Friday, February 27, 2009

Opt In to Possibility Thinking

Congratulations to Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition on the 'opt-in' concept for Agriculture in the Emissions Trading Scheme. Congratulations on the whole biosequestration push.It is the first piece of clear thinking to arise in this debate. Strangely enough a similar idea came up in a workshop group at a Cattle Council brainstorm last week, which I shared with Prof. Peter Grace from QUT, the rangelands expert. We focussed our thinking on reducing risks inherent in a trading system for growers and came up with an '"Environmental Tax Credits" system - a trainer-wheels trading scheme underwritten for the first 5 years by the Government to keep the risk down for growers and buyers. Farmers opt in by signing a contract to manage their land in a certain way for 5 years. In return they receive a certain number of Australian Country Bonds, the number determined by 1. how many different functions they opt in for (eg, maximum ground cover, pasture cover, applying recognised inoculants, etc.Ie. actions known to sequester carbon) and 2. their performance each year. And the primary function of accumulating bonds is to meet their obligations for methane and N2O. These Bonds also entitle them to trade a commensurate number of 'estimated' credits on the voluntary offset market. In 5 years they can learn how to respond to a market mechanism and the system can be ramped up, changed, or replaced with another motivational mechanism.
There are many solutions yet to be discovered. The difference between today and yesterday is that bodies ike the Opposition and the NFF are suggesting that Kyoto is not etched in stone, and that we can become possibility thinkers again instead of being repressed by reference to the RULES.
Shadow Environment Minister Greg Hunt said accounting for the emissions "is a problem, but one that can be addressed". Soil carbon was not counted towards international greenhouse commitment, he said but "the international situation has to be changed in the current negotiations and we should be fighting to make sure that it is".
Nationals Farmers Federation chief executive Ben Fargher said he hoped the Government would support the idea of farmers "opting in" to the scheme to receive incentives to reduce their emissions. "We shouldn't let the problem that it isn't allowed under the international rules stop us," he said. Hurrah. The NFF thinks the previously unthinkable.
The 'opt in' option could make farmers $3bn annually. The Opposition says we can sequester 150m tonnes CO2-e annually.
The Politicians are motivated by Politics. There are points to score in this debate: but we will take allies wherever we can get them. Every day we get closer to the solution. We gain legitimacy. Our opponents learn that we are not the dangerous rogues they supposed...


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Dear Kerry: "Credible, respected" scientists once believed the SUN revolved around the EARTH

Many questions are raised by the 7.30 Report's Kerry O’Brien’s statement last night: “Credible respected scientists in the field believe that carbon sequestration in the soil is a small part - and I'll quote directly, "... a small part of Australia's greenhouse solution"? In other words, this is also a field that's very much open to debate; this is not precise science."

Q.Professor Rattan Lal believes the world's soils can sequester 3 gigatonnes of GHG/year for 50 years - the Globe emits 8 gt/yr more than it should - so soils can secure close to 40% of the world's rogue emissions. Is this a small part? Are the scientists you are quoting as credible and respected as Professor Lal?

Q. If they believe soil carbon is such an imprecise science, how can 'credible, respected scientists' in the field be so sure of themselves?

Q. On what data do these 'credible, respected scientists' base their claim? The out-of-date data from studies of conventional, carbon depleting land management practices, such as ploughing, burning stubble, overgrazing, ‘set stocking’? They have not studied the new carbon sequestering techniques called ‘Carbon Farming‘. A senior official in Penny Wong's department has admitted that there are "key gaps in the data.". Even the authors of the reports warned of the gaps in the data. The Carbon Farming practices that have not been studied include grazing management, pasture cropping, perennial cover cropping, probiotic inoculation, compost teas, etc. Most important they do not study combinations of these actiivities. Farmers using these practices have proved that they can sequester carbon 10 to 100 times faster than the conventional models.

