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Soil Science Society of America Journal - Article



This article in SSSAJ

  1. Vol. 81 No. 3, p. 427-438
    unlockOPEN ACCESS
    Received: Dec 07, 2016
    Accepted: Mar 12, 2017
    Published: June 30, 2017

    * Corresponding author(s): llobryde@une.edu.au
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Lessons Learnt: Sharing Soil Knowledge to Improve Land Management and Sustainable Soil Use

  1. Lisa Lobry de Bruyn *a,
  2. Abigail Jenkinsb and
  3. Susan Samson-Liebigc
  1. a School of Environmental and Rural Science Univ. of New England, NSW Australia 2351
    b NSW Dep. of Primary Industries, Wollongbar Primary Industries Inst.1243 Bruxner Hwy Wollongbar NSW Australia 2477
    c USDA–NRCS Bismarck, ND 58503
Core Ideas:
  • Acknowledge the role of experiential knowledge in informing soil use and management.
  • Investigate knowledge needs and discourse in a deeper and all-encompassing way.
  • Train work-ready graduates who can succeed as existing staff retire.
  • Form knowledge partnerships with genuine commitment, trust and social cohesion.
  • Broaden the way the discipline communicates and engages with social networks.
  • Provide a dynamic learning environment which balances the digital and real world.
  • Evaluate impact of activities and appraise their worth through reflection.


Our aim was to examine the challenges and opportunities to soil knowledge sharing in the 21st Century. Soil can only be effectively managed if we are better connected to it by being well-informed and with appropriate support. A central observation has been the diminishing human capital and capacity in the sectors of higher education, training and outreach, and the ramifications for knowledge sharing between the various groups: educators, policymakers, researchers, outreach agents and practitioners (including the public). We encourage a movement away from a linear learning model to a socially constructivist learning approach to address the consequences of declining resources, including: a loss of legacy soil information, moribund social networks, loss of experienced outreach staff, and finally a loss of expertise in soil science to prepare graduates for the workplace with improved soil knowledge and practical experiences. Blurring the lines between knowledge generator and user will encourage solutions for the sustainable use of soil from outside traditional knowledge-holders. We suggest the solution, to a shrinking on-the-ground presence, is to invest in relationships and social networks to foster understanding of soil-building practices and achieve wider adoption of technologies. We need to balance placing information in a digital environment with providing opportunities for sharing information via interpersonal interactions, over a sustained period. This opinion piece reflects on how soil education, training and outreach can form a genuine partnership between those with experience and those with expertise to create a dynamic learning environment with a high probability of ensuring a more sustainably managed landscape.


The International Year of Soils in 2015 was an opportune time to shine a spotlight on the importance of soil, with some articles imploring readers to value soils more and recognize their worth (Monbiot, 2015; Wall et al., 2015; Wall and Six, 2015). It is well recognized by soil scientists and extension agents that soil is a non-renewable resource which is a dynamic, diverse and complex ecosystem, soil performs many important functions, and soil is not an innate material (Dobbs and Pretty, 2004). Often soil scientists assume that those who manage and care for, or rely on, the soil realize its importance as much as they do. Yet the statistics globally on soil condition suggest that soils’ ability to function is continuing to be compromised, and our ability to address the decline in soil condition is falling well short (Montanarella et al., 2016). Even in the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals, released in 2015, soil was only mentioned in 4 of the 169 targets, and not as a goal.

We believe part of the solution to stemming continued soil degradation resides with five groups and their capacity to connect with each other, and to the soil knowledge they require. The groups are: educators, policymakers, researchers, outreach agents and practitioners (working with or relying on soil, which includes the public). We recognize that most individuals will have several roles that span the functions of different groups. All these groups require soil knowledge in some form. They depend on one or more groups performing roles in relation to soil knowledge: influencing and investing in; identifying needs; investigating; informing others; engaging with others and implementing through decision-making; and changing practice. The ultimate goal of effective use of soil knowledge is for those seeking soil information (be they a land manager, independent consultant, student, public, industry or government employee) to have a positive impact on the soil resource by engaging with the relevant audience. For instance, soil researchers or outreach agents must accurately determine which land management practices will best protect and maintain healthy soils (topic of an expert panel assessment on knowledge needs, and effectiveness; Key et al., 2016), and ensuring those who implement their advice have some certainty about its application under their own circumstances.

This opinion piece is our reflection on how best to connect these groups so that the soil can be better conserved and managed into the future. Our thoughts are pertinent given the changes in information delivery in the 21st Century, and the socio-economic circumstances affecting each group. It also urges us all to consider taking on multiple roles in the generation, communication, and implementation of soil knowledge. The soil science discipline has yet to decouple its vision for soil education, training and outreach, for the most part, from the linear positivist paradigm and move to a more inclusive nonlinear philosophy that embraces those with expertise and those with experience on soil knowledge and practice wherever they are located. For more than 20 years, the call for more nonlinear approaches has been largely rhetorical, with few demonstrable widely accepted programs with genuine knowledge partnerships between researchers, educators, outreach staff and their intended collaborators. The repercussions of adhering to the linear view ripples through many of the points we will discuss in terms of knowledge partnerships, the way we learn about soils, soil knowledge generation, and its subsequent communication. Our opinions are not new; others have made similar pleas in relation to rethinking soil education, but it is timely to reflect on progress (Baveye et al., 2006; Baveye and Jacobson, 2009; Hopmans, 2007; Roling and de Jong, 1998).

Loss of Soil Legacy Data and Mismatch between Data Resolution and Local Scale Application

A challenge for those seeking information is the ever increasing volume of information available online. This enables access to more information than ever before, but less time to sort through it (Baveye, 2014). In addition, most online portals are poorly designed making the filtering and ordering of information difficult, and in some cases overwhelming for the knowledge seeker. So despite information becoming easier to access it is ironically getting harder for the user to discriminate between relevant, and irrelevant information as well as determine its worth and credibility (Roux et al., 2006). In addition, soil information is increasingly being archived or decontextualized so it is only presented at a regional or state scale, rather than at an appropriate scale for someone working at the local level.

