Resource economics, using mathematical models and numbers to investigate farming and environmental problems, could provide a simple procedure for summarising multiple physical, biochemical and biological parameters into a single soil quality index.
Dr Atakelty Hailu, Senior Lecturer, School of Agricultural and Resource Economics, Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at The University of Western Australia (UWA) and Chief Investigator of an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Project, is developing such a procedure.
"The index will be a useful tool to judge land productivity and evaluate the performance of investments in soil quality," he said.
"Our approach makes the soil index construction procedure more objective by utilizing a production input-output relationship estimated with field data, rather than ad hoc ways of converting multiple attributes into a single index.
"Our consistent results suggest it may be possible to construct indices which capture soils'capability, without referring to factors other than soil quality attributes.
Dr Hailu also has research interests in productivity and efficiency analysis and environmental policy design.
He indicated that environmentally sensitive productivity analysis, a relatively new field, aimed to incorporate environmental effects (desirable and undesirable outputs) with marketed inputs and outputs.
"In agriculture this can generate broad measures of performance and compare management practices, such as selection of crop varieties, using broader yardsticks such as post-harvest soil quality effects."
Dr Hailu is also developing an integrated economic-hydrologic model for 300 farms in the Katanning catchment, to provide a computer-based or ‘virtual laboratory' for policy formulation on land use.
"It would provide a spatially explicit platform to investigate how interventions directed at land use change will impact on agriculture and the condition of the catchment," he said.
Supported by a Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) grant, ‘Developing Environmental Service Policy for Salinity', it couples a whole farm economic model with the Soil and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT) model, which simulates water flows, crop growth and water and nutrient diffusion within a catchment.
This work, in conjunction with Dr Rohan Sadler, also of UWA's School of Agricultural and Resource Economics, will be presented at a seminar.
Complementing this is Dr Hailu's work on auction design: in an auction system, farmers indicate to government what services they could offer at what cost and these are ranked accordingly.
Services might include providing water or replanting marginal land to ameliorate saline soils.
Payment is then apportioned, from the cheapest to the most expensive bid.
However, if farmers are asked to provide a range of services, with a more complex payment schedule, more flexible, multi-unit auctions are useful.
Dr Hailu, in collaboration with Dr Sophie Thoyer of Ecole Nationale Superiere d'Agronomie de Montpellier in France, has been studying alternative payment rules for multi-unit auctions.
He believes conservation auctions could improve if farmers could nominate alternative levels of services in their bids.
With growing awareness of environmental and resource issues, his research focus is on the potential to develop workable solutions to environmental and resource issues.