KERRY O'BRIEN: "...the Government last year allocated $46 million to support research to reduce greenhouse pollution in agriculture including research into carbon in soils"

Q. The Government might have handed the scientific establishment $46m to study soil carbon – but do funding authorities refuse to fund the type of research needed to dispel the myths blocking the Soil Carbon Solution? Why?

Q. Why did Dr Christine Jones have to raise the funds for her soil carbon research privately? (See last week’s LandLine at

Q. Why did 5 senior NSW DPI soil scientists release a paper last week calling on funding authorities to invest in the right type of research: "It is important to resolve outstanding research questions as a matter of urgency, to remove this barrier to inclusion of soil carbon in emissions trading." ? See the paper here:

Q. Why did Senator Christine Milne accuse the nation’s biggest funder of soil research – the Grains Research Development Corporation of running a campaign against the capacity of Australian soil to sequester carbon. See transcript page 86 here:

Q. Why has every bid for research funding submitted by the Carbon Coalition- even in partnership with conventional scientists – been unsuccessful (since 2006)?

Q. Why is the body established by the Government to coordinate all research in climate change agriculture unable to tell us who is working on what research projects - ie. if any useful work is being done with the $46m? The National Climate Change Research Strategy for Primary Industries, operated by Land & Water Australia, says it has no information.

Q. How can Minister Burke and the Prime Minister know they are getting the research they expected would be done?

The five DPI scientists declared "considerable SOC sequestration potential exists in NSW agricultural land."

The world’s most eminent soil carbon scientist Prof. Rattan Lal says“Carbon sequestration in soil and vegetation is a bridge to the future. It buys us time while alternatives to fossil fuels take effect.”

Banckground on Lal:

Professor Rattan Lal received a prestigious World Congress of Soil Science award, an honor bestowed upon recipients once every four years in conjunction with the World Congress of Soil Science conference.
Rattan Lal, director of Ohio State's Carbon Management and Sequestration Center and a professor with the School of Environment and Natural Resources, is the recipient of the 2006 Liebig Applied Soil Science Award. Named in memory of German scientist Justus von Liebig -- known as the “father of the fertilizer industry” -- the award recognizes outstanding contributions in applied soil science research, resulting in new discoveries, techniques, inventions or materials.
Lal has spent 18 years of his service with Ohio State's Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) studying carbon sequestration -- the technique of storing carbon in the soil -- and its influence on soils throughout the world. Other areas of research include soil processes and atmospheric greenhouse effects, sustainable management of soil and water resources, restoration and rehabilitation of degraded soils, agro-forestry, tropical agriculture and agricultural development in the Third World.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Leading scientists call for "Urgent" Soil C research for trade

"It is important to resolve outstanding research questions as a matter of urgency, to remove this barrier to inclusion of soil carbon in emissions trading." So says five leading soil scientists from the NSW DPI. "In order to support a role for soil organic carbon in emissions trading, there is an urgent need to resolve several key research issues, namely developing low cost
methods of accounting for soil carbon; quantifying net carbon sequestration under different management practices for different soil types, climates and agricultural systems by supporting existing long term cropping rotation trial sites and the
establishment of new ones where appropriate; quantifying interactions of SOC sequestration with soil emissions of other GHG, namely N2O and CH4 and developing soil carbon models that can account for locally relevant agricultural management
practices." Dr Yin Chan and Dr Annette Cowie are co-authors of a paper* which declares "considerable SOC sequestration
potential exists in NSW agricultural land."
They say the highest potential exists in pasture land in the higher rainfall regions (>450 mm), both as permanent pastures or as ley pasture in the cropping zone. "Considerable increases can be achieved by pasture improvement and improved management practices. Significant SOC potential also exists in the low rainfall rangelands which comprises nearly 50% of NSW. Much of the rangelands are in degraded state and considerable total SOC sequestration can be achieved for a small rate of sequestration per hectare. Promotion of conservation tillage practices (particularly no-tillage) is important to halt further carbon losses from cropping soils (emission avoidance). Currently, there is only a 35% adoption rate of conservation tillage techniques in NSW."
In addition, SOC can also be sequestered by adopting new land conversion and soil amelioration options such as bioenergy crops from perennial vegetation, recycling organics including biochars, and by ameliorating sodic and acid soils.
"Many of the management practices that are effective in increasing SOC in agricultural
soils also improve productivity and profitability, conserve the resource base and
protect the environment," say Chan et al.
We can expect that they will lift their current estimation a gross sequestration potential of 18 Mt CO2e/yr (equivalent to 11% of the total GHG emission) once they start testing Carbon Farming.