For soils in particular, access to information of local relevance is further compounded by a mismatch between where data sets occur and where the data user is located. In Australia, soil data is patchy in terms of coverage and quality (Commonwealth of Australia, 2014). In New South Wales, in Australia, there have been successive programs to map soil, but the scale is not appropriate for the land manager, and there are large areas still not mapped (Fig. 1). In contrast, the United States holds a comprehensive coverage of soil data, with most farmland covered by 1:12,000- or 1:24,000-scale soil maps. However, these legacy data sets have been accumulated over many decades of detailed soil surveys, but with limited information collected on land use at the time of sampling, as it was not the focus then. Further, these data are on inherent, taxonomic soil properties, not the impacts of management on soil health. However, there is a current movement in the United States to update Web Soil Survey (USDA NRCS, 2015) to incorporate information related to soil health and allow users to generate thematic maps. This could be a useful tool for those making management decisions or educating the public on soils and the impacts of management, especially if those using the data are involved in its development, and feedback is captured from end-users.

Fig. 1.
Fig. 1.

Soil mapping coverage in New South Wales, Australia, since the 1980s.


Over time much useful legacy soil research data has become unavailable, due to cessation of programs or funding cuts. Other reasons for loss of legacy data is because we no longer can locate it or the research is not available digitally or the discipline that has chosen to undertake the research is outside the soil science discipline, and has largely ignored characterizing the soil they are working on. A review of research, over three decades, into the role of ants in soil modification found the disciplines of biology and/or ecology (44%) dominated rather than soil science (28%); only 23% of papers reviewed examined ant–soil relationships suggesting ecologists with a limited understanding of soil science, and vice versa, have not had the required knowledge to examine these ant–soil interactions (Lobry de Bruyn and Conacher, 1990). Many of the papers published in late 1970s and 1980s did not describe or classify the soil they were working on, and few papers were undertaken in human-modified soils such as agriculture (Lobry de Bruyn and Conacher, 1990).

Loss of On-the-Ground Expertise, Experience, and Face-to-Face Opportunities to Connect with Diverse Audiences

Both Australia and the United States face challenges in connecting people who manage soil resources with those involved in soil science education and outreach. In our experience, a major challenge is the limited investment in knowledge exchange. In both university and government sectors, there is diminished capacity, in part due to an aging workforce, paralleling that of agriculture in general (Commonwealth of Australia, 2014), but more a consequence of limited investment by governments in education, training and outreach as these activities become increasingly privatized, subject to market forces, and a business culture. A recent stocktake of current investment in Australian National Soil Research, Development and Extension staff category reinforced the limited investment in soil knowledge exchange showing 12.5% in outreach and 6% in teaching, with the majority of staff in research (39%), and undergoing postgraduate training (26%) (Dep. of Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry, 2011). At some point there will also be a loss of experiential knowledge as land managers retire. Land managers are aging, and in the last census of 2012, the average age was 58.3 yr, with 33% of farmers in the United States aged 65 yr and over (USDA NASS, 2014). Australia’s farmers also tend to be considerably older than other workers. In 2011, almost a quarter (23%) of Australian farmers were aged 65 yr or over, compared with just 3% of people in other occupations (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012). The aging of the farming community, in both countries, also has implications for how information or data are presented as, despite prevalent computer use, and wider internet access, the nature of internet use is limited to market intelligence and online purchases (USDA NASS, 2013).

In both countries, not only is the workforce aging, but there are also fewer farms, and an increasing farm size. Concurrently, there has been a consolidation or down-sizing of government departments or land grant universities (in the United States), both of which are responsible for outreach activities. This means fewer people are trying to reach an increasingly dispersed audience (Drohan, 2017; Wang, 2014). For example, the number of soil scientists working in the US Government is expected to decline in the next 5 yr as aging staff retire, leading to a “substantial loss of institutional knowledge and weakened capability … to respond to new needs and opportunities” (Drohan, 2017). Given the large areas each Soil Survey Region covers (approximately 0.8 million km2) human resources are spread very thinly. For instance Soil Survey Region 5 partially covers 7 US states, and has its soil survey regional office in Salina, Kansas with a soil survey office in each of the other 6 US states. Currently there are about 147 people working in 12 regions of the NRCS Soil Survey across the United States, which equates to 12 people working over an area of 0.8 million km2, accompanied by 400 soil scientists in the USDA–NRCS at state and national levels. Typically, each state in the United States has a NRCS State Soil Scientist who forms part of a team working under the NRCS State Conservationist.

Ill-prepared Graduates to Fill the Loss of Expertise and Experience in Soil Knowledge and Outreach

Our observation (S. Samson-Liebig, pers. comm., 2016) is that there are not enough students graduating from US Land Grant colleges and universities to fill the loss of experienced staff. These colleges and universities were originally established in 1862 and 1890 to further agricultural education and extension, and later on by offering soil science degrees (Drohan, 2017; Havlin et al., 2011). Also, graduates from universities in the United States and Australia are not sufficiently skilled or trained to be work-ready. We believe students educated about soils through the tertiary system have become distant and removed, metaphorically and sometimes literally, from landscapes. Although graduates gain soil credentials (a qualification), many have limited hands-on field experience in soil classification, understanding observational characteristics of soil limitations, and applying the soil knowledge to problems in the field. This impacts their critical problem-solving skills so they may fail to identify and effectively remedy soil management issues (Baveye and Jacobson, 2009; McBroom et al., 2015). In turn, this restricts their potential to work effectively in soil-related positions in regional and remote areas. We believe that improving information literacy (i.e., knowledge inquiry and interrogation) of graduates will address this challenge. As most research information is internet sourced, students need to be taught skills in accessing and interrogating soil information (Haigh, 2006). Once students have competent skills in this area they will be better able to recognize the most relevant information, and at the appropriate scale for its application.

