Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page

Making soils sexy: soils extension on the NSW north coast

Rebecca Lines-Kelly and Abigail Jenkins

NSW DPI Wollongbar Agricultural Inst. Bruxner Hwy Wollongbar NSW 2477


Landholders are hungry for soils information, but the complexity of soil science can make it difficult to extend. In 1992 NSW DPI appointed a soils officer to make soils more accessible to landholders. Following informal interviews with farmers, the initial materials developed included leaflets answering frequently asked questions, case studies, an alphabetical guide to soil science, a newspaper column, and a one day workshop on the chemistry, physics and biology of soils. Subsequent products included handling tests, posters, earthworm field days and soil profiles. In 2002 the soils officer worked with local farmers and TAFE teachers to develop a soil health card to help farmers monitor their soil health. Feedback from a 2004 soil biology workshop led to the development of the Soil Biology Basics series, and a hands-on workshop. More recently, presentations on the history and human culture of soil have helped engage farmers at a different level. There is now such interest in soils in the north coast region that some landholders have formed SOILcare, a dedicated soils landcare group.

Three key learnings: (1) the availability of a dedicated officer has greatly increased the level of knowledge and awareness of soil conservation issues; (2) extension becomes effective when it actively engages with clients and develops materials in response to their expressed needs; (3) developing materials that meet a range of learning styles is imperative for increasing knowledge awareness and action.

Key words

Extension methods, soil biology, visual tools, monitoring, workshops, displays


Extending information about soils is about making the invisible visible, helping people look beyond dusty, familiar surfaces into secret, hidden depths. It requires extension techniques that help us know and understand soil, so that we ‘see its life and beauty, smell its rich aroma, hear its voice’ (Kirschenmann 1997). In this paper we outline the work of NSW DPI soils officers over the past 14 years in the hope that their activities stimulate other natural resource management extension officers to excite and encourage people’s interest in soils.


In 1992 NSW Department of Primary Industries appointed a soils officer at its north coast research station at Wollongbar, near Lismore. The position was initially a three year contract funded by the former National Landcare Program, but proved so useful that the position was continued for a further three years with new funding and then made permanent. The authors of this paper are two of the four people who have filled the soils position over the 13 years. Rebecca Lines-Kelly was appointed on a three year contract in 1992 to make existing soils information more accessible to farmers, essentially a communications role that drew on her journalism and editing background. She has since maintained an active interest in soils and soils extension. Abigail Jenkins was appointed to the permanent position of soils officer in 1996, and has used her soil science qualifications in a more technical extension role over the past nine years.

The position was initially managed by an inter-agency management committee comprising agronomists, horticulturists and soil scientists. This group provided ideas, encouragement, support and high quality technical backup, important factors in the subsequent success of the soil extension program. The group has now developed into a technical advice group, Soils North Advisory Council (SNAC), with representatives of all north coast groups interested in soils, including NSW DPI extension and research staff, Dept of Natural Resources, Northern Rivers CMA, Landcare and landholders.

The benefit of having the soil extension position filled continuously for 14 years has been enormous. It has encouraged a strong soils focus for the north coast region, integrated soils into all facets of regional agricultural and NRM extension, and stimulated continuous development of new extension tools and techniques.

Unpacking complexity

Soils are complex mixtures of mineral particles, chemical elements and living organisms. These factors interact to create a huge variety of soil types and soil behaviours, so it can be difficult to explain soils simply. The essential role of the soils officer position has been to unpack this complexity to make soils information more accessible to farmers and landholders without oversimplifying. Initially this unpacking took the traditional form of written information under the ‘Soil Sense’ banner.

Soil Sense book

Soil Sense is a 200 page book comprising three separate sections: a brief summary of the geology and soils of each of the north coast catchments; an outline of the soil management issues for each of the region’s main agricultural enterprises, together with farmer case studies; and an alphabetical guide to soil science with explanatory diagrams and illustrations. The book’s structure is due in part to an informal field day survey where farmers were asked what they wanted in the planned book. Many of their questions related to soil science (eg “Why are soils different colours?”) rather than soil management per se so the initial concept of a soil management manual was expanded to include an alphabetical guide to soil science. The book took two years to write and had substantial technical input from DPI soil scientists to ensure that the science was accurate. Soil Sense has proved very successful as an easy to follow introduction to soils for both farmers and students. The first edition was reprinted, and the second edition included updates and new case studies (Lines-Kelly 2000). The book is still in demand, 11 years after publication. It is used principally as an introductory reference, providing enough information to answer initial questions and leading readers to discover more through cross-referencing and bibliography.