*Scoping Paper: Soil Organic Carbon Sequestration Potential for Agriculture in NSW
K Y Chan, A Cowie, G Kelly, Bhupinderpal Singh, P Slavich

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Complete Education On Carbon Farming - on DVD - stocks available NOW

The Carbon Farming CONFERENCE DVD is now available.
IDEAL FOR bringing members of groups bidding for Caring For Our Country funds up to speed on soil carbon issues.
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THE LEADING SCIENTISTS IN THE FIELD deliver the latest research findings.
LEADING CARBON FARMERS share their experiences.

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Tim, Ken, and Tony Shine Light On Cattle Carbon Concerns

Tim Wiley did not take a backward step when his research methodology came under attack from several scientists at the Cattle Council's Forum on Australian Beef Industry Policies relating to Climate Change. There were questions about including root matter in the carbon calculation, which Tim referred the audience to IPCC Guidelines (which few appeared to have read). Tim was beamed into the meeting in North Sydney from WA where he says his findings have created 'controversy' among colleagues. Ken Bellamy also proved to be one of the few who have read the revised CPRS white paper to discover the"Removal Unit". Tony Lovell brought a sense of sanity to proceedings by several injections of basic logic into the highly charged emotional atmosphere. The event was significant because it shows that the beef industry is willing to face the issue.

STIL AMUSING AND CONFUSING PEOPLE, Ken Bellamy speaking to Lucinda Corrigan, MLA Board Director,, while Bob Wilson of Evergreen Farming peers at the camera, Prof. Peter Grace is partly obscured, and Cattle Council Chairman Greg Brown enjoys the between-session light relief.

The Christine Jones story

ABC TV's Landline program featuring Christine Jones can be found here. The program gave Christine the platform to explain her theories and also to reveal the 'conspiracy' of inaction among research funding bodies who refused to support research trials to put her theories to the test. The Carbon Farming movement is under an unofficial ban, pushing it into a Catch 22 situation: The scientific establishment criticizes us for having no data. The scientific funding establishment reject every attempt to provide the data. This is why Christine has had to take the unprecedented step of seeking private funds.

Both Minister Burke and Prime Minister Rudd have said recently '"we need more research into soil carbon". WeI don't think they know what "more research" means. It has become clear to those of us working daily in the field that science is not going to provide the answer to the question of measurement for trading because it can't. At least, not by finding finer and finer degrees of accuracy in measuring fractions of carbon. The more accurate the individual reading, the more the issue of flux becomes more problematic. We don't need any more research that reveals hard it is to measure soil carbon, or research that focusses on the fractions of carbon in soil. They are irrelevant in a trading context. Total carbon is all that is required. Flux is irrelevant. What the market needs to know is the delta in total C between two points in time. They are purchasing the delta. Dr Brian Murphy made this statement at our last meeting and is preparing a paper on the subject.

Minister Burke and PM Rudd both believe that the research being done is the type that will make trade possible. (The farming community is also under this impression.) I believe they are all wrong. But I would love to be proved wrong.

