Friday, February 20, 2009

February 18 - carbon farming

It seems that sometimes when I find a particular area of interest for this blog, the theme seems to repeat for a few days. Having covered vertical gardens 2 days ago, then vertical farming yesterday, today is also following a farming theme.

Today's "Future Tense" radio program by Antony Funnell included a discussion about a new type of farming methodology that works towards storing carbon in the soil and going some way to solving the CO2 problem generated by current farming practices. I dowloaded the transcript of the interview and summarised it below.

Traditional farming practises, which involve clearing land and ploughing it, then sowing seeds, harvesting and clearing the leftovers prior to re-sowing have the effect of speeding up the release of CO2 from the soil. But what if we could change our farming habits to use techniques that not only help us build more productive farms, but also capture and store more carbon?

For the last two years, retired soil scientist Dr Christine Jones has been travelling the country, talking to farmers and politicians, speaking at forums and field days and running farm trials. She believes that rebuilding carbon-rich agricultural soils is the only real productive, permanent solution to taking excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Christine Jones: “This year Australia will emit just over 600 million tonnes of carbon. We can sequester 685 million tonnes of carbon by increasing soil carbon by half a per cent on only 2% of the farms. If we increased it on all of the farms, we could sequester the whole world's emissions of carbon.”

Her approach involves getting farmers to keep their ground covered with plants all year round. She says plants are the key to removing excess carbon dioxide from the air, so the more ground cover there is, the more carbon will be stored in the soil, because bare earth gives its carbon up to the atmosphere. Dr Jones knew that if her ideas were to carry any weight, she'd have to show that farmers could profitably graze and crop their land, and maintain permanent ground cover. Two years ago, 18 farmers in three states agreed to trial her ideas. In return, she'd pay them $25 a tonne for the carbon they built.

Christine Jones: “We will be getting the first data in Australia from landholders that are doing something different and building carbon in their soil and that'll be the basis of a whole new set of models and a whole new data set that can be taken to their Ministers, and they can then say, 'Well we have some new advice, Minister; the old advice, I'm sorry, wasn't right.'”

Central Queensland cattle farmer Noel Moretti was one of those who signed on for Dr Jones' trial. He was attracted, not just by the cash, but because he knew by adding carbon he'd increase the fertility and water-holding capacity of his soil. By being carbon-smart, Mr Moretti aims to lift farm income by 10%, and he's not the slightest bit bothered by Christine Jones' skeptics.

Noel Moretti: “We've been very precise on our ground cover, making sure we don't chew our grass down too far, and we've reaped the benefits, we've made a lot of money out of the extra growth.”

He also tried pasture cropping. It's a pretty unconventional practice, as the crop is actually sown into a pasture. In 2007 he and his son Michael, grew an oat crop; it was a success. The conventional wisdom is that there shouldn't be enough soil moisture to sustain both pasture and a grain crop. But Dr Jones claims farmers can have both, because soil high in organic carbon has better structure, is more fertile, and holds more water.

Christine Jones: “So what we're going to do is plant a crop into this bare area, and into the buckle-grass area, and we're going to measure everything that happens. We'll measure the carbon under it, the water under it, and we'll measure the yield of the crop.”

She says when she started her work there were many soil carbon sceptics. Now she says more people are at least prepared to listen. Politicians from all sides have visited her trial sites, and she says it won't be long before the results vindicate her.

Christine Jones: “I think once people realise how important it is, and once we've proved that you can build the carbon and you can measure it, and that landholders can be rewarded for it, I think it'll open the floodgates, and I think we'll see enormous amounts of research, hopefully by the state agencies, so that I don't have to do it, but all over Australia and in other countries on soils, I think research into soil carbon will be huge.”

I find it very encouraging when I hear about people who have the tenacity and courage of their convictions to follow them to a logical conclusion. Too frequently new ideas are dismissed by the skeptics and fall by the wayside. Good on Christine for being brave and proving her theories!

Book page to follow when it's done.

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