Lack of investment in education and outreach equates to new graduates and outreach staff being insufficiently trained to effectively connect with their clients. Government workers are often deficient in their requisite soil knowledge and possibly lacking confidence in their response or providing erroneous and inferior guidance. Employers refer to their lack of field experience, poor oral and written communication and critical thinking skills (Havlin et al., 2011; Sarkara et al., 2016). Funds and time allocated to train new employees in the first 2 yr after graduation from university is expensive, and diverts funds that would be otherwise be used for working with clients in the field.

The loss of experiential and expertise knowledge with an aging workforce is a dilemma that can be partly addressed through succession planning or mentoring networks. The NRCS, for example has a new program called Agricultural Conservation Experienced Service Program. This program will help address the issue of brain-drain as experienced workers retire. This is a win-win situation, provides opportunities for newer, less experienced civil servants to learn from more experienced workers and helps ease new, or soon-to-be retirees into retirement life. In North Dakota NRCS, two soil scientists and a rangeland specialist have been employed in these roles. Succession planning is not an area that universities, government departments or farmers implement well. Options are few, but using existing or newly developed knowledge networks (such as Soil Knowledge Network) that exist in New South Wales (NSW), Australia, with retired soil scientists or the Agricultural Conservation Experienced Service program in the United States is a start. Where the next generation of knowledge holders and generators will come from is unclear, especially if there is a lack of well-prepared graduates entering the sector, and farmers continuing to leave it.

Previous surveys found a downturn in student demand for certain types of soil-related degrees (2001–2014) in Australia (Pratley and Copeland, 2008), and in soil science in the United States and Canada (1992–2004) (Baveye et al., 2006). In both countries, more recent studies suggest the trend in declining student enrolments has been reversed (Brevik et al., 2014; Pratley, 2016). Excellence in Research for Australia data released in December 2015 show that only 24% of Australia’s 41 universities rated above world class in Soil Science, while 68% were above world class in Environmental Science and Management. This suggests high-quality soil science research is restricted to a quarter of Australian universities and expertise is widely dispersed, across five states in Australia, with a small pocket of concentration in four universities in New South Wales. So in terms of attracting another generation of soil scientists there are limited opportunities for higher degree training in Australian universities. As student numbers decline, universities reduce their courses to match student demand. Therefore, if employer demand for soil science graduates improves, there is no capacity to fill the void because institutions no longer offer these programs. Hunt et al. (2012) identified reduced government involvement, leading to a decline in employment opportunities as another contributor to the reduced number of skilled professionals and tertiary resources. As a result, fewer students are interested in studying in these fields due to poorer employment prospects. It has been argued this “disconnection in the Research, Development and Extension feedback loop” is a consequence of reducing outreach presence and decoupling Research and Development from outreach services (Hunt et al., 2012).

Soil Knowledge Expertise Isolated from Audiences with Limited Opportunities for Knowledge Sharing and Reflective Practice

Arguably much beneficial soil knowledge is the outcome of research, though frequently scientists lament the lack of interest in, or adoption of, their findings by land managers (Bouma, 2010). Is this lack of interest in research outcomes a consequence of not involving those likely to benefit from the research at an earlier point (Knickel et al., 2009; Lobry de Bruyn and Abbey, 1999)? There is greater emphasis, and indeed expectation, by those in research to publish in peer-reviewed journals with high impact factors, and not in media that is more accessible to practitioners or outreach staff. While on the other hand, practitioners, and outreach staff are unlikely to find an outlet for their experiences in the scientific literature, despite the value of their lived experience to future research and extension activities. Hence, far less time, effort and acknowledgment are allocated to building a dynamic space for engagement with practitioners or demonstrating practice change realities to ensure new soil information is incorporated into day-to-day farming (Bouma, 2010). The same could also be said for identifying the type of soil knowledge that land managers require and how they access and use it to manage their soil resource. In a review on effective practices designed to maintain or enhance elements of soil health, Key et al. (2016) found “accessing knowledge from practitioners … would add more context” regarding practical barriers or details of implementation, and possibly expand the research areas for researchers to explore. Except for conservation farming in Australia, which has been widely adopted, after almost 40 years, there are few indications that providing soil information will drive better practice (Llewellyn et al., 2012; Llewellyn and D’Emden, 2010).

There is an increasing interest among land managers in approaches that recognize the complexity of the soil system and the difficulty they have in applying one-size-fits-all solutions. This interest in a holistic view of soil suggests that those people managing soil want—and need—to understand the why as well as the what of soil management practices (Ingram, 2008). Understanding why something works can only further assist the land manager. Soil interest groups such as “Soils for Life” (Soils for Life, 2012) and SoilCare (in NSW) exist because of farmer interest in managing soils better and a desire to share their experiences and knowledge. However, groups such as these have developed largely outside major Research, Development and Extension structures, and are isolated from existing knowledge sources, with few communication links to recognized Research and Development organizations. The risk is that research outcomes do not always inform these groups and their management choices. At the same time current Research and Development organizations cannot learn from the experiences of land managers, especially as more experienced ones retire. Learning from land managers’ local knowledge and application is further thwarted by researchers not deliberately examining it. Even though government policy documents expound the virtues of farmers monitoring of soil health to guide decision making and land management practices, an examination of two decades of national-level statistics from Australia and the United States, suggests little is known about farmers’ soil testing practice to guide soil health management (Lobry de Bruyn and Andrews 2016). The reason was that the data collected on the topic lacked the deeper level of inquiry to link landholders gathering of soil information to implementation of soil conservation or soil building practices. If landholders’ soil testing practice was better understood then it could be harnessed to more effectively monitor soil condition, and detect any soil health issues such as soil acidification or nutrient loss. A recent worldwide review of high-quality research examining farmers’ knowledge and use of soil organisms in agriculture illustrated the lack of research in high-income countries with only six studies from high-income countries (three studies from the United States, two from Australia, one from France) and 54 studies from low- to middle-income countries (Pauli et al., 2016).

