Wageningen Soil Conference 2019- Understanding Soil Functions

The Centre for Soil Ecology asked two young scientists how they experienced the Wageningen Soil Conference, held 26-30th of August. Here is their story:

Wageningen Soil Conference 2019- Understanding Soil Functions

By Natalie J. Oram and Emily Ongus

This edition of the Wageningen Soil Conference included a variety of new events to encourage interaction, discussion, and cultivate innovative ideas to advance the field of soil science. Be it presentations showcasing advances in soil science, afternoon Masterclasses, or a packed evening program the Wageningen Soil Conference gave plenty of opportunities to interact and learn. We (Natalie Oram, postdoc in the Soil Biology Group, and Emily Ongus, MSc. student in the Soil Biology and Soil Physics and Land Management Groups) chatted with many participants about the conference. One participant summed it up well, ‘this is the best soil science conference I’ve ever been to!’

Understanding soil functions

An overarching theme of the conference was the importance of taking care of our land. And to do so, we need to understand soils- their biological, chemical, and physical properties- and their functions. A daunting task. The conference reflected the many ways of tackling this challenge.

Keynote speakers began our mornings sharing their research and insights. Johannes Lehmann presented a new model of stabilization of organic carbon: a mixture of organic matter that are constantly interacting with microbes and the soil environment (Woolf and Lehmann, 2019) . Edith Hammer presented her ‘window to the underground’ via a fascinating micro-structured Soil Chip , visualising the heterogeneity of soil at a microscale. In her presentation, for example, she showed how different fungal hyphae move within the soil pore spaces using Minecraft as an analogy. Thomas Crowther presented research of Crowtherlab on mapping soil organisms to understand carbon feedbacks; understanding changes in carbon stocks requires understanding of the soil microbial community. Finally, Maria Victoria Ballester of Sao Paulo University took us to the Xingu Basin in Brazil applying a functional land management approach to inform sustainable agricultural intensification therefore avoiding the cutting of more trees to create more arable land.

A variety of tools to inform soil management decision making at the farm and policy level were presented, throughout the conference. These tools aim to engage land managers in evaluating their soils and use indicators (i.e. easy to measure characteristics) to determine their soil quality/soil health. Some of the tools include: Soil Navigator, a decision support system for assessing and optimizing soil functions from the Landmark project, Bonares a platform for impact assessment on soil functions for policy makers and land managers, Sector Mentor for Soils which supports on farm decision making through physical soil health tests, Land Support a decision support system for better soil management in agriculture, forestry, and land use policies, and Open Bodem Index a decision support tool for farmers here in the Netherlands.

Communicate your science!

The Rising Soil Stars  science communication pitch competition gave ten brave young researchers a chance to present their research in 3 minutes. With only an afternoon professional pitch-training the researchers were left to come up with captivating pitches. The pitches were exceptional and left a very difficult decision for the 6-member jury, as well as the audience. An audience member commented has advice for conference presenters: ‘next time, all talks should be this good!’. After intense jury deliberation, Muhammad Tufail of the University of Trento, Italy was given the jury prize with his engaging title ‘Ssssshhh! Bacteria are coming to help you’. Jeanne Maréchal of University of Rennes 1 (ECOBIO) and Sol Paysage company, France got the audience voted prize with her theatre performance ‘psychoanalysis of an urban earthworm.’

Poster presenters also got the stage. Within a one-minute time ‘bomb’ they had to pitch their research and convince the audience members to visit their posters. The pitches were exceptionally concise, leaving the audience members with plenty interesting posters to choose from. The pitches marked the transition into the afternoon sessions. One of the scientists noted that it was a refreshing challenge to communicate their research in a seemingly short time and still captivate the audience.

Soil scientists like to get their hands dirty!

One of the conference highlights were the afternoon Masterclasses. Participants had the chance to spend their afternoon going into depth in one of 30 hands-on workshops over three days. The Masterclasses were very well received overall, it turns out that young and old, experienced or new soil scientists like to get their hands dirty! There were a great variety of masterclasses, which gave participants the opportunity to engage in vibrant discussion on key issues facing soil science, learn a new skill (or improve an old one) in the laboratory or field, have hands-on training in modelling and mapping, or join a field tour. For the adventurous, there was even an escape room where participants needed to write a Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) for an imaginary EU country. One participant was so enthusiastic that he was able to develop skills at a conference – identifying feeding groups of nematodes and measuring micro plastics in soils - that he would soon use in his own research. The Masterclasses supplied unique ways of learning and was a favourite part of the conference amongst participants.

Evenings of soil science

‘What is good for the soil is good for farmers.’ This statement was the focal point of a Fishbowl discussion chaired by Rogier Schulte that included farmers, scientists, and people involved in policy. There was a lively discussion about barriers to adopting best-management practices on farm, including audience participation facilitated by Blaire van Pelt.

If you ever wanted to share a beer and an informal chat with your soil science hero, Meet the Experts was the place to be. Experts in soil science captivated their audiences with a unique item on their table. The items symbolised their expertise. To put this in perspective, Jetse Stoorvogel from Wageningen University soil geography garnered the most audience votes, with his blow-up globe as his unique item.

The final evening of the conference took place at the beautiful Blaauwe Kamer, where the conference dinner was served. In true Dutch style, a biking tour (and bikes) of the surroundings was offered on the way to the dinner. The weather cooperated, so it was a beautiful sunny evening for a bike ride. A great end to a great conference!

Tot ziens!

We leave this edition of the Wageningen Soil Conference with new ideas, new skills, and enthusiasm to continue studying our beloved soil and the many irreplaceable functions that she offers. A huge thanks to the organizing committee and the volunteers: you’ve put together a fantastic conference, and we’re already looking forward to the next!

Photographs by Guy Ackermans