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Sharing knowledge is essential for sustainable soil management

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Healthy soil is a basic prerequisite for growing food, maintaining biodiversity and providing services such as water buffering and purification. The quality of Dutch soil has been decreasing drastically over recent years. In the project 'Sustainable Soil Management' (SIA Programme Practical Knowledge for Food and Greenery), the Aeres, Van Hall Larenstein, InHolland and HAS universities of applied sciences are working together on a knowledge-based approach to sustainable soil management in agriculture.

The Dutch government's target is for all agricultural soil in the Netherlands (1.8 million hectares) to be managed sustainably by 2030. This translates into a CO2 reduction of 1.5 megatons, as a result of smart land use by the agricultural and horticultural sectors. For farmers, sustainable soil management means a new way of working, creating a better balance between short- and long-term soil usage.

Turning point in operational management

This new way of working represents a major change in farmers' business operations: from resource-intensive to knowledge-intensive. To achieve this, they need knowledge, and – ideally, independent advice on soil processes and implementing particular measures. This knowledge is provided by the universities of applied sciences in the project, which students and lecturers use in testing, validating and realising the approach. They are supported in this by the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW), Wageningen UR and Centre of Soil Ecology.

Sandy soil cover

HAS University of Applied Sciences lecturer, Judith van de Mortel, is involved in the project as a cartographer for the South region of the Netherlands (Noord-Brabant and Limburg). Judith: “The loss of organic matter and the related leaching of nutrients is one of the main problems on the sandy soil cover in this region.” One of the methods for measuring this is a minimal soil dataset developed by Wageningen UR. The dataset is being tested by 10 entrepreneurs from our network, in order to find out what the quality is and what measures can be taken to improve it. Because every situation is different, it is always a question of customisation.”

Optimal balance

One of the entrepreneurs where the minimum dataset is being tested is Pieter Lucassen of perennials nursery, MTS Lucassen in Afferden. When asked why he got involved in the project, he explained, “Because our company is located on very poor sandy soil and, like everyone else, we have to deal with stricter fertilisation standards, I was more or less forced to find out more about the soil. Now, we grow ‘Planet Proof’, and the fertilisation standard is no longer a problem. Nevertheless, it’s a constant search for the optimal balance between bacteria, fungi and organic matter. I see participating in this project as an opportunity to expand my knowledge.”

Sharing knowledge

The development and distribution of knowledge is a crucial role in the project. “We start with a PA (final-year project), but that’s just the start. The involvement of lecturers means the practical knowledge is automatically brought back into the education programme. Businesses can also join the project, thanks to the series of lectures 'What about soil?'.” The broad sharing of knowledge about soil is one of the most important missions of Professor van de Mortel. Lucassen agrees: “I have seen with my own eyes what soil knowledge can mean for our business operations and the quality of our plants. But new knowledge brings new questions. That’s why I want to keep increasing my own knowledge.”