As scientists or policymakers, we have largely assumed what type of soil information landholders or the public are interested in, rather than asking them, as well as the avenues they pursue to seek information, and the forms of delivery they find most accessible. Much of the research, even recently, on our understanding of landholders’ preferred information sources and channels was undertaken before the boom in digital technology (late 1990s), and it is likely that landholder preferences have changed (Tucker and Napier, 2002). Prokopy et al. (2015) draws attention to the diminishing role of the Cooperative Extension Service in the United States for farm-level decision making, and highlights the increasing influence of industry. Increasing reliance on the private sector for information provision means investing greater research efforts into the roles of communication channels for soil knowledge sharing and improved adoption of decision support tools to ensure the public good message on soil conservation and management is delivered consistently but tailored to specific audience needs. The need is greater than ever for social science research into soil education and communication so it is used more effectively by extension and government staff. Until this investment in social research happens it will not be possible to truly understand what drives the decisions of farmers and/or land managers about management of the soil resource.

There is a missed opportunity to use both scientific expertise and experiential knowledge in the challenge of managing soil resources by not engaging in a participatory approach to knowledge sharing, which would allow both forms of knowledge to be used, involve all stakeholders and include the practice of life-long learning (Moschitz and Home, 2014). Connecting scientists and land managers to each other could better define the knowledge needs and the development of social networks. Strong ties (friends and family) affirm what is known while weak ties (farmers with researchers and outreach providers) are used to acquire new information (Thuo et al., 2014). Landholders confirmed the influence of agronomists (65% of respondents, n = 143), neighbors and friends (61% of respondents, n = 140), and extension agency efforts (60% of respondents, n = 142) in the adoption of a Soil Health Management (SHM) plan (Bennett and Cattle, 2013, 2014). The cost of soil analysis and lack of free support from agencies and extension groups were frequently mentioned as a “large impediment” to a SHM plan becoming a reality (Bennett and Cattle, 2013, 2014). Familiar traditional outreach activities are still major information channels for agricultural land managers with field days (in Australia) and shop talks (in the United States) for knowledge exchange on sustainable land management practices (Kancans et al., 2014). However, these activities do not lead to as much demonstrable practice change as direct involvement in on-farm research trials or in best practice farmer groups (Bennett and Cattle, 2013; Cotching et al., 2009; Kilpatrick and Johns, 2003). Closer examination of a project with corn belt farmers (n = 4778) in the United States on climate change information suggests the most trusted sources are extension educators or government staff (Mase et al., 2015; Prokopy et al., 2015), yet their influence will be limited in the years to come without considerate succession planning.

When land managers in the United States were asked the influence of different sectors on decision making about agricultural practices and strategies; family, other farmers, and seed and fertilizer dealers were rated the highest (66, 51, 62, and 70% with moderate–strong influence respectively), while crop advisors and NRCS or Soil and Water Conservation County staff having 45 to 39% respectively with moderate–strong influence (Church et al., 2015). A recent study on the role of networks in Australian agriculture suggested industries undertaking transformational change had far-reaching information and knowledge networks, yet weaker social links to family and friends, and were more likely to facilitate action because they were not necessarily tied to established social norms (Dowd et al., 2014). So although it is not clear where investment in knowledge exchange should occur, our experience suggests investing in relationship building and improving trust in information sources is vital for improved soil management.


We propose a number of ways to counter the separation of communities of interest in soils, and rebuild social networks for knowledge sharing, even though socioeconomic constraints, affecting those involved, are likely to continue. It will, however, require a more creative approach to how we engage with audiences, create dynamic learning environments, maintain their interest and attention, and continue to build genuine relationships with them, based on trust and mutual respect.

Engage Diverse Audiences under an Inclusive Conceptual Framework

Part of the solution to the challenges outlined above is developing a conceptual framework that speaks to all sectors and allows soil knowledge to be shared easily. There have been a number of attempts to create a unifying framework, but more often than not they have also generated dispute, which then diverts attention away from the original intent to value soil and improve their management through knowledge sharing. The latest is the conceptual framework, called soil security (McBratney et al., 2014). It places soil at its center, and its developers believe it clearly frames the value of soil and how people interact with it. They state, “The soil security concept is compared with the cognate, but more limited, notions of soil quality, health and protection”. They consider it has wider relevance and is more integrative than concepts such as soil quality (Doran and Parkin, 1994; Karlen et al., 2001), soil health (Doran, 2002) and soil protection (Glæsner et al., 2014). The framework calls for an assessment of soil security, across multiple-scales, and in the dimensions of capability, condition, capital, connectivity, and codification (McBratney et al., 2014). With the soil quality concept (Doran and Parkin, 1994), soil scientists agreed their goals were honorable, “There is undoubtedly merit in seeking to manage soil well, in terms of production potential, sustainability and environmental impact…” (Sojka and Upchurch, 1999).

Another recent review of global change pressures on soils from land use and management (Smith et al., 2016), called for a global soil resilience program to remedy what they described as the “abundant, but patchy and disjointed” nature of research and policy into soil quality and sustainability. They suggested the program should operate under the auspices of the United Nations “to monitor, recover or sustain soil fertility and function, and to enhance ecosystem services provided by soils” (Smith et al., 2016). However, there was no mention of practitioners, and how to improve their connectivity to the “right knowledge and resources to manage the soil according to its capability” (McBratney et al., 2014), even though the United Nations Environmental Program has published a resource on land potential (Herrick et al., 2016).

