Sunday, February 11, 2007

Farmers to be robbed again?

Australian farmers have been robbed of carbon credits to the tune of AUD$10.8 billion to date and it looks like the Commonwealth Government is set to rob them of billions more, says Carbon Coalition Against Global Warming convenor Michael Kiely.

Australia’s National Greenhouse Gas Accounts show that farmers, by reducing land clearing rates since 1990, offset significant increases in greenhouse gas emissions, the conservative value of these reductions is $10.8 billion in credits, according to the Australasian Emissions Trading Forum. “But Federal Government policy prevented farmers converting these reductions into tradable credits.”

And there’s more to come. “The words Peter McGauran used recently are ominous, when he was hosing down farmers’ expectations of getting paid for storing carbon in their soil,” says Mr Kiely. “The fix is on.”

“Farmers will be locked out of the upside of emissions trading, but they’ll be given a seat at the table when it comes time to pay, no doubt.” Farmers are big emitters of greenhouse gases, emitting CO2 when they plough or lime a paddock, nitrous oxide when they spread super, and methane from livestock.
“Agriculture is the second biggest emitter and the biggest emitter, the power companies, are demanding that agriculture be included when the big stick comes out.”
“Under such a system farmers will have to pay to plough, pay to fertilise, pay to graze.”
Farm Online reported on 7/2/2007: "The push for the Federal Government to set up a carbon emissions trading scheme is unlikely to help farmers earn an extra dollar." The Government's discussion paper on the potential for Australia’s participation in a carbon trading scheme.

The pape does not specifically address agriculture’s needs has brought criticism from National Farmers Federation president, David Crombie. "We're not impressed that we weren't involved - agriculture has earned a seat at the table,” Mr Crombie said. Deputy Prime Minister, Mark Vaile, "reassured" the rural sector that their interests will be taken care of by the Government.

We now know what being 'taken care of' means: Agriculture Minister, Peter McGauran, warns that farmers should not expect much from a carbon emissions trading scheme. "There's considerable hope in the sector at the moment that there could be money for farmers trading greenhouse credits – the value of carbon stored on their properties. We've currently got a trial going with Landcare to see how effective it might be. But the likelihood is it's not going to be massive. It's difficult to measure carbon stored at farm levels."

The tell tale sign that farmers are going to be robbed is the old chestnut ‘soil carbon is difficult to measure’. It’s quite the reverse. Scientists can measure it so well they insist on degrees of precision that make it impossible to proceed. The amounts of carbon held in trees is estimated on broad averages, but not soil carbon. America’s senior soil scientists are speaking out against this.

The second tell tale sign is the other chestnut: Australia’s soils can’t sequester much carbon. This has become holy writ among scientists who advise the government, and a huge joke among their peers. To make such generalizations about our soils is astonishing.

The levels of ignorance within the current government are to be understood against the background that its members have not had to deal with carbon issues, Australia having been excluded from the field by its own choice.

The ignorance of soil carbon dynamics under regenerative land management methods is plain for all to see. No Til cropping gets a mention, but it is a relatively low level carbon technique on its own. No Til largely stops the emission of CO2 from turning over the soil. It’s ability to increase soil carbon significantly on its own is limited.

Carbon farmers use a whole suite of techniques to get biological activity going in the topsoil, which is the engine-room of carbon manufacturing. Carbon farming has never been put to the test by scientists. It faces the same skepticism that Peter Andrews Natural sequence Farming faced until recently.

The fixation of the Federal Government on “Clean Coal” and Nuclear solutions and the fixation of the Greens on solar and wind proves few on either side understand the reality of climate change. None of these solutions will remove one tonne of the existing load of CO2 that is driving the world’s temperature up through the critical levels.”

Only soil and trees can do that. And there is not enough space on earth to plant enough trees to do the job in the time we have left to avoid the worst. Agricultural soils cover 65% of the earth’s landmass. It’s available, economical, and easy to mobilize… all it takes is for farmers to change their way of farming. And why should they do that? Soil carbon credits.


Carbon Farming is not a new practice. It is a new way to describe a collection of techniques which can increase soil organic carbon in agricultural land.

There are many benefits linked to increases in soil carbon:

• Higher fertility and production of vegetation
• More secure soil structure
• Better usage of available water
• Reduced levels of evaporation
• Reduced hard panning of surface
• Reduced salination (salt scalding)
• Reduced loss of top soil to erosion
• Reduced silting on waterways
• Higher species diversity
• Higher ecological resistance to disease

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Increased soil carbon also has the effect of absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere. Soil can absord vast amounts of carbon. It has been estimated by soil carbon specialists that close to many tonnes of CO2 can be absorbed in a single hectare with only a 1% increase in soil carbon in the top 30cm. An increase of 2% would double the amount of CO2 absorbed. “These levels of increase in soil carbon are achievable, and have already been achieved, by landholders practicing regenerative cropping and grazing practices,” says Dr Christine Jones.

