We recently participated in a Carbon Farming Workshop at the UNE Smart Region Incubator. The aim of the day was to provide farmers with advice on starting a soil carbon project, and the recording can be found here: https://youtu.be/ktpkBkAC7_U. We ran this workshop in response to queries from a lot of farmers who had heard about the idea of soil-carbon projects, and wanted to know where to start.
Here is a brief 6 step guide that summarises some of the points raised in the workshop. Other than the references to FarmLab – I’ve tried to be as impartial as possible when talking about consultants and sources of information to help you make the best decision on how to go about your soil carbon project.
Step 1. Decide whether or not farming carbon is for you
Sequestering soil carbon doesn’t just improve yield, it helps improve resilience. What is resilience in the context of soil? It’s the ability to bounce back from shocks, in the case of soil this might be pests, disease, over grazing, and of course drought.
Soil carbon is also a key contributor to ‘natural capital’, a term that relates to “the stock of renewable and non-renewable resources (e.g. plants, animals, air, water, soils, minerals) that combine to yield a flow of benefits to people.”
Enhancing soil carbon is a win-win for farmers, but the challenge is how to do it.
Step 2. Choose a project method
In the presentation we highlighted a couple of ways Australian farmers could baseline and measure soil carbon, mainly focussing on Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) and ‘Lone Ranger’ soil carbon projects.
The ERF is a highly regulated scheme that prescribes clearly how farmers must register, sample, improve and audit carbon stocks across a 25 or 100 year timeline. This comes with the added benefit of Australian Carbon Credit Units (ACCUs), a financial instrument that the Australian government gives to farmers for increases in their soil carbon stock. If you go down this path, you must use an independent consultant to register your project and your farm plan (outlined below). The consultant will also have an independent entity baseline and audit your carbon stocks periodically.
The alternative method we spoke about was the ‘Lone Ranger’ approach, this is the DIY alternative to the ERF. Whilst it doesn’t provide carbon credits as a financial incentive for increasing carbon, it does provide flexibility in everything from how often you measure soil carbon (if at all), to how you improve it.
Here’s a quick summary on each option to help guide you. It’s worth noting that I’ve made long term revenue realisation from ‘Lone Ranger’ projects ‘Medium’ instead of low due to the improvement in natural capital and the operational benefits that increasing soil carbon has on the farm.
Step 3. Choose a consultant (for ERF Projects)
If you go down the ERF path make sure you do your due diligence on the industry and your consultant. It’s as important as selecting a financial planner, actually probably more as you’re not just dealing with your financial capital but the natural capital I mentioned above too.
Firstly, make sure you understand the financial incentives for the consultant you pick, and what drives them. Some will charge an upfront fee for project registration and baselining, whilst others may seek to take a portion of the ACCUs generated during the project. I’ve heard some farmers say consultants have offered free baselining and project registration, but a 75% cut of the ACCUs, which could equate to a $750,000 cut of your ACCUs on a medium sized soil carbon project! Whilst that may seem excessive, it’s up to you to determine your risk and the likely outcome of the project. The alternative some consultants offer is a set fee structure. For a 500ha project, this might include the upfront cost of a consultant of $10,000 to $20,000 for initial project establishment (including baselining) and another $10,000 per measurement activity after that. That could bring the total project to about $50,000, but keep in mind that the project might return $1 million in credits over it’s life. In the end, consider what model works best for you and keep in mind that there will be ongoing costs in both models when it comes to actually improving soil carbon.
Another factor to keep in mind when selecting a consultant is the alignment of their recommendations to your farm management strategy. Keep in mind that it’s not easy to increase carbon, and the largest gains often require significant management changes and depend on various factors like climate and your bank account (can you afford to make the changes?). Some consultants will have proven techniques, which may come at cost, whilst others will work with you to determine what works best in your region.
I’ve included below a handy guide on management practices and their resulting increase in Soil Carbon in tonnes per year (thanks to NSW DPI for the fact sheet on improving carbon). If you’re already following some of these (ie, have converted degraded cropland to pasture), consider what else you might have to do and it’s likely sequestration rate.
Lastly, find out about the consultant’s track record with previous projects. If you have already identified how you want to improve soil carbon this might not be an important step, but it will help you understand whether the consultant has experience in the auditing and ongoing management of carbon projects.
The market is still in its early stages of development in Australia, and whilst there is still a bit of hype things are starting to settle down and consultants with track records are starting to emerge. If you want to find out more, I’d recommend conferences like https://carbonfarmersofaustralia.com.au/ and https://crspi.com.au/conference/ to get your head around the various offerings, solutions and market.
Step 4. Develop a plan
They say that no plan survives first contact with the enemy, but that also say prior planning prevents piss poor performance. I’ve never worked out which expression to listen to, so in the end, I figure it’s best to make a plan but don’t wed yourself to it as things will always change.