Soil health, as a concept to raise awareness of the importance of soil seems to have gained more ground with practitioners (e.g., Soil Health Partnership in the United States; Soils for Life in Australia), and achieving a healthy soil is a valued commodity to leverage change in farming practice within these practitioner groups (Lobry de Bruyn and Andrews, 2016). The assessment of soil health by farmers is more about starting a conversation about soil and its management, rather than measuring soil health per se. While some soil science professionals view soil health as too difficult to define, and even more difficult to measure or monitor. In the United States, there is now a Soil Health Division (established late 2014) in the USDA–NRCS, so there may be a willingness to acknowledge a common language that connects practitioners with soil science professionals, but it is still early days in the organization’s development and recognition by land managers.

Prior to formation of the Soil Health Division there was a soil health movement in the USDA–NRCS that enabled staff to work closely with landholders, often with co-funding through the Environmental Quality Improvement Program, operating since 1996, and work by the USDA–NRCS Soil Science Division, including Soil Survey and Resource Assessment and Science and Technology. The interest in soil biological health as a way of measuring soil performance has also been recognized in the Conservation Stewardship Program, as a soil quality enhancement tool (SQL15) for 2015, prior to this the soil quality enhancement tools were management practices and not monitoring of soil health attributes, but they have grown from 7 enhancements in 2010 to 19 in 2015 (USDA NRCS, 2014). Farmers using the Conservation Stewardship Program tool need to annually collect soil samples and have these samples analyzed by a laboratory using the USDA Soil Health Nutrient Tool method. This enhancement is considered adopted when the land use acres and its contiguous field acres have a soil health tool report. In North Dakota, the USDA–NRCS staff are working with 22 producers (44 sites) to gather soil management data that can accompany the Soil Health Nutrient Tool Test, and validate it as a metric for measuring soil condition, with similar activities occurring in other US states (S. Samson-Liebig, pers. comm., 2016). Programs, like the Environmental Quality Improvement Program, focus attention on agricultural soils in the United States, and in particular where our knowledge is limited, and identifies areas of future research such as soil biology and nutrient availability. It remains to be seen what actions develop from this newly acquired understanding of our knowledge gaps, and how this will be coupled with a strategy for communication of new knowledge to a diverse audience. The strategy should focus on: (i) meeting practitioner knowledge needs, (ii) communicating knowledge to diverse audiences, and (iii) ensuring the knowledge is relevant and accessible to those who require it (Lobry de Bruyn and Abbey, 2003).

Our past experiences reveal that raising awareness of the importance of soil through the use of a more shared understanding has been met by caution, and concern, by some soil scientists that believe it will divert limited research funding away from more fundamental research, and with it, any progress toward addressing the problems of land degradation (Sojka and Upchurch, 1999; Sojka et al., 2003). So despite tilling fertile ground for debate within the soil science discipline some of these conceptual frameworks still remain distant from practitioners. Indeed it has been stated that “… none of these goals require re-invention of soil science, or replacement of value-neutral reductionist scientific basis of edaphology with an undefinable value-laden holism” (Sojka and Upchurch, 1999). This discontinuous quote also expresses a view that could be interpreted as seeking to maintain the clear division of roles and responsibilities between science and practice rather than finding a shared understanding in which to seek and exchange knowledge. As a discipline, soil science needs to look inwardly and outwardly to engage with other disciplines and social science, and focus on involving land managers, beyond tokenistic gestures, so they can manage soil within its capability, to improve and maintain its condition and without loss of natural capital and functionality.

Train Work-ready Graduates with a Real-world Understanding of Soils

Soil education and outreach needs to be presented in a holistic and integrated way that does not reduce soil to component elements such as soil physics, soil chemistry, soil fertility and soil biology. As Bouma (2010) noted, this involves “combating current atomization of sub-disciplines”. The silo approach to soil knowledge generation and education belies the complex interactive nature of soil functions and lends itself to simplifying the soil biosphere by detaching it from the landscape in which it was formed, and fails to acknowledge the multifunctionality of soil in the environment. Teaching soils as a discrete entity that is disconnected from specific landscape contexts increases the difficulty in developing, researching and implementing viable solutions to soil issues facing Australia, which are highly context-specific and require localized and adaptable solutions rather than one-size-fits-all approaches (Lobry de Bruyn and Abbey, 2003).

Problem-based learning is a pedagogical approach to learning which places the student in the role of practitioner, exposes them to real world problems, the reality of imperfect knowledge and the importance of accurate problem identification, with plausible and adoptable solutions. Problem-based learning is more commonly used in education, law and health sciences, than in soil science, even though it is well-suited to the discipline where problems are complex and involve many interacting elements: soil inherent qualities, soil management, and a land manager’s awareness of the issues. For the past 20 years, Lobry de Bruyn has taught a land assessment unit to final year university students in environmental science and management. Lobry de Bruyn uses problem-based learning, delivered in an online environment to distance students, and has evaluated its impact on student learning outcomes, as have others teaching in the United States, using problem-based learning in the classroom or field school (Amador and Gorres, 2004; Krzic et al., 2015; Lobry de Bruyn, 2005, 2009, 2011). These studies illustrate that scholarship in teaching and learning can inform the preparation of graduates for the workplace, which is becoming more commonplace in comparison to when Baveye (2006) wrote that “Virtually nothing is known about how well university curricula and…courses prepare students for their later careers”.