The type of research we do need is that which measures the performance of real world "Carbon Farming" techniques in different climate zones so we can populate a suitable model with data. The current models are sadly out of date, a point Peter Fisher made recently. The reality of carbon sequestration remains invisible to science. At our Carbon Farming Conference in Orange last year Coonamble cropper Anne Williams reported a 1% difference in Carbon between land cropped with compost tea and land left uncropped. That’s 1% increase in a year. Spring Ridge cropper Cam McKellar reported a 0.5% lift in 9 months. And Gulgong cropper Col Seis reported a rise in soil C 1.8 – 4% in 10 years. (Col's case in being evaluated by Dr YN Chan.) We have Carbon Farmers with better results than these. But who is studying combinations of advanced grazing management and pasture cropping and compost teas or probiotic inoculants? Who is aware of them?

We also need innovation in the processes that make trade possible. The Measurement Issue is not something science can resolve. Tony Lovell has clearly demonstrated that we should be guided by the answer to the question "For what purpose?" when asking how accurate our measurement need to be. When the answer is "to give a buyer confidence", the degree of exactitude needed is different to that which is required for the purpose of scientific enquiry. Degrees of uncertainty are necessary for the 'risk/reward' device to operate as an essential mechanism forming a market. (We have a DVD of the presentations available.)

I remember Michael Robinson from Land & Water saying at Mick Keogh's event last March: "The Science is lagging the politics." Twelve months later is it still lagging? By how much?

We would like to know the following:

Q.1. How many research projects currently being pursued address the practical issues of carbon trading?

Q.2. How many projects focus on the rate of sequestration that can be achieved by land management techniques such as the following, as solus applications, and various combinations of these applications, across a range of climate zones? (Grazing Mnagement, Pasture Cropping, No-Kill Cropping, biological fFarming, Composting, compost teas,

Q.3. Have any proposals of the type mentioned have been submitted in the recent rounds which were rejected?

A MOMENTOUS OCCASION: Christine Jones at the meeting of the Carbon Coalition's Advisory Council on 5th May 2006, where Singapore-based businesswoman Rhonda Willson offered to fund her research - the beginning of the journey that will see the first cheques paid to farmers in the Australian Soil Carbon Accreditation Scheme exactly 3 years later, in May 2009. The Carbon Farming Movement owes both women a debt of gratitude.

Friday, February 13, 2009

IPCC puts soils on agenda

The Chairman of the IPCC, Dr Pachauri responded to the letter (below) from an international Grasslands Carbon Working Group with the news that the issue of soil sequestration will be tabled at the next meeting of the IPCC Bureau. The letter, signed by 18 scientists, soils experts, NGOs and farmers' organisations from North and South America, as well as China and Australia, argues the case for soil's inclusion in the international effort to cope with the onrush the symptoms of climate change, providing food security and landscape buffering, and driven by appropriate market mechanisms. It was the culmination of 4 days' discussions at Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The FAO was a signatory to both this letter and a Communique (attached) released by a similar group, the Conservation Agriculture Carbon Consultation & Working Group, after a 4 day meeting in LaFayette, Indiana, USA. (Countries included those above plus South Africa, India, and Morocco.) The FAO was co-sponsor for this event.

Both communications are setting the scene for a concerted effort at Copenhagen later this year.

(Hats off to the authors, led by Andrew Fynn and Andreas Wilkes. The letter is exquitely written.)
Grassland Carbon Working Group
Soil Organic Carbon is the Future Beneath Our Feet 26 January 2009
To: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
c/o Dr. R. K. Pachauri, Chairman