Soil Sense leaflets

The Soil Sense leaflet series provided soils information during the writing of the Soil Sense book. The leaflet topics were chosen to answer questions frequently asked by farmers at field days and workshops (eg “How do I manage hard clay soils?”) and to promote better management techniques such as prevention of acidity. The first 10 leaflets were published simultaneously to provide a critical mass of information at field days and other events, and subsequent leaflets were written in response to topical issues as they arose (eg management of land slips). These leaflets have been reprinted in their thousands over the past 14 years, with most still in print and also available on the DPI soils website (DPI 2005a). They are always in demand at field days and workshops, reflecting the constant influx of new landholders to the north coast region looking for information. Their largely generic content means they have also been used around the state, and the series was the model for the successful DPI series “Spray Sense”, produced for the NSW horticultural industry over the past decade.

Soil Sense newspaper column

The Soil Sense column began, like the leaflet series, as another way to engender interest in soils during the writing of the Soil Sense book. The monthly column appeared in the rural section of two regional newspapers and covered soils issues of local and topical interest. The column still appears, and now features case studies of landholders’ soil management activities. The column has been an excellent tool for making the soils officer accessible to landholders because it includes her contact details. In 1994 a supplementary column on earthworms appeared for several months to pass on information from an earthworm research workshop.

Soil management guides for north coast industries

The management guides built on the work of the Soil Sense information campaign by focussing more closely on soil management in specific north coast agricultural industries: orchards, sugarcane, soybeans and broadacre cropping, dairy and beef cattle grazing, and tea tree growing. The six page guides were developed in consultation with the industries and provide practical advice, farmer comments and coloured photos. All are available on the DPI website (DPI 2005b).

Soils for gardeners

In response to many queries from gardeners we produced an A4 information brochure ‘Healthy soil healthy garden’ that answered commonly asked questions about garden soils (DPI 2005c). It has proved a popular handout at field day and workshop displays, and a useful item for engaging non-farmers’ interest.

Making the invisible visible

To understand soils we need to know what is going on underground, so over the past 14 years we have developed several techniques to help people see what soils look like. These visual tools are great drawcards at field days and workshops because they provide a rare opportunity for people to have a close look at soils. We have always received very positive feedback about our visual tools.

Soil pits

Soil pits are the classic way to look at soils in situ. The pits are dug wide enough for people to walk through and to bend down to look closely at the soil profile. They are usually no more than a metre or so deep, to comply with occupational health and safety guidelines, and are ramped at each end to provide access. We provide a large poster of a soil profile at the pit entrance to help people understand what they will be looking at. In the pit itself we attach laminated signs to points of interest such as horizon changes, soil colours, root channels and earthworm holes. We always have someone on hand to answer questions and ensure that people walk safely through the pit.

Soil monoliths

Soil monoliths are metre long soil cores cut in half lengthways. The flat side is then ‘picked’ at to reveal the true colour and texture of the soil in the field, and saturated with resin so that it remains in one piece. Each monolith is mounted on board with explanatory text alongside, and protected with a perspex cover. Monoliths are fabulous visual tools. They reveal the glorious colours and textural variety under the soil surface, and often look like pieces of abstract art. They are particularly effective when collected from specific catchments, because they highlight the extraordinary variety of soils that can be found even in limited areas. The monoliths are heavy and fragile, so need to be handled carefully. We display them vertically on strong wooden easels.

