Farmers perceptions of carbon farming, a mixed study of South Gippsland

by Tess Hayes, Masters Thesis, RMIT

Background

Over the past ten years, Australia has proposed a number of key climate change policies designed to reduce atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. One of these policies is the Carbon Credits (Carbon Farming Initiative) Act 2011 (CFI). The CFI was an initiative originally targeting farmers as the primary participants. Under the Act, incentives in the form of carbon credits were awarded, among other things, for participating in activities designed to reduce emissions from farm practices or for sequestering carbon in soil or vegetation. Natural carbon sequestration is a process in which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere and stored in “carbon sinks” of perennial vegetation or the soil. The CFI targeted the land sector due to the significant potential carbon sink that exists in terrestrial (soil) and biotic (vegetation) carbon pools (Department of Environment 2016; Lal 2010). In July 2015, the CFI was reframed as a collection of land sector methods through its incorporation into the Emission Reduction Fund (ERF).

South Gippsland study site

What defines carbon farming?

In this project, carbon farming refers to any land management practice or method that aims to reduce emissions from farm practices or sequester carbon. It does not rely on evidence of success in doing this or formal participation in the ERF.

Research aims and methods

A known challenge for reducing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations via the land sector is engaging landholders. In Victoria, the ERF scheme is known to have engaged only a low percentage of farmers. To better understand this lack of participation, this project explored the factors shaping farmers’ perceptions of, and engagement with, the ERF land sector methods. An online survey and 22 one-on-one interviews were carried out to investigate and understand farmer perceptions of carbon farming.

Study regions and participants

The study was carried out in the Bass Coast and South Gippsland region, Victoria. Land managers, Landcare and Government agency staff participated in the study. The land managers are all from the subset of farmers who are Landcare members, as they were accessed via the Bass Coast and South Gippsland Landcare Networks. This sampling strategy was chosen in the belief that Landcare members would more likely be interested and engaged in carbon farming.

Farmers’ perceptions of carbon farming: Key findings

The main findings from the study are as follows:

  • Landcare Networks in the region seem highly influential in informing their members about issues, but are not promoting the ERF carbon farming scheme
  • Farmers understand that the primary purpose and benefit of carbon farming is to reduce emissions, but do not often perceive it to offer productivity co-benefits
  • Many farmers feel their existing Landcare-based sustainable agriculture practices already meet carbon-farming objectives and, therefore, do not feel that it is necessary to participate in the seemingly risky and complex government ERF scheme
  • Farmers are especially wary of the legal risk that formal contractual participation in the ERF seems to present, especially given the potential for natural fluctuation of soil carbon or the effect of natural disasters such as fire, flood and drought on soil carbon dynamics
  • Many farmers regarded climate change as being not directly relevant to the individual farm business, perceiving that changes in climate were natural rather than human caused
  • Farmers perceive practices that sequester carbon in soil can be undertaken without involvement in formal programs

Most survey respondents suggested that they know a little about carbon farming (Figure 2), but not enough to become actively involved. Landcare Networks are highly influential in the region, with nearly 80% of survey respondents (all Landcare members) indicating that Landcare is their primary source of information (Figure 3). At the same time, ERF carbon farming programs are not being extensively promoted by the local Landcare Networks (for some of the reasons outlined below), contributing to why many farmers remain uninformed and unconvinced about the ERF programs.

Respondents awareness of carbon farming

Figure 2 – Survey respondents awareness of carbon farming, where n= number of responses

Survery respondents key sources of information

Figure 3 – Survey respondents key sources of information, where n = number of responses

A further reason many respondents gave for why they are not involved in the ERF is that they are already undertaking the sort of “environmental” practices endorsed by carbon farming. The practices they have in mind are likely the sustainable agriculture practices increasingly endorsed by Landcare, following its recent turn from revegetation to sustainable agriculture and climate change adaptation. Rather than this perceived overlap in practices increasing land managers’ interest in signing up for ERF carbon credits, it seems to have decreased it, with many respondents indicating that they do not see a need to get involved with the seemingly complex administrative process of the formal government carbon farming scheme.

Adding to land managers’ disinclination to sign up for the ERF – and Landcare’s disinclination to encourage it – is the ERF’s apparent lack of political certainty, feasibility and flexibility. There was a widespread perception among land managers that the ERF carbon farming projects are in their infancy and not something worth engaging or investing in at this stage. As a Landcare representative stated about the scheme: “It’s really swept off the radar in this particular region of Victoria” (Interview 19). Many respondents could not recall receiving any information or extension regarding government carbon farming incentives since the amendment of the CFI. They reported a lack of digestible information available regarding the scheme, a lack of information available on how landholders could get involved, as well as what their obligations would be if they undertook an ERF project. The main question they wanted answers to regarding the ERF was the profitability of participating, with many suggesting that without the assistance of a carbon broker, the capacity to calculate the potential profits on offer was very limited.