Civilizations rise and fall with the quality of their soils. Soil organic carbon is essential to soil health. We are given one more chance to learn the lesson of history. This time the stakes are higher – soil degradation is endemic to every continent and we have created a new, atmospheric, carbon crisis.
The presence of soil organic carbon can be the difference between life and death. Soils store twice as much carbon as global vegetation and the atmosphere combined. Loss of historic soil organic carbon due to degradative land use has been dramatic, resulting in poor soil fertility, environmental pollution, food insecurity and poverty. Soil organic carbon can and must be restored.
Excess carbon in the atmosphere is a pollutant; carbon in the soil is a valuable ecosystem commodity. Healthy plants are the agents of transformation, converting the former to the latter. We consider grasslands in order to illustrate the potential of soil carbon sequestration in all agricultural soils. Grasslands cover one third of the planet’s 149 million km2 of land surface. A small change in soil carbon across this vast sink will have an enormous effect on atmospheric carbon. A 1 percent absolute increase in organic matter of grassland soils would sequester 102 Pg of carbon, removing 375 Pg of CO2 from the atmosphere(i).
Assuming 20% adoption of improved grassland management systems and that it would take 20 years to achieve the above increase, grasslands can sequester 1 Pg of carbon or 3.75 Pg of CO2 per year in the form of soil organic carbon. This would be the equivalent CO2 sequestration from 1000 medium•sized coal•fired power plants! The changes in grassland management required to achieve this change are already known (optimized stocking rates, improved fertility management, management intensive grazing, etc.), are relatively inexpensive to implement, and are ready to be deployed across the globe.
The same 1 percent increase in soil organic carbon would increase soil water holding capacity by 144,000 liters per hectare, an increase in soil water storage that would dwarf the capacity of the world’s dams. As the driver of critical ecosystem functions, soil organic carbon is the gateway to other ecosystem services markets, which have the potential to drive human management activities towards global sustainability. The recently created USDA Office of Ecosystem Services and Markets is a signal – the time for action is now.
Poor soils result in poor people, many of whom live in places where climate change is already having the most extreme effects. Crucially though, the most degraded soils have the greatest potential for remediation. Soil carbon sequestration will have the greatest effect in places where humanity is most desperate. Poverty, climate change, and food security are inseparable issues. Mechanisms are in place to feed the hungry, restore ecosystems, and build economic resilience; we are morally obliged to use them. It is time to mitigate misery and improve the health of our planet.
A lesson requires a teacher. This lesson requires strong leadership from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The Fourth Assessment Report and other IPCC documents recognized that sustainable management of grasslands could increase sink activity, but conclude there are barriers to implementation. It is time to find solutions. One person’s barrier is another person’s design constraint. Many barriers can be viewed as factors in a decision•making process. For example, public•private partnerships can develop and initiate solutions to perceived hurdles. Defensible soil carbon sequestration values are likely to be discovered during and after project activities.
We do not have the luxury of observation nor the time to fathom the global consequences.
An urgent and pragmatic assessment of the role of soil carbon sequestration is overdue. Grasslands and all forms of agricultural soil carbon sequestration must be recognized as an important source of mitigation at the next meeting of the international conference of parties in Copenhagen, and this important mitigation strategy accordingly linked to financing mechanisms. We call on the IPCC to hold immediate talks to develop strategies for the implementation of soil carbon sequestration at full potential. On the basis of these talks, we encourage the formation of a new working group to meet prior to the meeting in Copenhagen in December and its action plan be reported at that time. We extend our assistance to the IPCC in this important matter.
Convergent crises provide unprecedented opportunities. The multi•functional nature of soil organic carbon provides answers to problems, which paradoxically in isolation may appear insurmountable.
Like the crisis, the opportunity is unprecedented.
The solution is in our hands.

1 Calculation: 4.9 billion ha x 10,000 m2/ha x 0.3 m soil (depth) x 1.2 Mg soil/m3 soil (bulk density) x 5.8kg carbon/Mg soil (soil organic carbon in 1% greater soil organic matter). This calculation assumes equal change among all grassland ecosystems, which is unlikely to occur, but used for simplicity and generality.