The key to increasing soil carbon is biological activity in top soil. Soil carbon is created by bugs and microbes living and dying. They do a lot of living and dying when there is a lot of root action in the soil – vigorous growth and regular decaying of rootmass. Roots that are continually reaching down deep into the soil and then dying back and retreating. Their rotting remnants feed the microbes which produce the soil organic carbon.

Land management practices that encourage biological activity in soil include the following:

100% groundcover 100% of the time - This is a Carbon Farmer’s goal. Soil covered by plants cannot be blown or washed away. It is cooler and more attractive to microbes than if it was exposed to the sun. Therefore over-grazing (“flogging the land”, in Australian parlance) and burning grasses and stubble and ploughing are anti-carbon growing actions. In fact, they release tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere. These practices, along with clearing native vegetation, have put Agriculture in 2nd place, behind coal-burning power stations, as the biggest source of Australia’s Greenhouse Gas emissions.

Grazing management – Stock are concentrated in small paddocks for short periods (days) so that they graze evenly and at the same time ‘til’ the soil with their hooves, stomping old grass and manure into it. The plants are then left to grow a full head of foliage so that their roots go down as far as possible into the soil. When they are grazed, the roots die back upwards in proportion to how much of the foliage was eaten. Overgrazing can cause the roots to shrink so short they struggle to get started again. So short grazing periods and long periods of rest are best.

No til cropping – Ploughing disturbs the microbes and dries out the soil. It also releases tonnes of CO2 per hectare. ‘No til’ techniques sow the seed in the top soil without tearing off the existing foliage or applying herbicides which are also bad for microbes. There are several no til techniques, including “Pasture Cropping” and “Advanced Sowing”. The one ‘direct drills’ the seed into pasture while the other slices a line through the pasture and inserts the seed. The crop grows up above the pasture and can be harvested or grazed. The pasture usually thickens and grows more vigorously after such treatment.

Mulching – This takes two forms: 1. Covering bare earth with hay or dead vegetation. This protects the soil from the sun, cools it, and attracts soil-producing microbes. It also holds water where it can be used instead of letting it run off immediately. 2. Cutting down and dessicating tall, dead plants and thistles to form a layer of litter on the soil and allow the sun to penetrate and foster plant growth. Gardeners know the value of mulching.

Water management systems – Water is essential to the carbon growing process. Several systems have emerged for maximising us of water that falls on a farm. Two names are prominent: Natural Sequence Farming (NSF) and Yeoman’s Keyline System. NSF slows the flow of water through the landscape by returning enroded gulleys and creeks to swampy meadows and chains of ponds that they were when white settlers arrived. The water stays long enough to make more grass and plants grow, rather than rushing down widening gullies carrying the topsoil away. NSF is based on the natural topography of the land. So is Keyline planning. It uses the shape of the land to determine the layout and position of farm dams, irrigation areas, roads, fences, farm buildings and tree lines. Both methods increase soil fertility and carbon.

Biodynamics – This is a method of treating soil, based on the theories of mystic and theorist Rudolf Steiner. He postulated that vital forces or energies flowed throughout the universe and that these can be harnessed to increase plant growth. Biodynamics adopts a homeopathic approach to preparing natural fertiliser and times activities to align with cycles of the moon and the stars. Many ordinary, sober farmers report great results with biodynamic preparations.

Biological Farming – This is the umbrella term for the use of natural compounds to stimulate biological activity in the soil. These compounds range from compost teas (concocted after an analysis of the soil for deficiencies), worm ‘juice’ (active enzymes created from worm castings), Biosolids (human effluent which needs to be plowed into the soil for hygene and odour reasons - not a favourite of carbon farmers), Nitrohumus (treated human effluent, needs no ploughing) etc.

Composting - This largely involves breaking down manure into a rich humus ready to spread on the fields. There is also a growing movement for recycling green wastes from cities for use on agricultural lands.

Trees – Trees scattered across grasslands provide shelter for stock and wildlife and also have the effect of causing the soil adjacent to be richer in carbon. They can also assist in the management of water movement.

Rules of Carbon Farming

The following are the ‘rules’ of carbon farming:

1. There are no rules. Every farm is different. Ever farmer is different. Whatever path you take to increasing soil carbon is right, because it increases soil carbon.

2. There can only be suggestions.

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