Soil science has penetrated a number of disciplines, but is now rarely offered as a stand-alone degree. Instead it can be found in environmental sciences, engineering, geology, geography and agriculture. The soil science curriculum is often restricted to a foundation unit early in a degree program, as part of a multidisciplinary university degree, and less often for a major specifically in soil science (Hartemink et al., 2014). Increasingly, undergraduate students are also focusing on three-year Bachelor’s degrees which have fewer elective units, leaving little room for specialization in a single discipline. These changes could be viewed as a positive shift to integrate soil education with other disciplines, indicating an appreciation of soil as part of a social ecological system that includes land managers and the public (Hartemink et al., 2014). Alternately some have argued that the education of undergraduates in soil science is limited, and they can only gain a superficial understanding of soil science knowledge, and are therefore poorly equipped to apply their soil knowledge with confidence in the workplace (Baveye et al., 2006; Baveye and Jacobson, 2009). Some have also commented that soil science is too strongly associated with agriculture, and its focus on the productive function of soil, rather than examining a broader set of soil functions relevant to environmental impact assessment, climate change, lands assessment for a range of land uses, contamination and ecology (Baveye et al., 2006).

Nevertheless, enrolments are rising in universities in the US Northern Plains (North Dakota, Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska) in areas related to soil health. The soil health movement that continues to sweep across the United States has brought with it much attention to soils and the study of soil science. For some students soil science degrees seem to be focused on soil health or environmental health, because stand-alone soil science departments are disappearing, and being incorporated into departments which focus on natural resources or environmental studies. A student, entering the workforce, with a more integrated background is an advantageous quality for a government employer. This broader disciplinary base will also prepare them for the workplace in the United States that often is comprised of small interdisciplinary teams. A growing trend in the USDA NRCS and other government agencies is to have specialists working together in small teams (soil, agronomy, engineering, biology, range management) and is also a strategy to cope with the shortfall in qualified staff. To fill a growing knowledge gap, the North Dakota NRCS hopes to integrate an urban soil scientist or soil conservationist into the organization. There is an increasing public interest in Community Supported Agriculture in the United States, Canada, and Australia, which means forming a closer relationship between producers and consumers. This includes urban residents’ intent on growing food in community gardens is a new area of soil knowledge application.

Before the next generation of farmers, in the US and Australia, take over the family farm, they often undertake further education in agriculture, with the expectation it will improve their land management and problem solving skills. In Australia, there is an increase in farmers undertaking post-secondary school qualifications. Over the three decades to 2011, for instance, the proportion of Australian farmers with post-secondary qualifications increased from 15% to 38% (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012). The proportion of farmers with a certificate-level qualification doubled over this period, while the proportion with a Bachelor’s degree or above increased six-fold.

Recognize and Value Innovation in Education and Closer Research Engagement with Diverse Audiences

The atomization of soil science could be solved in part by university educators and outreach practitioners moving beyond their own teacher-centered, educational experience, and the passive linear delivery of material, devoid of context and immediacy. A linear model of learning affords students or landholders little opportunity to interact and interrogate content or to engage in experiential learning, with the opportunities to build socially engaged communities of interest. Moving to a student-centered learning focus will establish life-long learning skills for participants, paying dividends in future interactions with others involved in soil management (Field et al., 2011). Achieving this goal requires a shift in mind-set from one where current soil specialists are the purveyors of all knowledge to one of facilitating knowledge inquiry with their audience (Bennett, 2015; Field et al., 2011). This change in teaching paradigm and practice is difficult to embrace for some researchers, academics and outreach agents, since many have not sought to undertake any teacher training or gain educational qualifications. This apparent lack of scholarship in teaching and learning is because it is not given the same weighted value as core science, nor is it as valued for promotion or progression. If we want to create improved research engagement with audiences we need to value and reward investments made by soil scientists in their scholarship, whether it be through further education and training, participation in reflective practice and evaluation of teaching and learning programs or extension activities.

A process of engaging farmers that prompts them to become their own researchers, observers and decision makers (action research model) is more beneficial than a technology transfer model (a linear approach). Sharing and communicating their findings and/or decisions with other farmers should be encouraged (Roling, 1996; Roling and de Jong, 1998). The most successful behavior change projects occur when farming systems groups and research providers develop and implement projects together and support each other over the longer term (Gianatti and Carmody, 2007; Lockeretz and Anderson, 1993). For successful collaboration between researchers and practitioners, there also needs to be genuine interest in and respect for each other’s perspectives and knowledge. It is our contention that communication of soil information is improved by increased engagement in communities of interest rather than separating communities between those with experience and those with expertise as is often recommended, such as communities of practice (Bennett, 2015) and communities of scientific practice in soil science (Bouma, 2015). Often a soil scientist’s knowledge of soil comes from a particular discipline, and can be highly specialized and context specific, and not clearly adaptable to new situations. This re-positioning of soil education and outreach is multidisciplinary and seeks to build networks with land managers who bring along their own experiential knowledge of soil (Lobry de Bruyn and Abbey, 1999).

An approach that promotes self-discovery is more likely to encourage individuals to become more interested in soil and actively manage it (Jenkins, 2006). A popular approach in North Dakota and elsewhere are “Shop Talks” sometimes referred to as “Coffee Shop Talks”, where a producer hosts a mini workshop at his or her farm or local café, usually in winter. In North Dakota, members of the North Dakota State University Extension Soil Health Team, in partnership with the North Dakota NRCS, work with the hosting farmer in putting on the event. Farmers from the area will talk about what they are doing, learn what the hosting farmer is doing, and sometimes there will be a presentation by university extension or NRCS staff on either soils, cover crops, or a topic of interest. Rather than large workshops, these smaller shop/coffee talks (<30 people usually), are generally considered more effective. They are small and informal, and designed to engage landholders and offer one-on-one learning opportunities. Shop talks provide farmers with the opportunity to demonstrate how they are applying soil health principles, and share their results with other farmers who are interested to learn. Typically, farmers interested in applying practices on the ground to build soil health want to talk to others who have successfully adopted these new approaches. Shop talks provide a supportive environment in which soil information and tools to assess the soil function can be focused on and discussed among peers. These events appear to be influential, especially in central and eastern North Dakota, but we are unaware of any formal evaluations or research into their impact (a necessary requirement to assure their continuation where programs need to establish a value proposition).

