such as simplicity, expense, reliability, ease of interpretation and accuracy were all dealt with.

After voting it was useful to discuss various pieces of literature about the basic indicators needed to determine soil health, although it is important to stress that there is no right or wrong answer. In light of this discussion the group may want to vote again.

Finally the question “What would a Soil Health Card look like?” was asked. This gave people the opportunity to think about how the information is collated and presented for their further use. Examples of other Soil Heath Cards and other data collection forms were used as examples. The group was split into two smaller groups, and each given a different task. One task was to determine what the card physically looked like, and the other was to discuss the pros and cons of a scoring system in general and then decide on what system their card would employ.

Figure 1: Northern Rivers Soil Health Card (SHC)

How long does it take?

Following the model outlined above it took roughly 12 weeks to produce a first draft of a local SHC (as shown in figure 1). The local TAFE (Technical and Further Education) course lasted 9 weeks and there was a workshop either side of that. In addition to this there were ongoing meetings with the group after the card had been in use, to help iron-out problems and further refine the card. It is an iterative process, and as the final card design is not fixed, it may be changed later to suit circumstances; this should encourage and increase its use in the field. It is worthwhile noting that many in the northern rivers group felt the 9 weeks at TAFE was probably too short for all that had to be covered and that 18 weeks would be a better time frame.

Is a concurrent soils course necessary?

Obviously not everyone has access to a resource like TAFE, that is, an institution of further technical education for adults. The USDA method makes no mention of including this type of learning activity alongside the development of a SHC. However the interest indicated by participation provides a great opportunity to make information available where the group desires. It provides the option of introducing different soil health technics and terminology, (scientific, farmer driven or other) in a relaxed environment, i.e. field day, workshop, formal classroom. In supplying these tools it is hoped that the group is better able to make informed decisions about what constitutes a usable SHC for them. As the saying goes ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’.

Use of the SCH

The group also devised a monitoring methodology as part of the design process. The SHC was designed to be used on a regular basis. As with many other soil testing procedures, testing should be carried out at the same time each year in the same place and at a number of different sites on a property. If time is a constraint then two sites, one ‘good’ and one ‘poor’ can be tested and compared. As time goes on users may want to broaden the number of sites being monitored.

Discussion and Conclusions on the Value of the SHC

A SHC serves multiple roles. The outcomes of the facilitated workshops include a user friendly, ‘do-it-yourself’ tool to assess soil health, as well as mutually beneficial dialogue among farmers and technical specialists (including specialists publications from USDA soil quality website). Each individual test on the SHC will have its own method to be followed. In the case of the Northern Rivers SHC, this information is to be included in the SHC folder.

It has been shown in the Northern Rivers and elsewhere that a SHC can be used effectively to:

  • Raise awareness of soil health, and what soil health really means
  • Foster discussion re soils
  • Foster interest in soils issue
  • Encourage documentation of observations
  • Provide a holistic understanding of soil health, as opposed to standard chemical analysis
  • Introduce landholders to documentation of indicators and interpretation for management decisions

In the initial stages of development the SHC can function very well as an awareness raising tool but as time goes on it can become the tool that focuses group discussion on longer term soils issues and promotes long term monitoring of soil health. This provides a useful way to encourage its use in monitoring the effect of management on soil health. Wander and Drinkwater (2000 pp66) also point out that “information exchanged informally with farmers during the development and testing for farmer-oriented assessment tools…revealed more about the causes of soil degradation than the tools themselves”.

From an extension officer’s point of view, test results can also be used as the basis for discussion about management changes with landholders and agricultural advisers.

The development of the Northern River SHC was a learning process for all participants. The co-learning and dialogue that it fostered has allowed all those involved to “share a discourses about soil health issues, and thus relieve the pressure upon soil science alone to solve all soil health problems” (Lobry de Bruyn and Abbey 2003 pp288)

Active participation, which is a vital ingredient of the SHC card development process, generally means greater ownership of final the product which is likely to translate into greater usage of the tool. The SHC exercise confirmed the view of Green et al (1993 p 1) who points out that finding ways to adapt practice, or to develop the potential for people to modify objectives to better reflect the management potential of their resources is “especially high when participants and resource management experts are engaged in long term dialogue rather than a one-time teaching/learning encounter”. The card has also been touted at various venues by all those involved. A local farmer introduced it at a Land and Water Australia healthy soils meeting recently, and it has been showcased at the regional rural producers meeting. Articles about the card have appeared in local newspapers and state-wide agriculture publications. Members who are also involved in local farmers’ markets have also showcased it at this venue. One committed member has even garnered support from CSIRO researchers in evaluating and assessing the tests chosen.

