Conference Report: Our Soil: Spirit of a Nation 

September 4th, 2023

An expert judge closely observes soil samples and reports as part of the soil science competition.

Researchers from the Valuing Sustainability Future Science Platform (VS FSP) recently attended Soil Science Australia’s biennial conference in Darwin. 

This year’s conference, which was titled Our Soil: Spirit of a Nation, was the first to be held in the Northern Territory, and many speakers focused on topics specific to the northern rangelands. 

CERC Postdoctoral Fellows Dr Sarah Luxton and Dr Erinne Stirling both presented at the conference and took the opportunity to learn about the work of colleagues from around Australia.  

For Dr Stirling, who is based in Adelaide, it was the first chance to catch up with fellow soil scientists since COVID-19 disrupted the regular conference schedule.  

“I hadn’t attended a soil conference since the Soil Organic Matter conference in Adelaide in 2019,” Dr Stirling said. “I am always interested to see what is happening in soil topics adjacent to soil ecology – particularly those dealing with disturbed landscapes – so this was a great opportunity to see what people have been up to over the past few years.”  

On Day 2 of the conference, which took place in late June, Dr Stirling presented a paper on Connecting microbial communities with carbon use efficiency to assess soil health. The presentation explored a recent experiment that Dr Stirling conducted as part of the Soil Health stream in the VS FSP’s Functional Ecosystems project – and excitingly, it was awarded the Johan Bouma Award for best early career researcher presentation at the conference.  

Dr Luxton also presented on Day 2 of the conference, with a presentation titled Developing leading indicators for nature-positive markets: State and Transition Models and below-ground processes. Dr Luxton’s engaging presentation generated deep discussion and led to a number of new professional connections who she has been able to invite to a planned workshop in September.  

The first three days of the conference were dedicated to an event known as the ‘National Soil Judging Competition’, although according to Dr Stirling this is something of a misnomer.  

“It’s really a three-day intensive training exercise in soil and landscape classification and interpretation,” Dr Stirling explains. “I have been involved in the competition for many years and I’m always struck by how valuable it is as a quick deep dive into what soil really is and how to conduct field tests.” 

Dr Luxton, whose research areas include vegetation ecology and biodiversity modelling, agrees that the Soil Judging Competition is an enormously important part of the conference.  

Dr Stirling and Dr Luxton were members of the ‘Early Career Researchers’ team at the soil judging competition, which included both team and individual-based tests of their soil knowledge throughout the weekend. Dr Stirling’s role was that of an experienced coach, teaching the skills and facilitating teamwork. Dr Luxton relished the opportunity to learn new skills from the experienced coaches. 

“I can reiterate the value of the soil judging competition,” Dr Luxton says. “As a non-soil scientist, I gained a lot from doing the training and judging – including how to distinguish different soil horizons, insights into soil structure and, variability within a soil horizon, as well as the degree of soil variability that can occur over short distances.”  

Other conference highlights included an opening address from National Soils Advocate, the Honourable Penelope Wensley AC; a keynote presentation by GHD Environment Team Leader, Colee Quayle; and the launch of the Australian National Soil Information System (ANSIS).