The Carbon Farming Initiative did include an extension program for 24 carbon farming projects. A majority of these extension programs were large nation-wide projects facilitated by organisations such as Australian Farm Institute Ltd, Dairy Australia Ltd, Fertilizer Australia, Meat and Livestock Australia and a number of others. The only project in the Gippsland region was led by Bega Cheese Ltd. A $850,000 project, it was intended to provide direct advice and extension to reduce dairy farm emissions through improved emission management practices. However, the Bega project, as well as many others, was restricted to the respective companies supplying farms. The overall Carbon Farming Futures Extension and Outreach program did engage some farmers about the potential to reduce GHG emissions or sequester carbon while improving profitability, productivity and resource use efficiency. Hobbins (2015) exploration of it found that farmers who were initially resistant to the idea of carbon farming generally became more interested and engaged in carbon farming as a result of the program. Cook and Ma (2014), Luo et al. (2016) and Stout et al. (2016) similarly suggest that promoting the co-benefits of carbon farming and underlining the correlation between the practice and many farmers’ land management objectives can greatly increase uptake. Coutts (2016)’s recent report on the Carbon Farming Futures Extension and Outreach program emphasizes the importance of well-informed farm advisors, who, in a similar way as Landcare, can hold great influence over what information is translated to farmers. Coutts argues that the ability of farm advisors to communicate complex science in a manner that makes it relevant is key to improving farmers’ understanding of carbon farming and increasing their capacity to make more informed decisions regarding sustainable agriculture practices.

Despite the Carbon Farming Futures Extension and Outreach program, the present study suggests that, at present, the link between carbon sequestration and soil health is not clearly perceived by many farmers. Although the links between improving soil health and productivity seems well-accepted, the further link to carbon sequestration is obscured, possibly by the politicized nature of climate change discussions in Australia.

Potential further research

Despite the current low levels of awareness and engagement with carbon farming, the survey and interview respondents in this study indicated that they remain potentially interested in the topic. As one beef producer responded when asked about his outlook for the future:

“I think that we should look generally and with hope at the promise that things will come good and that we can adapt to whatever is going to happen and work towards that. When carbon farming is included in the discussion I see no negatives in the carbon-farming ideal, however somebody has to make it happen” (Interview 3).

This farmer’s differentiation between the ideal and implementation to date of carbon farming is important. The lack of engagement reported in this study seems to reflect problems with the specific CFI program and its implementation, including its limited reach in the farming population, more than fundamental problems with the concept of carbon farming per se. Thinking more deeply about what carbon farming has to offer individuals and society therefore remains relevant, particularly as climate change progresses. With federal government involvement in carbon farming shifting as the CFI program comes to a close, it may be timely for other groups to take up the concept of soil carbon sequestration and implement it in their own way.

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7 thoughts on “Farmers perceptions of carbon farming, a mixed study of South Gippsland

  1. I am associated with a carbon based soil conditioner and this should be looked at as a carbon neutral product that alleviates the need for chemical fertilisers in the soil profile. The base product is Lignite with organic additives and this takes the lignite from the ground and returns it to the soil to form organic matter and natural bacteria in the soil profile. i have used this product on my farm for more than 20 years and it has altered my soil for the best. At the least it should be regarded as carbon neutral. A positive result.

  2. Hi Tony,
    Peter Ronalds has taken soil samples for carbon about 4 years ago. He should be able to give you a figure. I am dissappointed that peters trials have not included Humusplus 4.
    Jeff

    1. It was a Masters thesis at RMIT. I just realised we didn’t put those details on the study. We will fix that now. thanks Ian.

  3. I am a practising beef farmer an I have been using a coal based soil conditioner and fertiliseer for 24 years and I would like to be included in any trials that are being used to compare different methods of the use of carbon on the soil. I do not use chemical fertilisers normally and I have a good production record. I feel that the product that I use should be used generally in all farming to assist the environment.

    1. Hi Jeff, We don’t have any trials currently planned on Soil carbon. We are doing some work with Corporate Carbon at the moment to see how much carbon is in a root mat to look at the potential to incorporate that carbon into the soil profile. Have a look at the link below. It shows the amount of carbon in Strzelecki Dermasols (your soil type) on beef properties averaged about 80 to 100 tonnes per ha. It would be interesting to know what yours are now after 24 years of the use of coal based soil conditioner and fertiliser. http://www.wgcma.vic.gov.au/for-landholders/gippsland-soil-trials/victorian-soil-carbon-project