Some landholders still attend the occasional large workshop (>50 people) that includes a keynote and other speakers who present on a specific topic. The large workshops are usually organized by either University Extension, governmental agency or a combination of both. Utilizing farmer panels at these workshops, moderated by a skilled facilitator, allows farmers to share what they are doing on their operation with the audience. In Australia, support by governments for nonlinear networks in outreach such as farmer-to-farmer learning seems to have dwindled as evidenced by the consolidation of staff into organizations that are regionally based, and have little budget and few staff available for outreach services. Concurrently a reduction in funding to support programs such as Landcare, mirrored by a 50% decline in farmers involved in Landcare (membership has dropped to 20% of Australian farmers) has also reduced opportunities for farmer-to-farmer learning (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2013; Hunt et al., 2014). Such reductions in social capital and capacity will affect landholder engagement, further distancing researchers from intended users and/or collaborators (Campbell, 2008).

An alternative to closer engagement with landholders is the national approach of dispersed and uncoordinated messages with research knowledge being directly targeted to industry bodies or private advisors to disseminate as they see fit, a deliberate decoupling of research and outreach services (Hunt et al., 2014). This has been advocated in the United States since industry has closer and more regular contact with landholders (Prokopy et al., 2014). This approach has been critiqued as a piece-meal approach that misses the bigger picture due to consultants being hired to address specific problems or tasks (Wong and Edis, 2013). Another criticism is the possibility that messages are dispersed in a selective manner, and error and bias can creep in leading to misinformation or alternative facts. In fact, Hunt et al. (2014) state the assumption that the “private sector would sufficiently fill the gap left by the public sector exit…has proven to be over-optimistic”. Particularly, in the age of big data, such as precision agriculture that creates large amounts of data, much of which may not be necessarily useful. Phil Hoult (Druce, 2016) said “Some of the stuff we’ve got sitting in drawers, it’s not necessarily good data. It needs a brain to sit down and work through the bits and pieces.” This quote from a newspaper article emphasizes the role of the personal relationship, and having a trusted go-between, who can liaise with the client about their soil information needs.

Balance the Digital and Real World of Soil to Provide a Dynamic Learning Environment

Online delivery of soil information in Australia and in the United States hopes to overcome the tyranny of distance and potentially fills a void as the number of soil specialists decline. Drohan (2017) described three models for soil science education and training in the United States, but admitted that “the possibilities for education and training are unlimited given the state of technology”. Compared to almost 20 years ago when only 13% of US producers had internet access, 73% of US farmers have internet access (USDA NASS, 1997, 2015). United States producers were not asked about their use of computers for online education or training, which makes it difficult to judge the level of penetration into the farm business. In 2015, 43% of US farmers use the computer for the farm business, including purchasing agricultural inputs (19%), marketing activities (16%), and accessing USDA reports and/or services (17%) (USDA NASS, 2015). A similar portion of producers (66%) use the internet across all agricultural industries in Australia (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2009).

Harnessing online medium to meet the growth in university soil education and outreach delivery of courses and material is one solution to connecting a geographically dispersed soil community with a depleted workforce. Yet to be fully resolved is improved internet connectivity and creating an online community where users are meaningfully engaged through learning materials or experiences. All too often the use of online learning platforms offers no more than a classroom experience where lectures are recorded, and available online, and reading materials are made digitally available, except the student is at home or at work, and often alone. There are also infrastructure issues with reliance on delivering information over the internet with recent reports that Australia’s internet speed is 60th in the world, while the United States is 20th, meaning that access or download speeds can be intermittent or slow, especially in remote or regional Australia. Australia is establishing a National Broadband Network that plans to connect 8 million homes by 2020, but many communities in rural and remote Australia continue to have poor internet connectivity or none at all. For rural, remote and isolated communities National Broadband Network will not be able to have fiber to the home, and will either be connected by satellite, or fixed wireless, which is not as reliable. The organization, NSW Farmers, in Australia, surveyed their membership in 2014 (n = 630) and their major limitations were coverage, speed and pricing with often no choice of internet plan or provider (NSW Farmers, 2014).

How the virtual world is balanced with the real world of soil, and at the same time, place the audience at the center of their learning has yet to be fully realized or evaluated. Digital technology makes visual media affordable and easily distributed. However, a survey of members of NSW Farmers organization indicated that only 20% of respondents used social media (NSW Farmers, 2014). Nevertheless social media such as Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram are used by a growing number of organizations to promote their activities as well as by the people farmers seek advice from in conjunction with use of a smartphone or ipad app (SoilWeb for iPhone; UC Davis Soil Resource Lab, 2015) and soil-based apps from websites such as the Land Potential Knowledge System. Scientists and outreach staff are tweeting photographs of their practice and/or science and sharing images at #soil health or #cover crop. We believe this will become more common in the future as a way to, showcase the impact of changes in farm practices on soil, with before and after images, rather than images of land degradation alone (e.g., water erosion and soil loss). These images often come with links to longer articles or events which are particularly useful for raising awareness of issues, to catch viewer attention, and to stimulate interest in a technique or message.

However, online media is less powerful for practice change and in-depth discussion. Face-to-face interactions seem to be the preferred mode to learn about soil and to have meaningful and productive discussions. Social media and web-based tools get the conversation started, in many cases, but need to be followed by the face-to-face conversations, training, field tours, and hands-on demonstrations. The USDA Soil Quality Test kit for a simple assessment of select key soil properties, is an example of this (USDA ARS NRCS SQI, 2001). It is worth considering that the learning benefits may well be more effective the other way around, by beginning with face to face discussions, and then using online experiences. There is now the USDA Educators Soil Quality Test Kit Bucket which is basically key components out of the original soil quality test kit put into a 5-gallon bucket. This test kit is being used by urban dwellers as well as educators who want to learn more about soils.

