Soil Carbon, also known as the black coal of the soil, or humus, was the hot topic in the New South Wales south-west slopes at two forums recently.
The first, at Boorowa on March 3 at Boorowa Ex-Services and Citizens Club held the 120 participants full attention. This event was hosted by Boorowa Community Landcare Group and NSW Farmers, supported by South East Local Land Services and ACT NRM through funding from the Australian Government's National Landcare Program.
The audience had a big appetite for the information presented by the two main speakers, Dr Susan Orgill soil research team leader at New South Wales Department of Primary Industries; and Dr Terry McCosker OAM the founder and Principal of both Resource Consulting Services and Carbonlink, based in Yeppoon, Queensland. Terry's businesses have affiliations with many land managers throughout Australia.
Susan and Terry presented dense information and at times the rain of research findings and the explanations of the emerging Carbon markets had the audience somewhat struggling to keep up in the wake of these two outstanding presenters. We all counted ourselves fortunate to be in the audience.
Susan gave a very clear presentation of the pathways of management that can lead to increasing soil organic carbon including the benefits of full ground cover, planned grazing and adequate recovery for pastures.
Terry navigated us through the history of the emerging Soil Carbon markets and the steps to registering a carbon project and what it entails. Over the past twelve months, the price of a tonne of carbon dioxide has moved from $18 a year ago to $50 at the meeting. The reason this has happened is that the world is awash with big emitters looking for places to offset their emissions, and places to park these emissions are undersupplied. To a large degree this is being driven by the acceptance by many nations to be net zero by 2050.
After lunch we had presentations from two district landholders Rhonda and Bill Daly from Young and Hal and Maggie Rikard Bell from Crookwell who had each registered a Soil Carbon project and spoke about their experiences in doing that.
One of the highlights of the Boorowa Forum was the hour-long question and answer panel session when the audience had an opportunity to ask questions of the four speakers. There were a lot of meaningful questions and good discussion which led to some important learnings. So often these programs run short of time and the questions session is cut back or dropped and the opportunity is lost.
The second forum was convened by Mid Lachlan Landcare and the Growing the Grazing Revolution Project, managed by local farmer Scott Hickman. It was held in the Cowra Showground Pavillion and attended by 70 local farmers and others. We were treated to another electrifying talk by Dr Susan Orgill. We are so fortunate to have such an energetic, enthusiastic and rigorous scientist working for NSW DPI, as Susan.
The second speaker was Stuart Austin, the general manager of Wilmot Cattle Company, WCC, who operate several large properties in the Ebor area, east of Armidale, as well as Cavan Station at Yass.
Last year they did two soil carbon trades in a private negotiation with the Microsoft Corporation.
Stuart outlined the WCC development program and their monitoring of Soil Organic Carbon annually. Despite the fact of a severe three-year drought and a fire that burnt half of the Wilmot property, soil carbon levels have continued to rise. We were all impressed by Stuart's ability to manage a big team and a complex program. He outlined the importance of Maia grazing, a digital tool for planning grazing management and pasture assessments. During the three drought years 2017,18,19, they had regular assessments of pasture and destocked gradually so as to preserve ground cover as conditions deteriorated. Having done this rather than feeding, when it finally rained they were in a good position to begin restocking quite quickly.
The second session in Cowra was a group of local farmers who presented short stories regarding how they approached management and their journeys of change.
Sam Stranger was part of the CAMBI project administered by the Lachlan CMA. It was a pilot market-based trial and its purpose was to see if proponents could increase SOC over the time of the project.
The aim was to learn about market-based solutions that could be used to attract farmers who were interested in carbon farming. This happened before the Carbon Farming Initiative which is now over ten years old.
Will Bennett told the story of the long history of his family on land adjacent to the Lachlan. Although the family had farmed irrigated lucerne, eventually Will found the traffic and compaction of lucerne farming and the problem of running a system based on a monoculture began to worry him and he did some holistic management training and now runs livestock only, using planned rotational grazing on his increasingly diverse pastures.
Megan Rowlands told the story of her family's embracing the holistic decision-making process after she and John did HM training in 1998. Ground cover and increasing diversity are hallmarks of their management and they change numbers or place cattle on agistment rather than getting into expensive feeding programs.
Scott Hickman related that he had been to three Carbon days in three weeks, the first at the Maia Grazing field days at Wilmot east of Armidale, then Boorowa, and Cowra the third. He spoke of the three questions for him and his family.
1 Where does a carbon project fit for them? It is consistent with good management which will lead to increasing soil carbon and growth of Natural Capital.
2 Where does it fit in the business. Increasing soil carbon and natural capital is good for their business. Any future income is viewed as icing on the cake.
3 Understanding the process that leads from planning; the plan has to be approved by the regulator; and approval leads to baselining.
After ten years of sometimes extreme frustration, the businesses offering services of soil testing and aggregation opportunities for entering the soil carbon market and how to go about registering a project is becoming clearer. Since the Wilmot and Cavan trades, more interest is being shown as growers become more confident in the process and how to understand and navigate the risks.
Questions were asked about whether our advisors, accountants, lawyers and bankers are able to give clear and precise advice to those wanting to talk about carbon farming.
The answer seemed to be that these advisors, like the farming community, need to get up to speed, although there are examples of professionals who are ready to answer their client's enquiries.
Since these recent forums there have been announcements from the Federal Minister David Littleproud, that it may be possible in the future to engage in biodiversity offsets. Lots of details to be worked out on this but it just might open the door for people who have been wise stewards and increasing Natural Capital over many years, may be able to participate in soil and a future biodiversity market.
David Marsh 'Allendale' Boorowa, April 2022
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.