In the Northern Rivers region many of the members of the original SHC group have gone onto to set up a special interest landcare group called Soilcare. While publicity in the print media has generated interest from other catchments and farmer groups in developing their own card, still, other groups and or extension agents have adopted the Northern Rivers card and altered it for their needs. Notwithstanding this it is interesting to note that some extension agents seem to want to adopt the NRSHC in total and seem to miss the important point that the time and effort spent developing the card is 50% of its value. Perhaps this is an issue of time constraints rather than anything else.

It could be argued that the strength of the card is not so much in its technical content as there is nothing ground breaking in the tests included but rather the engagement of end-users in its development. Without this activity the end product is simply another extension tool/resources imposed from elsewhere. The time taken to develop the card has allowed a relationship to develop between the users and extension agents which is beneficial to both sides. As Leibig and Doran (1999 pp20) note “beginning on farm evaluations of soil quality by talking with farmers first is not only resource-efficient, but shows farmers that their input is respected and valued.” The importance of the card development process cannot be stressed enough.

It is also important to note that the aim of data gathering here was to aid decision makers ‘on farm’ not to gather data for government or research. Wander and Drinkwater (2000 pp69) acknowledge the importance of this point, saying the data to be collected must be “relevant to producers priorities”. However they also acknowledge that difficulties may arise when short term economic imperatives of some producers does not translate into long term sustainability of the soil resource. In this case soil quality becomes a proxy for soil productivity. An issue recognised by most researchers of soil quality/health. Romig et al (1995 pp229) say “soil quality as measured by productivity is now considered inadequate for what it does not and cannot reveal”. This is why it is so essential to ask participants to define soil health in the broadest possible way during the first workshop in Soil Health Card development.

Contrary to others findings that showed successful soil monitoring involved the use of farmers own qualitative methods and terminology(Lobry de Bryun and Abbey 2003, Romig et al 1996) members of the NR SHC group were eager to use established soil testing procedures and terminology and at pains to point this out as stated earlier. The group also discussed totalling soil scores to a get one final score as some research has suggested (Romig et al 1995). However they felt that this would detract from the diagnostic function of the SHC. A final score does not indicate exactly where your soil is lagging or excelling and thus is fairly meaningless from a management point of view.

In describing the process and its benefits it is just as important to discuss what could have been done better and the hurdles encountered in the way, as one participant noted “even the zeros are important”. Some things are beyond an individuals control while others are more easily dealt with if you can be flexible. The drought that we encountered when creating the card meant there was much less monitoring than anticipated because soil moisture content was insufficient and thus SHC group meetings were less frequent. Whilst weather conditions themselves are beyond anyones control it meant it was more difficult to maintain the groups’ high level of interest when they couldn’t put things into action. This also suggests that to a certain extent the true value of the card in prolonging long term monitoring and interest in soil health is still untested. Perhaps encouraging meetings to discuss a wider range of soils issues would have encouraged the group to meet and discuss more frequently. However it is important to remember that if subject area are too generalised then participants see less value in attending anyway.

Looking at things from the other side of the equation, where the extension agent is facilitator, perhaps greater emphasis could have been placed on explaining to local extension agents exactly how the card worked. This would have facilitated better uptake of the whole development process by this target group. Wander and Drinkwater (2000 pp67) state that “testing kits are more likely to persist if consultants or testing agencies support them”. This appears to ring true in northern NSW, one local extension agent further south has taken on the extension of the SHC and as a result more people are aware of it and possibly this will translate into greater usage.

In future, it is hoped that the SHC will lead farmers to monitor their soil health on a long term basis. It is anticipated that regular testing of soil health and reviewing of results should show soil health changes due to management, (such as use of mulch in orchards, or minimum tillage or crop rotations) and allow early detection of developing soil problems. The information gathered on scores for various health criteria, and the differences that occur between years and sites can be used to refine management practices.


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