Archive for November, 2011

Carbon Farming: will it save the world?

November 30, 2011

I attended a seminar in Orange on Wednesday to hear Dr Aaron Simmons from NSW DPI talk about his group’s work sampling and analysing soil from 400 sites accross the Lachlan River catchment from Blayney to Hillston. The project was funded by the Lachlan CMA and NSW DPI. We also heard Danielle Littlewood present some background on the Federal Government’s “Carbon Farming Initiative”.

My conclusion from the day was that any attempt by farmers to get paid for sequestering carbon in their soil is fraught with the problems. All soils have an inherant capacity to store carbon. Aaron described soil organic carbon with an analogy of a bucket. The soil is a bucket with a hole in the bottom through which Carbon is continually leaking. Plants are continually adding organic matter into the top of the bucket while respiring organisms in the soil are leaking carbon out the bottom. It is a dynamic system, which allows you to increase the soil organic carbon by increasing the organic matter coming in or reducing the leakage going out, or both. Generally, the more carbon stored in the soil, the more productive it is. As the carbon level in a soil rises, the more difficult it is to increase it further ie: more carbon can be sequesterred more quickly in heavily depleted soils.

The best way to deplete the carbon levels in your soil is to plough it regularly or bare the surface for long periods by over grazing. The best ways to increase your soil carbon is to plant or encourage perennial pastures and manage them to grow vigorously and never allow bare ground for long periods. Obviously farm productivity improves as soil carbon rises, however profits may rise in the short-term if you mine your soil’s carbon for a few years. This has long been done in the sheep/wheat belt with crop/pasture rotations.

If I apply sell carbon permits for carbon sequestered in my soils, I will have to prove the soil carbon levels before I start and claim permits for any increases over time. Any permits that I sell will commit me to maintain the increased level of soil carbon for 100 years and this will be a caveat on the title for my land so future owners will take on this responsability. Given the dynamic nature of soil carbon this will be difficult and I suspect any prospective buyers will be deducting the value of any carbon credits from the purchase price of the land.

Despite the problems associated with selling something as volatile as soil carbon, I think the Carbon Farming Initiative has a lot of potential. Projects to reduce emmissions in agriculture will be able to sell permits for whatever measurable emissions they manage to avoid. This is much more straight forward and does not require any long term guarantees. A recent example is a piggery extracting the methane emissions from the effluent ponds and burning that methane. The energy will be used to generate electricity and the CO2 released is much less greenhouse active than methane. The reduction in methane emissions can be measured and carbon permits can be sold. Beautiful!

letter to the land newspaper

November 24, 2011

The following letter was published in the Land newspaper on the 10th November 2011. I signed the letter Robert Lee, Larras Lee. Someone from the land phoned and asked if I had written the letter. When I replied that I had she asked;- well who is Larras Lee?


I have been hearing a lot of concern lately about the headlong development of the mining industry. Land use conflicts, difficulties finding people to work on farms because the mines offer such huge wages and the high exchange rate caused by the massive inflow of capital to feed the mining boom are among the concerns. Mining and farming interests are not aligned. When Kevin Rudd was floundering against the might of the mining lobby’s advertising campaign walloping the Government policy to introduce a super profits tax on mining, a friend said to me; “we farmers should be supporting this tax. The country needs infrastructure and the miners are making huge profits thanks to China.” Where were the farm lobby groups at this time? Silent at best; or worse, blindly parroting the federal opposition stance opposing the tax. The farm lobby should advocate for policy that is good for agriculture regardless of other industry’s concerns. The income from the latest, watered down version of the mining tax will contribute to the infrastructure so desperately needed in this country. TheNFFsays it supports the carbon farming initiative which provides an opportunity for farmers to diversify our income stream and prepare ourselves for the new reality of a low carbon economy. TheNFF is being inconsistent and niggardly if they support an initiative that pumps $billions into agriculture but are unwilling to countenance farmers paying for higher costs from a tax designed to reduce carbon emissions. It is time that the leaders of the farm lobby stopped being politically partisan and thought seriously about the implications for farming of major political debates.