FarmLab leads largest ever national soil sampling project to build vital blueprint for Australian agriculture

As part of the Federal Government’s National Soil Carbon Innovation Challenge, the University of Queensland, together with FarmLab, Ziltek, AgriCircle, and the University of Aberdeen are leading critical research to enhance Australia’s soil carbon accounting capabilities to achieve its emissions reduction goals, in line with the Paris Agreement.

The $4.3 million two-year research project is geared to advance soil carbon measurement technology and reduce the cost of baselining a farm’s soil carbon to the national target of $3 per hectare.

The game-changing project launched in March 2023, encompassing 430 farms and 15,000 soil samples organised and paid for by environmental analysis provider and project lead, FarmLab.

The extensive sampling, due to be complete in September 2024 will be crucial in developing high-resolution maps of Australia’s soil organic carbon (SOC), using remote sensing, mid-infrared spectroscopy (MIR) combined with machine learning, to enhance the accuracy and efficiency of estimation.

With farmers oversubscribed in almost every state – with some availability remaining in South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland – the demand for soil carbon testing is clear, as are the financial barriers to undertake baselining.

By sharing SOC data with the government, participants receive free baselining (up to 200 ha), that’s helping drive much- needed adoption, and enable data-driven decision-making for agribusinesses in an increasingly volatile climate.

FarmLab CEO and Founder, Sam Duncan says, “We’ve had phenomenal interest from farmers in measuring SOC. I shouldn’t be surprised with all the interest in environmental markets and natural capital valuation.”

“The project is helping farmers understand their land better, the quality of soil, particularly soil carbon and how their management activities impact the landscape and soil health.”

Each farm has 18 soil core samples taken by FarmLab’s verified sampling partners from two depths: 0-30cm and 30- 60cm, using AgriCircle’s methodology in tandem with Ziltek’s portable MIR tool, RemScan, and must be running two different management practices for e.g., a mixed farm with cropping, and livestock.

“We’re really excited about the richness of data that’s coming out of this project with so many different kinds of management practices getting assessed.”

Duncan likens each farm to a ‘fingerprint’, unique in their location, climate, soil types and the infinite number of management strategies used.

“This data provides farmers with an opportunity to improve soil carbon because there isn’t currently enough data relating to specific climates, soil types and farming systems, that indicates that if you do X, you’ll have Y effect on soil carbon.”

Project lead researcher, Dr Yash Dang, Principal Research Fellow at The University of Queensland with over 25 years’ experience in soil, nutrient management, and soil constraints agrees, “low-cost carbon stock estimation in Australia is the biggest challenge at the moment.”

“Right now, we don’t have a reliable method by which we can say, ‘that this is the point where we should go and sample’,” Dang explains.

This challenge led to engaging Swiss agritech company, AgriCircle, as part of the research project to utilise their methodology in the Australian environment, “that’s successfully working in a number of countries, particularly Ukraine, where the paddock sizes are similar to Australia.”

“By using proximal sensing, we can get some comparable predictions of the carbon stocks using MIR as compared to the wet chemistry, which will be a win-win situation that can further lower the cost of carbon estimation,” says Dang.

Fourth generation mixed livestock farmer, Rohan Morris of Gleneden Family Farm, near Maryvale, Queensland, on the edge of the Great Dividing Range, is one of many eager participants set to benefit.

“We’re data hungry,” Rohan explains. “The project gives us data – the unarguable evidence of what you’re doing – that we really don’t have a budget for collecting ourselves.”

In the past decade Rohan, and wife, Fiona Morris, an environmental scientist, have accumulated four sets of soil samples; one from the previous owner; and three from research projects by willingly sharing data for environmental purposes.

“We can now compare each of the datasets, and that’s becoming quite useful – to see what’s changed and then use that to tweak our farming approach,” says Morris.

Sean Manning, CEO of Ziltek

Dr Sean Manning, CEO of Adelaide-based sampling partner, Ziltek concludes, “We couldn’t have been involved with a project of this scale if it wasn’t firstly funded so generously by the Federal Government and secondly, supported by multiple parties with different skill sets. FarmLab definitely are the heroes on this project pulling together all the farms.”

With a vast network of samplers and laboratories in Australia and in the US, FarmLab is highly capable to deliver the needs of the research project, and streamline logistics. While the research project protocols don’t comply with the Clean Energy Regulator, FarmLab has gained interest from voluntary market brokers, such as B Carbon, to provide participating farmers with the option to engage in high-integrity environmental projects.

If successful with uptake, this project will offer a landmark opportunity for Australian agriculture to accelerate its national commitments towards decarbonisation.

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