Working Group Members
Andreas Wilkes – World Agroforestry
Centre, Beijing, China
Constance Neely – Heifer International,
Little Rock AR, USA
Tiffany McCormick Potter – Equator
Environmental, New York NY, USA
Greg McCarty –Agricultural Research
Service, Beltsville MD, USA
Leslie Lipper – United Nations Food and
Agriculture Organization, Rome, Italy
Rattan Lal – The Ohio State University,
Columbus OH, USA
Michael Kiely – Carbon Farmers of
Australia, New South Wales, Australia
Cesar Izaurralde – Joint Global Change
Research Institute, College Park MD,
Peter Holter – Holistic Management
International, Albuquerque NM, USA
Jim Hoey – Heifer International, Little Rock
Andrew Fynn, C-Restored, Marin County
Alan Franzluebbers, Agricultural Research
Service, Watkinsville GA, USA
Dale Enerson, National Farmers Union,
Jamestown ND, USA
Michael Ebinger – Los Alamos National
Laboratory, Los Alamos NM, USA
Peter Donovan – Soil Carbon Coalition,
Enterprise OR, USA
Richard Conant – Colorado State
University, Fort Collins CO, USA
Frank Aragona – Agricultural Innovations,
Albuquerque NM, USA
Maria Cristina Amezquita – International
Centre for Tropical Agriculture, Cali,

The gathering was an initiative of Holistic Management International. Allan Savory and Jodie Butterfield attended. It was a privilege to be there.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Soil carbon and ADDITIONALITY: We're not in, so we're in!

"You could explore possibilities with soil carbon. It is not covered by Kyoto here and is therefore additional." Jaws dropped all around the two tables that the Soil Carbon contingent occupied at a recent "information session" staged by the Department of Climate Change to explain its position on a voluntary standard it is putting together. Convinced as we were by the tenor of the White paper and the paper on Voluntary Standards that the Government did not want a voluntary market, this revelation - out of the mouth of a very senior government official in a public forum - came as a shock. Additionality is the biggest of the 3 BIG CHALLENGES FOR SOIL CARBON: Additionality, Permanence and Measurement. W would not be so ungratefull as to suggest that it may have been the Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull's "Road to Damascus" conversion to soil carbon the week before that sparked this revival in our fortunes.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Roth C: Wake up and smell the fungus

A series of articles in the latest Australia Farm Journal call into question the usefulness of the Roth C model (in its current configuration) for predicting the soil C performance of soil. it ignores the contribution of microbial communities. The articles take a long look at "The hidden costs of soil carbon" - a short paper by 5 CSIRO scientists which 'proved' that landholders could not afford to grow humus because of the cost of Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Sulphur inputs. The paper was based on a premise that is widely believed in soil science community: that the carbon sequestration potential of a soil is limited to the amount of organic matter added, ie. stubble retained, manure spread "The current configuration of a soil carbon model called Roth C suggests there would need to be 20 to 30 tonnes/ha/yr of biomass input to achieve the higher carbon sequestration rates we have measured under some perennial grasses in the Northern Ag Region of WA.," says Tim Wiley from the Department of Agriculture & Food, WA. But, while putting on an additional 16 tonnes of soil carbon/ha under perennials (vs annuals), the measurements of above ground biomass have been only 10 tonnes/ha/yr. Had the hypothesis of the CSIRO paper been right, there should have been a shortage of plant available Phosphorous under the perennials, with the extra tonnes of carbon sequestered binding more than 300kg/ha. But plant available P increased by 43kg/ha. This increase in P was also experienced by Scott Macalman at Warren.

