DR ELIZABETH Stockdale’s name is synonymous with soil management on farm and her specialist subject has come to the fore over the past decade, as it is increasingly being recognised that soil is a precious resource that must be nurtured if we are to continue to grow profitable crops into the future.

Dr Stockdale’s current role is head of farming systems research at NIAB, although she is well-known in the North from her time at Newcastle University.

Her father was originally a farm labourer and latterly a landscape gardener and she opted for an undergraduate course in soil and land resource sciences at Newcastle University, after she left school in North Wales. Her next move was to join a project run by Scotland’s Rural College (formerly the SAC) and undertake a PhD studying nitrogen cycling in soils and the nutrient’s availability to plants within organic farming systems.

“I have never stopped being excited by how the different disciplines of science work together in practice in the soil,” said Dr Stockdale. “Soil cannot be studied in isolation; there is a multitude of factors to consider, including the whole rotation, tillage methods and the weather, as well as the local geology and landscape.”

Credited for her contribution to the pioneering development of farm nutrient budgeting and in evaluating new approaches to establishing fertiliser decision support systems, Dr Stockdale went on to hold a scientific position at the Rothamsted Research Institute in Hertfordshire for a decade.

There followed a 14-year career as a senior lecturer in Newcastle University’s school of agriculture, where she was involved in teaching and research and knowledge exchange relating to on-farm soil management. Her down-to-earth approach and broad knowledge of soil management made her a popular lecturer and speaker at technical events in the North of England and she was also a Secretary of State appointee to the Northumberland National Park Authority, where one of her roles was to consider the opportunities for climate change mitigation within its boundaries.

Dr Stockdale now leads a multidisciplinary team at NIAB, which is celebrating its centenary of work focused on science-led plant variety and seeds characterisation, evaluation, quality control and knowledge transfer this year. A major element of her work is to head the £1 million five-year AHDB-BBRO* research partnership in soil biology and soil health, which is developing practical tools for farmers and growers and facilitating their access to up-to-date scientific information.

In 2014, the Food and Agriculture Organisation warned that urgent action was required to improve the health of the world’s limited soil resources and prevent land degradation, to ensure that future generations have sufficient supplies of food, water, energy and raw materials.

Its report indicated that there could be only 60 harvests remaining, if current management practices are continued. Farmers are also experiencing a yield plateau across a wide range of crops and the Environmental Audit Committee in the UK has suggested that soil degradation could lead to farming becoming unprofitable within a generation.

Dr Stockdale said: “I am not so pessimistic, having seen many examples across the UK of effective and profitable farms that are also improving their soil health. In cropping systems, the mixed farming approaches that used to be common are being revisited.

“Data shows that on farms where it can be integrated economically, grassland of two to three years duration within an arable rotation can have a transformative effect on soil structure and biological activity. Conservation agriculture systems with diverse rotations, green cover for most of the year and zero tillage also show improvements in soil health. However there are ongoing threats, such as reductions in the levels of organic matter and the increased risk of compaction following the introduction of larger machinery.”

The principles underpinning good soil husbandry have been known for generations, she suggested.

“Optimising pH, making sure that drains run freely and cultivating only as intensively as required, with careful attention to soil condition, are not new messages. But each farm needs to work out how to put these principles into practice for their own soils and systems.

“In my early career, a meeting on soils would focus on nutrient management, with only relatively small numbers of farmer delegates in attendance. Today, such events attract a much larger audience and usually include a wider subject range, covering topics as diverse as the breeding habits of earthworms, materials which make the best compost and why some soils never seem to run out of potash.”

Her core interest remains in translating the results of scientific research into a real-life farm situation.

“I still like getting my hands dirty; there is no substitute for taking a spade, digging and hole and seeing what is really going on below the surface.

“We will never find all the answers to soil management in agriculture, but it is encouraging that farmers and researchers are now working in partnership and sharing their knowledge to make a real difference to our understanding of soils and their role as a foundation not just for farming, but for all aspects of a healthy environment,” said Dr Stockdale.

*BBRO – non-profit-making company set up jointly by British Sugar and the NFU.