Soil slabs

Soil slabs are the cheap version of monoliths: slabs of soil around 50cm deep, dug up with vegetation intact and displayed in plastic tubs. We used slabs for several years before obtaining money to produce the monoliths. They were useful even when completely dried out because they clearly showed soil structure, root paths, and drying and cracking patterns. We displayed each slab with a laminated card with the name of the soil type, and information on its characteristics and usefulness for agriculture. The slabs can be touched and prodded by landholders so they provide a tactile as well as visual tool. They are also useful in showing the often stark differences management can affect on the same soil type, for example soil structure changes under different cultivation techniques

Poster: How to read your soil

With the help of an artist we prepared a display illustrating and explaining different aspects of soil (eg colour, organic matter, topsoil, subsoil etc) to help people build a picture of what is going on in the soil. The display, ‘How to read your soil’ proved so successful that we published it as a colour poster. We have printed thousands of these posters and they are still in demand from all around Australia.

Display materials

Over the years we have amassed a bank of photographs, illustrations and posters of soils, soils properties and soil management techniques. We have laminated these materials for long life, and draw on them to develop topical displays for field days and workshops. We find that it is important to vary displays to encourage people’s interest and emphasise the huge variety of soils and soils issues that we face.

Learning by doing

The most effective way for people to learn is to be actively involved, and from the beginning we have tried to develop techniques to involve landholders.

Soil handling tests

Very early in the piece we compiled a series of soil handling tests that provided low cost or no cost techniques to help farmers understand their soils. These tests included

  • slaking test for sodicity
  • pH test for acidity
  • mineral composition test (shaking soil in water and letting it settle)
  • texture test
  • moisture test for cultivation (plastic limit test)

We prepared information sheets for school groups with illustrated step by step instructions for these tests, and found that the sheets were very popular with adults as well. The sheets have since been incorporated into other learning packages with soils components such as the NSW Waterwise accreditation course

Soil Sense workshops

From the beginning we held Soil Sense workshops with soil pits, soil slabs and handling tests, to help landholders engage with their soils. We called on the expertise of TAFE teachers, university lecturers, retired scientists and staff from the then NSW Agriculture and NSW Conservation and Land Management to give presentations at these workshops. In 1994 the Farming for the Future program began running the Soil Sense workshops on a more structured basis. The workshops were held on farms where soil pits were dug. After introductory talks on soils and soil structure, participants inspected soil pits and did basic soil handling tests. A talk on soil acidity and plant nutrients followed, and participants interpreted results of soil tests for the site. This was followed by a talk on soil biology and organic matter. These workshops attracted a lot of interest from farmers and, for many, were the first opportunity to learn about their soils.

Soil health card

The soil health card (DPI 2005d) comprises ten activities that farmers can do to monitor the health of their soil over time. The soils officer worked with north coast farmers and TAFE teachers to identify relevant soil indicators and develop simple techniques to monitor them. More details about the development of the card are available in a paper by Abigail Jenkins in these proceedings.

Soil health workshops

In 2001 Wollongbar Agricultural Institute hosted a workshop on soil health (Lines-Kelly 2001) that attracted a lot of interest from north coast landholders. Since then, more information has become available on soil health, and north coast soil workshops have moved on from the introductory Soil Sense workshops to more sophisticated industry-based events. The soils officer now works closely with regional agricultural industries to design workshop programs, find speakers, provide display materials and give presentations. In fact, there is now such interest in soils in the north coast region that several landholders have formed SOILcare, a dedicated soils landcare group (Soilcare 2005) that holds regular workshops.

Building biological knowledge

When the soils officer position began in 1992 there was very little information available about soil biology in agriculture. Early Soil Sense workshop presentations emphasised the range of organisms in the soil; later workshops included a presentation on ‘Feeding the livestock in your soil’, giving more emphasis to actions farmers could take to build soil life. To help spread the living soil message, the soils officer organised a training workshop for NSW Agriculture extension staff on the north coast to help them incorporate information on soil biology and organic matter into their extension work. In the past decade research into soil biology interactions in agriculture has increased markedly, and there is now much more information available to extend.

Week of Worms workshops

After attending an earthworm research workshop in 1994, the soils officer wrote several earthworm newspaper columns and brought over CSIRO earthworm researcher John Buckerfield from Adelaide to give five field days on the north coast. The field days were held on farms where each farmer had watered and mulched a small area to attract earthworms because the severe drought at the time meant surface soils were otherwise too dry for earthworms. The field days attracted a great deal of interest from farmers, many of whom brought their own earthworms for identification.

