Soil Carbon Network of Farmers Launched: "Our Science"

September 13, 2012 Louisa Kiely

At last someone has pulled together the knowledge Australian farmers have distilled over decades of listening to Nature. Former Governor General Major-General Michael Jeffery launches the Outcomes Australia “Soils For Life” report which features 20 farmers who embody a new approach to managing soil and water. 

They manage soil in ways that increase carbon. At least half of them have been recognised in the Carbon Cocky of the Year Awards at the annual Carbon Farming Conference. Chosen to replicate the Australian landscape, these properties will form a network of demonstration farms, hosting visitors interested in sustainable land management. Typically the properties started from a degraded state with a spiralling financial position which forced the farmer to try a new approach. Each case was different, yet they share a common attitude towards soil health and groundcover and all feature solutions that maximise water efficiency. The Major General believes soil and water should be a national issue. Farmers should get a fair price for their produce, he says. They should be recognised as the primary keepers of the landscape and rewarded for it. (But it is not a Landcare model, he insists.) 
It looks like a soil carbon trading model. “Correct land management can play a huge part in pulling down CO2 from the atmosphere, for which farmers should be rewarded.” He favours “direct deals with farmers at set prices”. The former Special Forces officer has seen enough human misery caused by conflict over resources and flags the ‘coming crisis’ in food security as his motivation. He wants the G20 to recognise soil security as a global issue. “Unless we get the paddock right, the rest of the supply chain is a second order issue,” he says. The key is the link between soil and water, starting with rainfall management at the place where it falls. Around 2% of water falls on our roads and rooftops. The rest falls on the landscape, 50% of it escaping as runoff or evaporation. If we can slow this process down, we can save hundreds of gigalitres. “And we can fix it by getting soils right,” he says. Higher carbon levels can guarantee massive increases in a soil’s water holding capacity. The 20 sites have been benchmarked by DAFF and the process has CSIRO endorsement, says the Major-General. The teaching base behind the demo sites will be turned into learning packages to be delivered by existing educational institutions. “But they must teach the true way,” he says. 

As part of the grand alliance he hopes to forge around this vision, the Chairman of the Deans of Agriculture and the NFF have been approached. Bankers will be approached. (Banks will eventually start to value farms based on soil health, in the M-G’s vision.) He hopes to have the teaching systems up and running within 3 years. It’s a big vision. It will require big leadership to get what is essentially fringe knowledge accepted by mainstream organisations who are used to telling farmers what’s what rather than listening to and learning from them. (Soils For Life is a project of Outcomes Australia. Michael Jeffery is also Chairman of the Global Foundation.)

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