Michael Perry, SCMP – Jun 18, 2009
Centuries-old practices are going as Australian farmers embrace new ways to save the land
On the rolling hills of Winona, a fine merino sheep stud in New South Wales state, a quiet revolution is taking place that Australian farmers hope will see them selling soil carbon credits in the climate change battle instead of sticking semen up sheeps’ rears.
Colin Seis, one of the country’s leading “carbon farmers”, has for 10 years been encouraging the extraction of greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and raising the carbon content of his soil to improve pastures.
Mr Seis estimates he has sequestered a total of 73,786 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, or 7,386 tonnes each year. As he only emits 2,200 tonnes farming, he has a credit of 5,186 tonnes of carbon.
Under Australia’s planned carbon emissions trading scheme, if Mr Seis continues sequestering carbon and maintains his credit, he could sell 5,186 tonnes for up to A$129,650 (HK$800,000), depending on the price.
Australia wants a formal carbon trading scheme by 2011, with agriculture possibly included in 2015. Australia’s planned Emissions Trading Scheme will have a fixed A$10 a tonne price in the first year, followed by an open market with an expected price of A$25 a tonne. But it is unclear what type of credit farmers would be allocated.
“Soil is the largest carbon sink we have control of. It’s a major answer [to climate change] yet it’s been overlooked,” Mr Seis said. “It’s so obvious because plants are the only thing taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.”
The Chicago Climate Exchange in the US has been trading soil carbon since 2005 but it is not an official offset under the Kyoto Protocol. The UN food and agriculture organisation and conservation farmers are pushing for the rules to be changed at the Copenhagen talks in December.
The Chicago Climate Exchange traded contracts worth 18.1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in the year to the end of April, with prices ranging from US$1.55 to US$2.05 per tonne.
Fifth-generation farmer Mr Seis said there were about 2,000 “carbon farmers” in Australia. Farmers are turning their backs on centuries-old practices brought from England, where paddocks were continually cropped and ploughed, and drenched with fertiliser and weed killer, and are adopting eco-friendly farming to repair damaged soil. Carbon farmers are adopting zero or minimum tillage, which does not plough the soil, increasing stock rotation to allow land to rest, sometimes for years, and avoiding bare earth with year-round cover with crops, native grasses and weeds. All these measures increase the biomass in the soil, making it more fertile and, in turn, increase the carbon in the soil.
Mr Seis “pasture crops” his 840-hectare farm near Gulgong in eastern Australia, planting cereals among native grasses to ensure paddocks are covered all year to allow plants to constantly absorb carbon and limit erosion.
“We do not kill the grasslands; we sow the crop when the grass is in its winter dormant phase. When we harvest, the grass comes back,” said Mr Seis. “What I have done is encourage nature to function as designed – to work with nature not against it.”
Mr Seis has also reduced the size of his paddocks and rotates his 4,000 sheep regularly, what is called high-density short-duration grazing, or pulse grazing, ensuring paddocks are given long periods of rest from grazing to revive.
Despite a long-running drought, Mr Seis has enough ground cover to last the dry winter and no need to buy feed. He can also run two sheep per acre, double his neighbour.
Increasing soil carbon allows paddocks to retain more moisture for crops – a vital advantage for Australian farmers who have been battling decades of drought.
A 1 per cent increase in soil carbon means an extra 144,000 litres per hectare water capacity, says Mr Seis, who has increased his soil carbon from 2.5 per cent to 4 per cent, giving him an average of 300,000 litres extra water per hectare.
“It’s like putting your farm under a different rain zone. Carbon farming means your farm comes into drought later and comes out of drought sooner,” said Louisa Kiely, a fellow sheep farmer and co-founder of the lobby group Carbon Coalition.
Across the valley from Ms Kiely’s homestead stand three tombstones marking the graves of the property’s original owners, the Lahys from Tipperary, Ireland. Michael Lahy died in 1859. But those tombstones, surrounded by rotting, dead weeds, are the only remnants of the old farming ways on Uamby in NSW. The Kielys have turned their property into a pure carbon farm. “We have turned the farm over to native vegetation and grazing, and we can get carbon credits for it. There is a whole new economy developing,” said Michael Kiely, surveying his farm from the top of a hill.
Mr Seis and other Australian farmers are being hindered from selling carbon credits due to a lack of a formal protocol for measuring the increase in carbon in their soils and a formal market. Australia has only a small voluntary carbon market.
Australia’s annual greenhouse emissions total 553 million tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent, but would require only a 0.5 per cent rise in soil carbon in 2 per cent of farmland to sequester all the annual carbon dioxide emissions, Christine Jones, founder of Australian Soil Carbon Accreditation Scheme, said.
“Australia’s single greatest comparative advantage in the battle to reduce CO2 emissions is our enormous land mass – over 7 million square kilometres,” said opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull, whose Liberal Party supports a policy of bio-sequestration. “The opportunities for CO2 abatement here are gigantic.”
Australia’s carbon farmers argue that the country’s depleted soil can be repaired to once again store more carbon. Since white settlement in Australia in 1788, more than 70 per cent of farmland has been seriously degraded, with a loss of 50 to 80 per cent of organic carbon from surface soil, says Ms Jones.
Broker Prime Carbon lists carbon credit units on Australia’s National Environment Registry and aims to convert 1 million hectares into sustainable farming by 2013, and provide wholesale carbon credits for national and international markets.
Prime Carbon had registered 200,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide in the past 18 months but sold only 10 per cent, said founder Ken Bellamy.
Measuring soil carbon gains is difficult as carbon levels vary between soils and rainfall areas. Soil carbon can differ from one end of a paddock to the other. “It is dynamic and always cycling and fluxing and cannot be measured like house bricks,” Mr Kiely said.
Another sticking point is how to ensure the carbon credit stays in the ground, as farming emits carbon. Agriculture accounts for 16 per cent of Australia’s emissions. Farmers argue that, if they remain in credit, then they are storing carbon.
Environmentally friendly ‘carbon farming’ techniques
By 2030, the UN estimates that 5.5 gigatonnes to 6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent a year could be mitigated by agriculture, with about 89 per cent achieved by soil carbon sequestration through cropland and grazing management, and restoration of organic soils.
Soil carbon is created when carbon dioxide is absorbed by vegetation, oxygen is released and carbon is used to make living tissue, such as vegetation. It is also produced by microbes and fungi, stimulated by plant roots as they push down through soil, retreating when the foliage above ground is grazed or harvested, then pushing down through the soil again as the foliage regrows.
Much of the carbon taken in by plants enters the top layer of the soil and is held there. Some is carried down to deeper layers of the soil where it can be held for hundreds of years.
Some carbon returns to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide from respiration of plants and some as methane from the rotting of vegetation.
Carbon farming is a new way to describe a collection of eco-friendly farming techniques which increase organic carbon in soil. Practices include:
100 per cent groundcover to prevent soil being blown or washed away: cooler soil is more attractive to microbes.
Grazing management: stock are left in small paddocks for short periods so they graze evenly and also till the soil with their hooves. When plants are lightly grazed, the roots go deeper into the soil helping create more carbon.
No till cropping or conservation tillage: farmers abandon ploughing and plant seeds by dropping them into ruts that barely disturb the soil, which avoids releasing soil carbon.
Pasture cropping: planting and growing crops among native grasses and weeds, taking advantage of their dormant period to grow and harvest crops. This ensures year-round ground cover of soil and more microbes.
Biological farming: zero chemical fertilisers.
“Mulching”: covering bare paddocks with hay or dead vegetation. This protects soil from the sun and allows the soil to hold more water and be more attractive to microbes.