You are here

Talking Carbon & Climate with Australian Farmers

Talking carbon and climate with Australian farmers
Monday, 12 December, 2016 - 15:30

You can’t be Green if you are in the Red: Talking carbon and climate with Australian farmers

By Becky Willson, Technical Specialist

At the end of last year, I was lucky enough to be awarded a Nuffield scholarship from the Nuffield Farming Scholarship Trust. The Trust awards around 20 scholarships a year to people involved in agriculture and gives them an opportunity to research topics connected to farming, food production, and rural sectors through individual study and overseas travel.

Effective Communication
My topic is intimately connected to my work both here at the Rural Business School and outside Duchy for the Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit, a farmer-led organisation which aims to help farmers understand practical ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from farms. My study, entitled “Communicating carbon reduction schemes to farmers; busting preconceptions, driving efficiency and profit,” focusses on two main questions, namely:

  • How do we effectively communicate the benefits to the farm business of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and get farmers interested and engaged in emissions reductions?
  • What can we learn from other countries about implementing an effective emissions reduction strategy that will inspire farmers to want to participate? A fundamental part of a Nuffield scholarship is travel, which gives you the opportunity to step back from your day job, push yourself out of your comfort zone and experience the phenomenon that is global agriculture.

On My Travels
One of the places that I was keen to visit was Australia. Australia has had an interesting relationship with carbon economy in the past, having run (and then stopped) a carbon trading scheme. This scheme more recently has become a tool used by politicians to influence voters. As well, it was a blog that I wrote on a project being run by Meat and Livestock Australia called the Farm 300 project that initially inspired my application to Nuffield. So I was keen to go and find out whether, in a country that is proud of having minimum government subsidies, they face the same issues that we do in terms of developing efficient, resilient businesses that will produce food, provide environmental benefits and be sustainable in the long term. During my three and a half weeks in Australia, I had the chance to speak with farmers, project holders, industry, researchers, political activists, farmers unions, government officials, the media, and anyone else who would talk to me. This was fascinating and provided lots of interesting revelations, but also conflicting and often emotive viewpoints, a common occurrence when talking about carbon and climate change.

Costing Carbon
The Farm300 project aimed to improve the knowledge and skills of Australian livestock producers leading to a 10% increase in on-farm productivity and profitability and a 30% decrease in GHG emissions intensity over a two-year period. What initially interested me about this project was the fact that instead of training the farmers, they were training the advisors, and then letting the advisors adapt that knowledge to local conditions that their farmers were facing. This is based on the theory that there is no universally applicable list of mitigation practices; practices need to be evaluated for individual farm systems and settings. The advisor’s task was to interpret materials and the wider challenge of lowering emissions into regionally adapted programmes that can be used with producers at a local level. The project was very much focussed on business and really making the link between productivity and lower GHG emissions. This focus on business was necessary to get farmers interested in the process. It was business that was the priority for the farmers, and as such the environmental messages had to be communicated in such a way that they could be directly linked to the impact on profitability and productivity. Farmers were given one- to- one coaching as well as the opportunity to benefit from farmer- to- farmer learning through discussion groups that were managed by advisors and the use of benchmarking to document impact. The project was so successful at achieving changes onfarm that the same model is going to be rolled out across other research strands of MLA’s work.

