Mimicking Mother Nature
A change in traditional land stewardship methods is reaping rewards for Australian farmers.
HIGH in NSW’s Northern Tablelands cattle are grazing beneath a brilliant sky, feasting on a lush landscape of spring growth. Across the 1854ha property you’ll find five waterfalls, each tumbling into a trail of pristine natural creeks.
It sounds like something out of a storybook, but for Stuart Austin and his family, it’s home. “At this time of year, it’s one of the most beautiful farms I’ve ever been on,” Mr Austin, general manager at Wilmot Cattle Company, said.
But the picturesque landscape, dotted with thousands of native trees, only tells half the story. Underground the fertile soil is working just as hard, storing thousands of tonnes of carbon every year.
It didn’t happen on its own. Over the past decade, Wilmot Cattle has rejected conventional farming at its three properties – that’s more than 5000ha of land – in favour of trying to “mimic how Mother Nature” once managed things: replanting more native trees and plants, using organic fertilisers, and giving grazed paddocks plenty of time to regrow.
The results are not just healthier cattle, more biodiversity, and a more drought-resilient farm; Wilmot can also show it’s carbon-negative – that is, it now sequesters more carbon than methane emitted.
It’s led Wilmot to another milestone: this year, the company (owned by MacDoch Group, chaired by Alasdair MacLeod, who is son-in-law to News Corp executive chairman Rupert Murdoch) sold more than $500,000 worth of carbon credits to Microsoft, which the computing giant can use to offset its emissions elsewhere. It’s a prime example of the role agriculture can – and is – playing to take action on climate change, with farmers and the environment both reaping the rewards.
Agriculture is responsible for about 14 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, thanks in large part to the humble cow burping and farting methane. But, as managers of more than half of Australia’s land, farmers say they are also uniquely placed to lead the response on climate action – and are quietly doing just that.
The National Farmers’ Federation backs a net-zero emissions by 2050 target, while individual commodities are paving the way to get there: the red meat industry is halfway to becoming carbon-neutral by 2030, dairy wants to cut emissions by 30 per cent by 2030, and the pork industry is aiming to go zero-waste by 2025. NFF president Fiona Simson said agriculture was in something of a “holding pattern”, where farmers could see the benefits and opportunities of climate action but needed the right settings to get there.
“Our call is for the government to set a national framework, commit to netzero, and clearly we would like ag to be recognised as part of the solution, not part of the problem,” she said.
With demand from businesses looking for offsets well outstripping supply, the Carbon Market Institute estimates revenue from carbon projects could reach $24 billion by 2030 and lead to 10,500 new jobs.
To get there, Ms Simson says the accounting schemes need work; they’re “quite clunky” for agriculture’s needs today, particularly as more farmers see the value in becoming carbon-neutral in their own right, and not just be the “tick the box offset for everyone else”.
And, while the Microsoft deal was a windfall for Wilmots, Mr Austin is keen to point out farmers should see carbon farming as extra revenue, not their main revenue stream – and certainly not the motivation for change.
The opportunities for change aren’t limited to planting more trees. Down in Victoria, Olivia and Tom Lawson have spent the past 20 years quietly adopting holistic farming practices to their bull-breeding business Paringa Livestock, at Yea and Ballarat.
They’ve stopped using synthetic fertilisers, undertaken revegetation projects, and embraced genetics to see their animals become more productive and feed efficient (meaning fewer methane emissions), while the environment is healthier.
For the Lawsons, who have not yet officially joined a carbon farming project, working this way is just second nature.
“We just want to be able to sleep at night and know we are doing absolutely everything we can to look after our land and look after our animals,” Mrs Lawson said.