Recognition needs to be given to the approach or pedagogy of learning that will positively shape and influence our interactions with practitioners in the field or workshop (Field et al., 2011). If the adage Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I’ll remember. Involve me and I’ll understand is believed then, soil education and outreach needs to be student-centered and have actual field experiences and group work, so it combines online with face-to-face interaction (Hartemink et al., 2014). This approach to learning is already occurring in some higher education institutions (Amador and Gorres, 2004; Krzic et al., 2015), but needs to become more than a few pockets of innovation, but commonplace and acceptable practice. In Australia and the United States, e-extension (for example, http://www.extensionaus.com.au/, verified 20 Apr. 2017) is being trialed in various topic areas such as crop nutrition and plant protection with some success in providing timely, and useful information to the audience. It can be argued that if online portals are not implemented cleverly, with high quality content and sufficient space and time for participant contribution, they advance little from the linear model of information transfer and need to provide a way to gather feedback on how the information is interpreted and used. If these deficiencies are left unresolved then the gap between people who are directly involved in field research trials with internet competence, and those without, will widen. It is important to note that an e-extension model does not, as some may hope, reduce the need for skilled professionals or face-to-face events that allow for conversations in groups or in one-on-one interactions.

A dispersed community of practice (that is fully online) requires a great deal more work to build the relationships and trust required for knowledge sharing compared with groups that meet face-to-face (Lobry de Bruyn, 2004). There are only a few government sanctioned dispersed communities of practice, such as Soil Network of Knowledge, in NSW. The ability to sustain the network requires a designated person committed to facilitating them, and their activities. For example, in NSW, Australia there are only two soil development officers for a farming area of 57.4 million hectares of which 6.5 million hectares are cropped, and agricultural land use occupies 72% of NSW (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016). The Soil Network of Knowledge online presence is currently through a monthly soil webinar (n = 265 subscribers, active over 2.5 yr and 95% from NSW with 76% viewing on desktop, and 24% on a mobile device), and quarterly newsletter “All the Dirt” (n = 576 subscribers, active for 8 yr), among other activities. But these activities do not guarantee any change in practice and the groups have never met face to face. The soil development officers believe lasting relationships built up over years in cooperation with government services are still important and used to provide soils information often in direct face to face manner (e.g., “Soil Pits and Kits” workshops) (Bryant, 2016).


The International Year of Soils, 2015, provided an opportunity to pause and reflect on our experience of working closely with students, soil scientists, and land managers in soil education, research and outreach. This understanding has taught us about soil knowledge needs and accessibility for land management. A central observation has been the risk presented for knowledge sharing between the various groups—educators, policymakers, researchers, outreach agents and practitioners (working with or relying on soil, which includes the public)—in a setting of diminishing human capital and capacity in higher education, training and outreach. We need to address the reality that the people performing these roles are often: poorly mentored, inexperienced, time poor, under-resourced, and covering larger and larger geographical areas to undertake their jobs. We argue for ongoing investment in social capital and capacity of staff working in these areas to maintain commitment and conviction to current activities and concomitantly the personal relationships that develop.

A multidimensional approach to soil education and outreach is needed that balances familiar models with the new online environments (e.g., social media, learning management systems and online soil information portals), to create a learning environment that facilitates change. It is important to remember that information provision, especially via online portals, will not necessarily result in knowledge acquisition, nor provide a dynamic learning environment that builds trust in the information and increases social capital to eventuate in practice change (Roux et al., 2006). To create a dynamic learning environment we need to consider how to balance the mix of new technologies, while retaining and securing the tried and tested methods such as field days or shop talks. We cannot replace interpersonal interactions that have developed between individuals, over a numbers of years, with information only being able to be sourced online, especially without any interactive elements or feedback loops. Interpersonal relationships are pivotal in gaining trust and acceptance of soil knowledge, and wider adoption of soil building practices and new technologies (e.g., cover cropping, precision agriculture). Digital technology can provide information where geographically dispersed populations are remote from service providers or education facilities. However, face to face activities are still essential to gain more complex and hands-on skills in soil and encourage the discussion required to develop new and innovative solutions to complex landscape scale problems.

We encourage a move away from a linear learning model to a socially constructivist learning approach to address the consequences of declining resources, including a loss of legacy soil information, moribund social networks, loss of experienced outreach staff, and finally loss of expertise in soil science to prepare graduates for the workplace with improved soil knowledge and practical experiences. Blurring the lines between knowledge generator and user will encourage solutions for the sustainable use of soil from outside traditional knowledge-holders.

Lastly, as soil educators, researchers and outreach agents we must learn from our experiences, using critical evaluation and reflection to assist us in determining what is effective and how the information and knowledge generated is used to protect and manage our soil better (Lobry de Bruyn et al., 2014). The loss of joint learning opportunities, through poor documentation and reflective practice, needs to be addressed by active and intentional monitoring and evaluation of education and extension activities. Importantly we need to address the lack of information on the level of engagement and impact of education and outreach activities on audiences beyond the simple metrics of outputs such as number of attendees and audience satisfaction. It is important to assess what can be done to improve and be more inclusive of all audiences so the narrative is not a binary one between those who generate knowledge and those who put knowledge into practice, so that no particular type of knowledge, particularly experiential knowledge, is viewed as inferior or lacking in credibility (Sillitoe, 1998). Through this cleansing process of reflection and introspection soil science can identify its core values (both in ethos and custom) and create a vision that rejects past actions that are damaging, and builds on legacy and current achievements by recognizing what is valued, and needs to be reclaimed or retained.


Thanks go to the advice of four anonymous referees of this paper, and its earlier version. Thanks also go to Drs. Mark Liebig and Louise Goggin who read the earlier drafts and provided useful feedback and constructive advice. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the United States or Australian governments.




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