If Tim and Scott and Christine Jones's results are right, then the CSIRO Paper is misleading. Yet it was sent to 37,000 growers by the GRDC as part of its sustained campaign against the idea that farmers could ever be paid for growing soil carbon. The paper reveals that the analysis did not take into account the emerging knowledge of soil microbiology. (Some would say it's been around for years. But it has been ignored in favour of chemistry and physics.) It assumed that there could be no other source of nutrients than a bag from a fertilizer company. The formula for humus means you need 60kg of N, 12kg of P and 9kg of S for every tonne of humus you make. One of the paper's authors used this additional nutrient requirement to call into doubt Col Seis's 2% increase in soil carbon over 10 years. We blogged the initial response in September when the item appeared in "GroundCover", which usually has an anti-soil C sequestration article in each issue. But we also reported the huge natural source of nitrogen: the sky, in a blog in June last year. Attached below is the evidence we supplied at the time:


Free-living nitrogen-fixing bacteria and symbiotic fungi can release and make available to plants vast amounts of the N, P, and S locked up in the soil after years of over-application of fertilisers. A CSIRO Fact Sheet says: "We know the current amount of nitrogen fertilizer applied per year is about 100 Megatons of nitrogen. However, we do not have an accurate knowledge of the amount of nitrogen addition through nitrogen fixation, although estimates are between 50 and 200 Megatons of nitrogen per year."(1) A NSW Department of Primary Industries fact sheet says, "Rhizobium bacteria ... can fix 100kg of nitrogen per hectare per year." (2)

In 1998, a CSIRO team claimed that Australian agricultural soils may be holding up to $10 billion worth of phosphorus, as a result of fertiliser applications. "The rural industry spends $600 million each year on phosphate-based fertilisers, yet often only about 10 to 20 per cent of the phosphorus is directly used by plants in the year it is applied," said CSIRO Plant Industry researchers Dr Alan Richardson and Dr Peter Hocking (3). "The remaining phosphorus becomes locked-up in the soil," he said.

If the right bacteria and fungi are present, more nutrient means more growth, which means more microbial activity and more biomass to enrich the soil. "When phosphorus is scarce in soil, plants that have developed mycorrhizas on their root systems have greater access to and take up more phosphorous than others," according to the University of Western Australia's Soil Science Department.(4)

The belief that only by introducing organic matter from outside the system can organic carbon grow seems to dominate thinking in high places. But wasn't it superseded long ago? “Numerous studies have shown that the introduction of strains of [bacteria] into the rhizospheres of cultivated plants led to significant increases in grain yield as well as total dry matter... The stimulations observed are most likely due to the production of growth hormones by these bacteria." (5)

(5) Davet, Pierrre, Microbial Ecology of the Soil and Plant Growth, 2004


Soil organic matter (SOM) can supply much of your Nitrogen needs. “In cropping systems, as much as 50%-80% of the N can be supplied from SOM and nearly 100% of the N in native ecosystems,” writes Professor Charlie Rice in his book Soil Carbon Management. This percentage represents11-300kg N ha-1 for a crop*. At $1500/tonne for nitrogen fertiliser, this transates intoa value of $16.50-$450/ha/yr.

How can this be? Well Nitrogen, like Carbon, is mobile. It cycles. Most N in soils comes from the air and is absorbed by micro-organisms associated with legume plants. N is fixed by legumes and stored in the soil in organic forms, to be broken down by other microbes – via two processes: mineralisation and nitrification, via which it is transformed into ammonium and nitrate.**

Former NSW Department of Agriculture agronomist Adam Wilson told The Land that the best way to build up a N bank is to add carbon to soils. Management that builds C also builds organic N because both oproceses rely upon interactions between rootmass and microbes. He recommends adding organic carbon via composts, green manures or planned grazing, avoiding highly alkaline fertilizers which burn up C and humus, minimum tillage, and a legume or pasture rotation.***

*Smith, J.L., Papendick, R.I., Bezdicek, D.F., and Lynch, J.M., Soil organic matter dynamics and crop residue management, in Soil Microbial Ecology, Metting, F.B., Jr., Editor, Marcel dekker, Inc., New York, 1993, pp65-94.
** Charman, P.E.V., Soil Nutrient Decline in Charman, P.E.V. & Murphy, B.W., Soils: Their Properties and Management, Oxford U Press, 2000
*** The Land, 5 June 2008, p.8.