2 February 2011 – What has growing native pastures and weeds and trees on farms got to do with soil, carbon, governments, red tape, scientists and a tree-planting non-government body called Landcare?

Let me tell you a couple of stories from some farmers I know, and how they grow plants, trees and soil.  I call them “carbon farmers” because they grow soil.

Carbon is an essential ingredient of new soil and to get it the new soil mostly takes carbon out of Earth’s atmosphere.

By growing new soil a carbon farmer is taking out some of the carbon that we’ve put there by burning oil, coal and clearing land and eroding soil.

Carbon farming is a method of growing soil, native pastures, limited tilling of soil, growing trees, and often “weeds” are needed as the first step to growing soil.

Some years ago, on part of one farmer’s farm, visible from the road and therefore a promotion for the idea, Landcare and the farmer planted 2000 native trees.

The trees cost 30 cents each. But the fencing, tree guards and labour brought the cost up to $15 a tree, or $30,000.

The farmer didn’t like this. His farm was a large one and had been run down by the previous owner. He wanted more trees and plants and soil to support his cattle and crops. The Landcare approach was too costly, too labour intensive and too slow.

For $15 he bought a bag with thousands of native pasture seeds and tree seeds in it.

He put some seeds into feed for his cattle to eat. While his cattle ate the feed he confined them to a small area within an electric fence.  After a couple of days he moved the electric fence and cattle to another area where he fed them more seeds to go with their other feed, and so on around the farm.

The seeds survived their journey through the cattle digestive system and, helped by the cow pats in which they were embraced, they germinated and grew. And native seeds for pastures and trees already in the soil were brought to life by the cow pads, too. Evaporation was reduced and rainfall was more useful and available to plants and trees. (1)

And the farmer allowed weeds to grow so they could collect soil and grow small, more productive mini-climates where more plants, trees and native pastures could come and establish themselves.

The result?

The soil keept moisture to support plant and insect growth.  Thousands of trees and native pastures grew across the farm. Lots of soil grew too, with tonness of carbon in it.

Aerial photographs with a thermal imaging camera showed the farm was much cooler than adjoining farms which did not have the same numbers of trees or native pastures, and did not have carbon-rich soils.

All this for $15 and some electric fencing.

The key ingredient here was the farmer’s powers of observation of what worked and what didn’t on his farm and for what cost. Not red tape, not Landcare, scientists or government money.

Last year another farmer friend, out at Yass, NSW, wanted to plant some lucerne among her native pastures.

She asked two contractors who specialised in planting lucerne to quote. Both said they would spray poison first to “get rid of the rubbish”. They meant the native pastures.

The farmer said she wished to keep the pastures as they grew soil and made it more productive. She was adamant they couldn’t use poison. Neither would go ahead. They said they couldn’t “do a good job” unless they sprayed first.

Farmers like my friends, and Peter Andrews at Bylong with his astoundingly successful way of returning damaged farmland to productivity (called, natural sequence farming), farmers such as Col Seiss and Michael Kiely out at Mudgee and Gulgong, and many more across Australia have been growing soil and the carbon in it for years.

They’ve organised farmdays, conferences, lobbied, cajoled and argued passionately for carbon farming to be recognised by governments, scientists as the best way to sustain agriculture and Australian soils.

And they’ve lobbied far and wide for carbon farmers to be able to sell the carbon they grow in their soils in a carbon trading scheme. After all, carbon that’s taken from Earth’s atmosphere – where it’s causing harm, and put into soils to make farms more productive, has a value to society and Earth’s global health beyond the farmer’s land.

Chicago Futures Exchange
In Chicago’s Futures Exchange farmers have been selling carbon on their farms since the mid 90s. There’s a protocol for measuring how much carbon there is on each farm. The aim is not to measure precisely the amount of carbon grown but to apply some proven indicators, which approximate the amount of carbon in a particular farm.

It’s simple and accepted by farmers and in the market place, and there’s no reports of fraud or rorts.

Had Australia’s carbon farmers not used their wits, limited resources and independence there would be no case studies, no farms demonstrating what can be done to grow soil. Their work has led both the major parties to accept carbon farming as a legitimate method of capturing carbon that’s polluting Earth’s atmosphere and to allow some form of market based trading in it.

This year the Australian government is setting up a system for trading farm carbon, but private systems run by anyone can exist outside it. (2)

The government has chosen Landcare to “deliver” its system.

Landcare doesn’t decide if a farm will qualify for the government trading scheme, but if it controls the interface it can affect grower decisions. Which effectively gives Landcare control over the farmers, the farming methods chosen and the carbon trading system.

The problem is, as my farmer friends’ stories show, neither the Australian government, the departments of agriculture, nor Landcare understand the processes of carbon farming.

Landcare essentially operates an environmental restoration model when carbon farming is not about taking land out of production, but about restoring it while optimising production.

And Landcare buys the conventional science paradigm being strongly pushed here by scientists, agriculture departments and red tape makers that all carbon on farms must be precisely measured. And Landcare is an instrument of government.
All these things are barriers to maximum uptake by farmers.

The government model
Carbon farmers have low expectations of the government’s model.

And they have begun to despair of scientists and the way they and the red tape makers dwell on the need to precisely measure how much carbon a farmer has grown before they may trade in carbon.

If, after dozens of years and millions of dollars of research, science hasn’t solved the measurement protocol, adding more scientists to the delivery mechanism for a farm carbon trading scheme won’t make a difference.
Carbon farmers now say, “science is the problem, not the solution”.

But scientists and Landcare are harmless in their own way and do some good now and then.

Do we really need the Egyptian model of government?
Canberra and command and control politicians are the problem.

Why does the federal government need to “control” carbon farming?  Why does it need a body to “deliver” carbon farming?

A mark of a government which does not know how to govern is its preference for control instead of empowering citizens.  (At this moment, ripe for a lesson in how not to govern, we might call it the “Egyptian model”.)

Scientists, government and Landcare don’t “do” cow pats. Nor do they “do” farmers who rely on themselves, or use simple ways of germinating native pastures and trees from seeds, which lie dormant in the soil.

All that’s needed is a market for carbon farming with some simple, affordable rules. Farmers can do the rest.

In the Chicago futures exchange there’s some rules adopted by the exchange about what a carbon farm is, and how carbon will be measured. No government appointee controls farmers.

Fancy trying to be “scientific” about measuring the amount of carbon in each farm.

Of course it can be done, but so can the grains of sand on a beach be counted. It’s an absurd task, certain only to put bread on the table for scientists, as long as farming survives, for who can be accurate about such a variable?

This is the triumph of technocracy gone mad. And it’s a shameful discussion for which scientists and red tape makers may be held to account one day.

Only when we’ve finally lost Earth, and ourselves, and every farm, to red-tape-driven climate chaos will such bean counters have the full amount of data they need to be sure how much carbon, or soil, a farmer has grown.

Poor fella my country.  Again.

(1)  Such seeds, however, won’t survive the digestive system of sheep.
(2)  For the draft legislation, consultation paper and news releases, visit: https://www.climatechange.gov.au/media/whats-new/carbon-farming-initiative-detail.aspx

Michael Mobbs is a sustainability coach who advises, teaches and speaks on sustainability issues. He works with developers, governments and communities to design and obtain approvals for houses, units and subdivisions. He is based in the inner Sydney suburb of Chippendale, where in 1996 he pioneered the conversion of his inner city terrace into a sustainable house, which has now been disconnected to mains water and sewerage and is powered by solar energy.

Michael Mobb’s book “Sustainable House 2nd Edition” has sold out its first print run, but new copies are expected soon. Place your order through  www.sustainablehouse.com.au