(Tetun) Soil phosphorus levels can now be tested in Timor-Leste for the first time ever thanks to recent training given to five Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) staff with assistance from the Crawford Fund.

During a visit by two Australian soil analysis experts in October, they conducted a 3-week training in which MAF staff also learned how to test soil pH and electro conductivity. All future soil testing for these characteristics will continue to be done locally in MAF’s laboratory at Comoro.

Jilberto (left) found the training to be useful for learning new skills © Ivan Lopes/Seeds of Life

Dave works with two participants to do some soils test, key to understanding how fertile farmers’ soil is ¬© Ivan Lopes/Seeds of Life

Eighty samples from a range of soils on farms across seven districts were tested during the hands-on training with results showing that 66 percent of samples were low to very low in phosphorus ‚Äď an essential element for all crop growth.

Phosphorus levels in the samples ranged from zero to 59ppm (parts per million). The samples had been collected in 2013 from a range of farmers’ fields where MAF-SoL researchers had conducted on-farm demonstration trials of maize.

Understanding soil elements is necessary for productive agriculture explains one of the trainers, Dave Lyons, a former Principal Chemist at the Department of Environment and Resource Management in Queensland, Australia.

‚ÄúSoil analysis is key to understanding soil quality, which in turn is critical to knowing how to increase production and therefore food security,‚ÄĚ he said.

‚ÄúIf farmers don‚Äôt know about the condition of their soil, it‚Äôs hard for them to know how to improve their yield,‚ÄĚ Dave said.

Trainer Dave Lyon demonstrates how to do a soil test, vital for understanding soil condition © Ivan Lopes/Seeds of Life

Trainer Dave Lyon explains the importance of doing soils analysis © Ivan Lopes/Seeds of Life

The group used the Olsen P method to test for phosphorus, the standard way of measuring phosphorus in the tropics.

‚ÄúLow soil phosphorus restricts crop growth and yield, so knowing the level of phosphorus can help farmers understand what‚Äôs actually happening in the ground,‚ÄĚ he said.

“The testing for electro conductivity shows if there is a salt problem and pH testing measures the extent the soil is acid or alkaline, an indicator of the soil’s suitability for crop growth.

‚ÄúIf pH is too low the roots of the plants will be susceptible to plant toxins and if the pH is too high the plant roots are unable to get nutrients from the soil,‚ÄĚ Dave said.

Soil analysis is key to understanding soil quality, which in turn is critical to knowing how to increase production and therefore food security

Participants found the course to be valuable for learning new skills in soil analysis.

‚ÄúLearning how to detect phosphorus in the soil was new for me. This is important so farming families know about the condition of the soils,‚ÄĚ said Jilberto dos Santos from MAF Agronomy Research.

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Jilberto (right) found the training to be useful for learning new skills that will help farmers better understand their soils © Ivan Lopes/Seeds of Life

Seeds of Life continues to research innovative and simple ways farmers can restore soil fertility to improve crop yield. MAF-SoL actively promote the use of velvet beans (Lehe) and organic fertilisers like rock phosphate to help boost phosphorus levels.

This is the second soil testing training course run by the Crawford Fund. The first was also delivered by Dave Lyons to four participants in 2012.

Since the recent training on 14-30 October, the laboratory staff have tested an additional 20 soil samples and will continue to test samples as part of the ongoing function of the soils laboratory.

© Ivan Lopes/Seeds of Life

A total of 80 soils samples from a wide range of farm across seven districts were tested during and after the training © Ivan Lopes/Seeds of Life

Soil Science Australia has also supported the soils laboratory by donating over $100,000 of laboratory equipment in 2012. This included glassware, a distilled water purifier, spectrophotometer, oven, grinder, centrifuge and soil shaker.

The training was funded by Crawford Fund and run by trainers Dave Lyons and Siok Ay, Senior Laboratory Technician from the Department of Science, Information Technology, Innovation and the Arts in Queensland, Australia. This was Dave’s third visit and Siok Ay’s first to Timor-Leste.