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Soil front and centre for 2021 Nuffield Scholar

South Australian mixed farmer Josh McIntosh.
Photo: Peri McIntosh

A determination to improve the capacity of soils to produce healthy plants is behind South Australian grower Josh McIntosh’s planned studies for his 2021 GRDC supported Nuffield Scholarship.

GRDC’s investment in the Nuffield Scholarship program supports the development of thought leadership in the grains industry through an award that enables growers or those associated with primary production to undertake a travel and study program on a relevant industry focus topic.

The program assists to develop the leadership skills and ability of grain growers to identify and share global insights to address key challenges.

The program not only assists in the identification, sharing and implementation of new knowledge and practices, but also creates broad and enduring linkages and networks across Australia and internationally.

Josh McIntosh farms at Nadda in the SA Mallee region, where the long-term annual average rainfall is 280 millimetres. But since 2017, annual average rainfall has been 190mm.

Consequently, he plans to explore low-rainfall or semi-arid cropping areas in Central America, arid regions of Africa and Israel, and low-rainfall areas of Australia.

He will investigate how to promote and maintain a healthy and profitable soil microbiome in low rainfall, broadacre, organic mixed farming systems. The soil microbiome is the complete set of microorganisms living within the soil.

Josh and his family run a certified organic mixed-farming business producing cereals, legumes, beef cattle and Merino sheep across 2400 hectares.

While organic grains production provides opportunities to increase price and meet increasing consumer demand for reduced synthetic inputs, like all production systems, this presents a unique set of challenges that require new thinking and approaches to ensure long-term sustainability – especially in a low-rainfall environment.

As part of his study, he will explore farm practices that quantifiably increase the capacity of soil to produce healthy plants, and which can be applied within a low-cost production system centred on gradual improvement.

“If a soil continues to support healthy plants over time, then I would also call it sustainable,” Josh says.

“Conversely, if soil organic carbon levels are falling, the input requirement is increasing or wind erosion is occurring, I would assume the trajectory is not sustainable even if plants are healthy in the short term.”

By targeting his research across key themes of sustainability and profitability, Josh wants to further bridge the gap between organic and conventional farm production through a shared-values approach.

“What I learn can hopefully be applied to conventional as well as organic production in low-rainfall cropping areas,” he says.

Insights derived from Josh’s studies will enhance existing knowledge around soil biology, generated out of GRDC’s investment in previous (Soil Biology Initiative I and II) and ongoing research.

More information: Josh McIntosh, 0417 197 795,

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