Under the ERF methodology your consultant will help you develop and register that plan with government. If you’ve done your homework selecting your consultant and determining which path you want to take to improve soil carbon then this should be a fairly straight forward step. However there is some time and expense required to develop the plan, and a few boxes need to be checked in regards to what mechanisms you use to improve carbon under the ERF. At this stage your consultant should also be interested in understanding your financial position to assess your ability and willingness to follow through with the project. Remember, you’re committing to a 25 year plan with the government – that’s about the same length as your standard mortgage (but in this case the government is paying YOU).
If you’re undertaking a ‘Lone Ranger’ soil carbon project then you’ll have significant flexibility in whether or not you follow that plan. The key is make sure you record what you do, when you do it. This will help you share your wins, failures and learnings throughout the process. With thousands of farmers looking for ways to improve carbon, your lessons might help make others lives easier. This recording can be done using some farm management software platforms, and there are already ones that are tailoring their platforms for ERF related projects.
Step 5. Baseline
Baselining under the ERF is not as straight forward as transect sampling a few paddocks. Samples must be taken by an independent sampler (not the consultant, or the farm owner), they must be taken from specific parts of the paddock using random stratified sampling, and cadastral boundaries must also be provided before Carbon Estimation Areas (CEAs) are established. Depth is important, as increases in soil carbon down to a meter can be used to help you maximise your ACCUs during the project. Keep in mind you might have existing constraints at depth right now that may need to be addressed (or avoided, if the constraint is bedrock), before you can increase carbon.
In the case of a non-ERF project, your baselining strategy is up to you. Keep in mind that the more you measure the better your bragging rights at the end of the day. Digitise your results so you can find them and refer back to them in follow on measurement activities. You can capture and record soil data in www.farmlab.com.au and use it to monitor changes in carbon over time.
Whilst the ERF is the gold standard for carbon baselining (globally), if you simply wanted to understand the carbon across your landscape and share your wins, there are a few other options:
– Shallow (10cm) grid base sampling. This might not be cheaper than standard ERF processes, but if you’re undertaking an agronomic sampling activity at the same time as a carbon project you might consider grid-based sampling to 10cm. You won’t be able to view the improvements you make to carbon at depth, but it will give you a rough overview of soil carbon changes in the topsoil over time.
– Stratified Latin hypercube sampling. This was a method invented by the University of Sydney to help sample large areas without over-sampling similar soil types. It can be used in conjunction with layers such as gamma-radiometrics or NDVI to reduce the number of sample points over a large area, whilst still maintaining ‘agronomic’ accuracy (for statistical accuracy in repeated sampling, try stratified random sampling). You can check it out for free at www.farmlab.com.au.
– Transect sampling. The tried and true method won’t be as accurate at identifying changes across a single paddock, but a good transect (‘W’ shaped per paddock or managed area) can give you a rough baseline. We’d suggest 0-10cm, 10-30cm and 30-100cm if this were your approach, or just talk to your agronomist.
Step 6. Improve and re-measure
You’ve gone down the ERF path, found a consultant, registered your project and done your baselining. Now comes the fun part – improving soil carbon. Keep in mind that climate plays a big role in soil carbon improvement. One of the presenters the other day made the comment ‘plants are solar-powered carbon-pumps’. So keep in mind that to grow plants you’ll need water, and nutrients. If you’re expecting to increase soil carbon from 0.5% to 4% in a dryland cropping region, but have an average rainfall of 100mm, you might struggle regardless of the technology you implement to improve it.
The other challenge might be financial. For an ERF project, to see those increases in carbon (depending on your farm plan), you may need to outlay a portion of finances to get things rolling (like investing in specific technology to improve pastures, or switching to organic fertiliser). None of us are immune to financial hardship either, and poor health or unforeseen costs could slow things down on the carbon front. Keep this in mind when you develop your farm plan, and make sure you’ve got something in the financial tank to reduce the risk of your project getting shelved at the first sign of financial trouble.
Soil carbon measurements for ERF projects are usually conducted every 2-3 years following the baseline. At each measurement, for each increase you make in soil carbon at the baselined depths, you will receive ACCUs from the government (except for the first measurement, where 50% of the ACCUs are withheld until the next measurement to ensure your soil carbon has continued to increase following the initial baseline). Improvements might be slow, so don’t expect to get that huge increase in % carbon in the first few years. Instead stick with it.
If you’re running a Lone-Ranger project, you can decide when you want to re-measure. In line with ERF recommendations, it’s good to have some consistent measurements following the initial baseline to demonstrate your practices are continuing increase in soil carbon (not just a one-off increase). This can help you provide more good data to the scientific community, and is a great way to show off to your neighbours and to your local Landcare group about the good work you’re doing.
For both ERF and Lone-Ranger projects, the soil carbon increases you make won’t be the only positives you see across the farm – increases in biodiversity, improved soil moisture retention and higher yields will also go hand in hand. These are all signs that you’re increasing your natural capital across the land.
In the end I’ve always thought trying to do something good is better than not trying at all. Whether you embark on a project with the ERF or go alone, rest assured you’ll be doing your bit to reduce atmospheric CO2. For me that’s something I’m certain our kids, and their kids, will be grateful for.