by Peter Fagan

FAVOURITES – 3 June 2009 – According to a recent study by researchers at James Cook University and the Australian National University, the Murray Darling Basin, which drives the rural economy of eastern Australia, has lost approximately 200 cubic kilometres of water since 2001.

This water loss – equivalent to 400 Sydney Harbours – is a shocking statistic and an impactful reminder of the behavioural changes required to secure a sustainable future for farmers and agribusiness across Australia.

But not all current headlines spell doom and gloom for agriculture; just two weeks before this research was reported, Australia’s largest manufacturer and exporter of Densified Biomass Fuel (DBF) pellets signed a three-year, A$69 million supply agreement with a Belgium-based company.

Australian experts are leading the world in dry-land farming solutions, including efficient use of scarce water resources, innovative technologies and farming practices – in particular, the use of native vegetation for carbon sequestration and biomass production. This approach provides a practical business alternative for traditional farming and the local communities that support it.

Biomass, or the use of renewable organic material as a fuel or energy source, has come a long way since its earliest forms: the fire pit and wood-burning stove. Since then, farmers have experimented with several options, including the now-questioned use of food crops as fuel. This practice temporarily resulted in soaring grocery prices in the United States and Europe after a large percentage of their corn supply was distilled into grain ethanol.

Australian farmers are now planting native vegetation for a range of purposes, including biomass production, a move that offers environmental, economic and social benefits such as:

•    Lower demand for water resources. Native tree plantations, which can be sustainably harvested and processed as biomass, are naturally drought tolerant and require little to no irrigation.
•    Increased financial stability. Biomass production from native vegetation introduces income diversity, leaving farmers less reliant on traditional intermittent harvests and crops.
•    Increased employment rates. Biomass production provides new employment opportunities for young people in declining rural communities, reducing loss of residents from rural areas and dependence on social welfare. In some instances, these activities are providing additional opportunities for indigenous communities.

Mallee plants – or eucalyptus with many stems, as opposed to a single trunk – have been harvested in the central west of New South Wales for nearly 100 years and, in addition to the benefits listed above, help to combat climate change by drawing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it underground in their large root systems. The biomass products produced from these plants result in a sound alternative to fossil fuels, burning cleanly without adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

In the midst of the drought of 2006, which was labelled Australia’s worst in more than 1000 years, a mallee grove was planted in West Wyalong, New South Wales. Despite a lack of water that, according to the Associated Press, resulted in a 46 per cent drop in wheat exports, the mallee trees flourished and were ready for harvest within a year.

In Western Australia, mallee plantings, originally established to control salinity in marginal wheat country, are being harvested for energy and oil production and a pilot-scale plant has been launched to demonstrate the overall feasibility and economic viability of the industry. Additionally, spin-off businesses are developing to provide new equipment for establishing the plantations, harvesting the trees and processing the biomass. These technologies have application beyond local farming communities and reach into the more extensive and traditional forest industries globally.

According to a 25 May article, Renewable Energy’s 26,000 New Jobs (published in The Australian from a report by the Climate Council, posted [see this current posting in TFE], $31 billion worth of clean energy projects – including geothermal, wind, solar, biomass and wave power – are in the pipeline, and are expected to generate 26,000 jobs. This boon could indicate that success stories such as these are just the beginning of a bright new future for our farm communities.

Peter Fagan is Asia-Pacific Sustainability Practice Leader, MWH, a global provider of environmental engineering, advising a range of interested businesses and communities on the economics, technology and tree species applicable to biomass production. Peter.Fagan@mwhglobal.com

An interview with Peter Fagan appears in here in TFE