Soil Biology in Agriculture workshop

This workshop was organised in 2004 after NSW DPI extension staff requested help in answering farmers’ queries about soil biology products. Researchers working under the GRDC-funded Soil Biology Initiative gave presentations on their work to a packed audience of farmers, advisory staff, agribusiness operators and researchers (Lines-Kelly 2004a). Demand for places at the workshop was intense, reflecting both the growing interest in this topic and the lack of good quality information on soil biology in agriculture. Evaluations showed that farmers appreciated hearing directly from research scientists. The huge interest in this workshop subsequently stimulated many groups to organise landholder workshops on soil biology. Profits from the workshop are being used to develop soil biology extension materials.

Soil Biology Basics leaflets

This is a new series of leaflets, first published in 2005 after farmers at the 2004 Tamworth workshop asked for basic ‘first steps’ information in what is a very complex area of soils knowledge. There are now 11 leaflets in this series and more are in the pipeline. The first print run of these leaflets ran out within weeks such was the demand. The leaflets are available in print and on the DPI website (DPI 2005e).

Soil biology workshops

In 2005 we ran a soil biology workshop for new landholders. This workshop had three hands-on components. One component looked at soil organisms using microscopes and magnifying glasses. The organisms included living creatures in fresh compost which could be seen with magnifiers; living nematodes and protozoa, visible under a microscope; and preserved organisms, also viewed through microscopes. An identification manual was available to help participants identify particular organisms. The second component looked at plant roots as the principal habitat for microorganisms, most of which congregate around individual plant roots. Participants examined roots in soil slabs dug from well managed soils, poorly managed soils and undisturbed soils, and discussed their habitat potential and implications for soil health. The third component used the soil health card to discuss the range of indicators landholders could use to monitor soil health and the implications of each of these indicators for soil life. Evaluations showed that new landholders found the sessions fascinating and valuable, and now want to know a lot more about their own soils.

Building networks

One of the biggest outcomes of 13 years of soils extension in the north coast region is a terrific soils network. The soils officer has become a first point of contact for anyone looking for soils information in the region, and a central clearing house for regional soils knowledge. This is particularly crucial now that NSW DPI is one of the few remaining providers of soils extension in the state. The informal north coast soils network includes soil scientists in NSW DPI, Department of Natural Resources and Southern Cross University, TAFE lecturers, farmers, agricultural extension officers and industry groups, Northern Rivers CMA and Landcare. These networks have been formalised in the Soils North Advisory Council (SNAC) which meets twice a year to discuss regional soils issues, and assess where focus and attention are needed to improve soils management.

The soils officer works closely with DPI soils researchers, extending the results of their findings. A major project was The Good Soil project, initiated by the Tuckombil Landcare Group in response to orchardists’ concerns with poor soil health. This project involved DPI soil scientists working on reasons for poor soil health and subsequent development of composting techniques to produce compost for orchard soils. Some of the extension outputs included leaflets on composting and orchard soil management (Jenkins and Van Zwieten 2003, Jenkins 2004), the soil health card and the 2001 soil health workshop.

Engaging emotions

In the 13 years we have been extending soils on the north coast, we have come to realise that the best way to stimulate interest in soils and encourage better soils management is to engage people emotionally. Once people are connected emotionally they are inspired to act and learn. We have found that it is very easy to engage emotionally with farmers about soils because they are strongly connected to their land and intrinsically interested in looking after their soils which are, after all, their major asset. As we have gained more experience in extending factual information and involving people in soil activities, we have become more confident about working at this emotional level and would like to encourage all NRM extension officers to work at this level sooner rather than later.

Personal interaction

Until relatively recently, personal interaction has been one of the mainstays of agricultural extension because it builds trust and provides a strong foundation for practice change. While we have not had the resources to provide one-to-one soils extension, we have found that having a permanent soils extension position and, more recently, a long-serving officer, has established strong trust in soils information in the north coast region. The soils officer has a reputation for listening to landholders and agricultural industries and using their feedback from formal evaluations and informal discussion/comment to direct subsequent extension projects. Her constant seeking of feedback and ideas has built trust and provided useful resources and activities. If landholders feel they are being listened to they are more likely to remain engaged.