Feeling the effects
Another key factor is the vulnerability of agriculture in Australia to its climate. Australia has already seen its average temperatures increase more than 1.5oF (1˚C) over the last century, according to data from CSIRO, Australia’s national scientific agency and the Bureau of Meteorology. Projections as to what happens next make for frightening reading, with estimates of warming expected to increase by 9 oF (around 6o C) by 2090. This will test many of the nation’s farmers, and even with adaptation there are limits to what farmers can do. As well as increasing temperatures there are also issues concerning rainfall, with more extreme weather events predicted, with more intense rains and tropical cyclones. In southern Australia, decreasing rainfall and more heat waves and droughts are already affecting farmers. “Things are changing,” explained one farmer that I spoke to, “the droughts seem longer and the rainfall is all over the place, holding onto water becomes the most important aspect of management.” Because of this, in Melbourne agricultural scientists are working with the Bureau of Meteorology to help farmers use the latest data to try and predict weather patterns and understand what’s coming and its likely impact on cropping. Graeme Anderson, a specialist in climate extension for farmers who works for the Department of Agriculture in Melbourne, provides the link between the farmers and the climate modellers, making sure that the scientists understand what the farmers need, and the farmers understand where the models can help and where they can’t. Understanding what is happening with the climate, and adapting your business management to make the most of resources and plan for what’s coming makes good business sense, and has been seen to be a good way to get farmers interested in climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Queensland and the costs of production
After visiting producers and projects in the south, I was able to travel up to Queensland and talk to beef producers about the challenges that they face managing such a harsh environment and running their businesses on such a big scale. The scale is incredible; the average size of the farms that I visited was 40,000 acres. This environment is tough, it’s dry unforgiving terrain that the cattle and the farming system have to adapt to if they want to survive. The farmers that I met were all interested in carbon because of the benefits it would bring to their business through improved soil management. The importance of grassland and soil management was discussed on all of the farms, and there had been a definite shift from set stocking to rotational grazing (although what these farmers called grass bore little resemblance to what we have here in the south west). Alongside rotational grazing there was fanatical attention to detail. The cattle were used as a tool to manage their grass, and the grass was managed to improve the soil and ultimately its productive capacity. A couple of the farmers had stopped referring to themselves as cattle farmers and had now termed themselves soil farmers. One farm had managed to increase the carrying capacity of their farm by seven times just through grazing management. Talking to farmers, I was interested to know how they manage to keep their businesses going through such variability and change in markets and the climate. Business and management plans were based on the worst case scenario planning and as such, anything that came above that was a bonus. They were also based on knowing their costs of production. Most of the cattle produced in Queensland and the Northern Territories are destined for export, and knowing production costs and what the markets were doing meant that the farmers were able to react to market fluctuations quickly, and understand when to get rid of stock or when to build numbers.

It’s all about the soil
Another key aspect I was keen to learn more about was soil carbon sequestration and paying farmers from the carbon trading market for sequestering carbon in their soils. Australia (as I mentioned earlier) has had an interesting past with farmers and carbon trading, however they are leading the way in terms of getting payments to farmers for altering management practices to store carbon within soils. Here in the UK soil carbon is a fairly contentious issue, with scientists for the most part yet to prove a conclusive link between management practices and an increase in sequestration rate. The science is pretty conclusive if you convert an arable field into long term grassland (the soil carbon goes up) and the same happens if you convert a grass or arable field into growing trees. However, where there hasn’t been agreement is on the likely scale of the impact of changing arable or grassland management. The company involved with these questions in Australia is completely clear on the answers. “There are two issues,” I was told, “Firstly, farmers are way ahead of the scientists, in terms of what they are doing.” Farmers here (like some in the UK) are seeing a complete revitalisation of their soils by changing management practices. “The soils are completely alive, the improvement comes not just in the increase in organic matter content, but also in helping the biology in the soil do what it was put there to do.” Secondly, the issue is that we aren’t measuring to the correct depth. “Most research stops measuring at 30cm, but the changes happen much deeper than that. We need to be measuring down to 1m or 1.5 metres to see the impact.” Certainly the rest of the world’s focus will be on Australia over the next five years, and on those farmers who are pioneering the system. All of the farmers who are involved understand the wider benefits that building soil carbon has. An Australian research organisation worked out that the carbon price is AUD$12 a tonne (around £7.20), but the value in terms of the wider ecosystem services of that carbon is more like AUD$200 a tonne (around £120).

On reflection
So what did I come away from the trip with? I am in awe of the scale and variation of global food production and blown away by the passion and enthusiasm of farmers producing food in challenging climatic conditions that regularly experience extreme weather events that wipe out crops. It was refreshing to see projects that were dealing with environmental issues, but coming at it from the point of view of business efficiencies. As one farmer told me “You can’t be green if you are in the red.” But what was also refreshing was that despite a focus on productivity and business, there was still room for environmental management, and a deep passion to leave the farm in a better state that they had received it, without Government financial incentives. What was also interesting was the need for integration all the way up the chain. Climate change is the biggest environmental and societal challenge facing us today, and as such we need everyone, farmers, policy makers, consumers, scientists, and industry working together to develop solutions that work for farmers and deliver solutions for everyone.

Thank you to AHDB Beef and Lamb for generously sponsoring my Nuffield experience.