Research supports sustainable commercial potato production

A research team at the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture (TIA) is critiquing scientific studies and real world experiences of potato growers to identify the best strategies for sustainable soil health and where new research is needed.

TIA scientist, Dr Robert Tegg, is leading the project, which is funded by Hort Innovation using potato industry levies and funds from the Australian Government. He said an enormous amount of information already exists on soil health, but extracting what is relevant to the potato industry poses an interesting challenge.

”Understanding all the interacting components of soil health - the physical, biological and chemical factors - is essential in creating robust and productive soils that are able to sustain commercial potato production. Growing potatoes requires a lot of inputs, including fertilizer and irrigation, and also involves a lot of soil disturbance particularly at planting and harvest,” he said.

“Practices such as cover cropping and reducing tillage and traffic, particularly when soils are wet can help improve soil health. These practices are not revolutionary, however the way they are implemented as a system can make all the difference.

“Improving physical soil health allows better root growth and more efficient use of nutrients and water. A soil with higher organic matter is more stable and less prone to water and wind erosion, keeping valuable soil on-farm.”

Dr Tegg said managing soil health as a complete package using a ‘farming system’ concept was essential to long-term soil health. This means that farming practices outside of the potato crop, such as cover crops or long-term pastures, are likely to have the biggest positive impact on soil health.

“A healthy soil can offer more opportunities and flexibility for growers. If the soil is more robust and resilient it may allow for shorter rotation times between potato crops, which would be a massive incentive for growers,” Dr Tegg said.

“Some of the innovative growers are already experimenting with such approaches. Likewise, robust, healthy soils may give flexibility to increase planting and harvest windows, which provides more options for growers.”

The research team are interviewing potato growers over the next month to bring their stories of managing soil health to the wider potato growing community.

This project brings together up to date advice on soil health monitoring, and case studies of growers implementing good soil health practices. It will distil the vast knowledge bank of soil health into practical information for potato growers.

Dr Tegg said a key output of the project was that research into soil health needs to be multidisciplinary and track changes over longer time periods.

“You have to look at soil health over the longer term because what you do now is going to impact on your soil in five to 10 years from now,” Dr Tegg said.

TIA is also conducting a long-term soil health study at the Forthside Vegetable Research Facility in North-West Tasmania. The project, which is currently in its twelfth year, is supported by Agrigrowth Tasmania.  TIA is following the progress of a section of farm managed with cover crops, biofumigants and various crop rotations whilst measuring key indicators of soil health.

TIA is a joint venture of the University of Tasmania and the Tasmanian Government.

This article was published in Tasmanian Country on 13 April 2018.

Published on: 13 Apr 2018 9:35am