Over the years we have found that enthusiastic and passionate presenters are far more effective in engaging interest than presenters who present information without emotion. Workshop evaluations and verbal feedback constantly tell us that farmers enjoy presenters who are enthusiastic about soils. Such speakers excite farmers’ interest and give them ‘permission’ to be openly passionate about soils themselves. We strongly advocate proficient and enthusiastic public speaking as an essential tool for good soils extension.


A presentation ‘dare’ led to the serendipitous discovery that music is a wonderful technique for helping engage emotionally with soils. The ‘dare’ was to do a talk on how to make soils ‘sexy’. Part of the solution was to compile a Powerpoint presentation of soil photographs and famous quotes about soils, accompanied by jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald singing ‘How much do I love you’. The photographs and quotes made an interesting presentation in themselves, but the music provided an emotional context that took people’s soils consciousness to a completely new level. This presentation has since been given to several different groups, and all are moved by it.


Another unusual soils extension technique that has proved powerfully effective in alerting people to the importance of soils, has been to look at the fate of soils over the past 10,000 years of agriculture, showing the reverence in which all cultures hold soil, and the human disasters that have occurred when soils are exploited and neglected (Lines-Kelly 2004b). Putting humans’ treatment of soils in an historical context shows clearly that our current treatment of soils is similar to that of many civilisations that eventually collapsed when their soils became unproductive. There are several excellent books on soils history and human relationships with soil, including Hillel (1991), and Logan (1995).


Excerpts or quotations from writings on soil can often distil the essence of messages we want to extend to our audiences. There are many powerful quotations about soils that contain irrefutable truths, and such truths often inspire people to act. For instance, US agricultural philosopher Wendell Berry wrote: ‘the soil of any one place makes its own peculiar and inevitable sense. It is impossible to contemplate the life of the soil for very long without seeing it as analogous to the life of the spirit’ (NRCS 2005). Good internet sources of soil quotes include NRCS (2005), Garofalo (2005) and Earth environment (2005).


In his wonderful paper ‘On becoming lovers of the soil’ US agriculturist Fred Kirschenmann (1997) says that we need to make soils ‘erotic’ so that we see them in a new light. Making soils sexy is about helping everyone realise how fascinating soils are in their own right, how alive they are, how important they are for survival of all species, and how much they need our love and attention.


DPI 2005a Soil health & fertility. Accessed 5 December 2005.

DPI 2005b. Soil management guides. Accessed 5 December 2005.

DPI 2005c. Healthy soil healthy garden. Accessed 5 December 2005.

DPI 2005d. Soil Health Card. Accessed 5 December 2005.

DPI 2005e. Soil Biology Basics. Accessed 5 December 2005.

Earth Environment 2005. Accessed 5 December 2005.

Garofalo M 2005. Earth. Accessed 5 December 2005.

Hillel DJ 1991. Out of the earth: civilisation and the life of the soil. The Free Press: Macmillan, NY.

Jenkins A, Van Zwieten L 2003. How to compost on farm. Accessed 5 December 2005.

Jenkins A 2004. Using compost in macadamia orchards. Accessed 5 December 2005.

Kirschenmann F 1997. On becoming lovers of the soil. In For all generations: Making world agriculture more sustainable. Eds Madden P, Chaplowe S. World Sustainable Agriculture Association, California.

Lines-Kelly R 2000. Soil Sense: Soil management for NSW north coast farmers. NSW DPI Wollongbar. Accessed 5 December 2005.

Lines-Kelly R (ed) 2001. Soil health: the foundation of sustainable agriculture. NSW DPI Wollongbar. Accessed 5 December 2005.

Lines-Kelly R (ed) 2004a. Soil biology in agriculture. Proceedings of a workshop on current research into soil biology in agriculture. Tamworth 11-12 August 2004. NSW DPI Orange. Accessed 5 December 2005.

Lines-Kelly R 2004b. Soil, our common ground: A humanities perspective. SuperSoil conference, Sydney December 2004. Accessed 5 December 2005.

Logan WB (1995) Dirt: The ecstatic skin of the earth. Riverhead Books NY.

NRCS 2005. Soil quotations. Accessed 5 December 2005. Accessed 5 December 2005.

Soilcare 2005. Accessed 5 December 2005.

Previous PageTop Of PageNext Page