Improved soil quality after 16 years of olive mill pomace application in olive oil groves
There is growing interest in the applications of soil enzymes as early indicators of soil quality change under contrasting agricultural management practices. However, despite there being an abundant literature on this subject, most comparative assessments have been based on a limited number of experimental farms and, therefore, conclusions are not as robust as desired. In this study, we compare 18 pairs of organic and neighbouring conventional olive orchards in southern Spain. These sites were selected to allow the definition of the relative contributions of site-landscape features, soil type, and time since organic accreditation and tillage intensity, on the soil quality. Soils were analysed for physico-chemical properties, the activities of dehydrogenase, b-glucosidase, arylsulphatase, acid and alkaline phosphatase, and potential nitrification. The geometric mean of the assayed enzymes (GMea) was validated with an independently performed Principal Component Analysis (PCA), and used as a combined soil quality index. The effects of tillage intensity and time since organic accreditation on the improvement of soil quality were also evaluated within the subset of organic farms. Overall for the 18 sites, contrasted management practices did not differ in their impact on basic soil physico-chemical properties, except for loss of on ignition and available inorganic N which were higher and lower in organic farms, respectively. Organic management resulted in significantly higher soil enzyme activities. However, differences were not significant in some of the paired comparisons when considered individually. This highlights the need for extensive comparative assessment, as in this study, to draw clear conclusions concerning the changes to soil quality under sustainable management practices. The GMea was significantly correlated with the first axis of the PCA and shown to be appropriate for condensing the set of soil enzyme values to a sole numerical value. Soil quality changes in organic versus conventional farms, as measured by the GMea, ranged from 23% to 97%, and was highly dependent on time since organic accreditation (r 1⁄4 0.88; P < 0.01). On the other hand, tillage intensity clearly tended to delay any progress in soil quality in the organic farms. 2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.