‘North East CMA’ – Empowering farmers to meet the soil carbon challenge
REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE EXTENSION CASE STUDY
EMPOWERING FARMERS TO MEET THE SOIL CARBON CHALLENGE
The North East Victoria Catchment Management Authority (CMA) is running an innovative project to help over 500 farmers improve the soil carbon content of their properties and empowering them with the knowledge to improve production sustainably, whilst meeting catchment environmental goals.
NORTH EAST CMA
The North East Victoria Catchment Management Authority (CMA) region is bounded by the Murray River in the north, the Victorian Alps in the south, the NSW border in the east and the Warby Ranges in the west. The North East CMA region takes in the local government municipalities of Wodonga, Indigo, Wangaratta, Alpine and Towong, plus parts of Moira and East Gippsland Shires. Approximately 95,000 people live in the region.
ENTERPRISE: The main industries in the region are agriculture (dairy, beef, lamb, wool, cropping and horticulture), forest products, tourism, value-added processing industries and manufacturing.
- River Health
- Floodplain Management
- Water Quality
- Environmental Water Reserve
- Permits - Works on Waterways
- Land Stewardship - including Sustainable Agriculture and Environmental Management Systems
- Monitoring, Evaluation & Reporting
- Caring for Our Country projects including: Landscape Scale Conservation - Threatened Grassy Woodlands Project and the Soil Carbon Programme
Within the North East CMA Regional Catchment Strategy, the CMA conducts a wide range of activities addressing these responsibilities.
MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE
- Identifying that the majority of farmers did not understand the benefits of soil testing and how to interpret results
- Providing soil testing for land managers and independent agronomic advice on the results
- Running field days, workshops and forums on soil organic carbon and related subjects
- Delivering free eFarmer training
- Activities commenced: 2009
- Over 500 landholders participating in the project
- Combined area of involved properties over 116,000 hectares
- Wide adoption of trial agricultural and management practices to improve soil carbon
Chris Reid and the Land Stewardship team at the North East CMA recognised a critical gap in the knowledge of many farmers was how to practically manage soil fertility, its structure and the contribution of healthy soil to improved farm production. Assisted by funding from the Federal Government the team developed the Sustainable Farm Practices - Soil Carbon Programme to fill this knowledge gap and realise positive environmental outcomes.
In the face of one of the worst droughts on record and falling farm production generally, the team have balanced stakeholder needs with desired environmental outcomes to develop a successful and well-received project. The team is now delivering up to six information activities a month, including field days, forums and workshops. Through these North East CMA is connecting with landholders involved in existing and/or recently completed projects, Landcare groups and networks, industry groups and individuals with an interest in improving their soil organic carbon levels. Participating farmers now have the skills and knowledge to interpret their own soil tests offered by the project and have access to independent agronomy advice on how best to respond – in a sustainable manner.
Managing such a project requires dedication, commitment, and flexibility to address challenges as they arise. The team at the North East CMA demonstrate all these attributes and share how their project came into fruition and is making a difference across the entire catchment
The North East CMA Soil Carbon Programme was developed by Chris Reid and his Land Stewardship team in 2009 to take advantage of potential funding available from the Caring for Our Country initiative of the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF). The Land Stewardship team had built up considerable knowledge from numerous previous projects and they knew what contribution healthy soil could make to production as well as the environmental benefits it delivers. They identified a significant opportunity to build on their own previous work and that already undertaken by some Landcare groups in the region to spread this knowledge to the diverse farming community.
The team were not fully convinced by some of the arguments being aired in support of the economic advantages of mooted pasture-based carbon farming under carbon trading schemes. However, they were convinced, by their own surveys and practical engagement with farmers, of the need for land holders to increase organic soil carbon as part of a strategy of farm landscape regeneration, and, ultimately, for improved production. The team had access to data that showed rates of soil carbon in the region in the 1830s as high as 12% and yet the current figures averaged less than 2%. The potential for improvement was clear.
It was apparent to the Land Stewardship team that the majority of farmers did not understand the benefits of soil testing and how to interpret their own results. Farmers were therefore inhibited in making choices for strategies for improving soil fertility and structure.
An issue arising from this lack of understanding was the use of fertilisers, what occurs as a result of continued application and the effects on soil nutrition. This was leading to issues including widespread but localised soil acidity problems, aluminium toxicity and grass tetany. Grass tetany is a reaction in livestock caused by magnesium deficiency often resulting from a mis-match of low-magnesium pastures and fertiliser use. In the view of Chris and his team, better education of farmers on understanding soil structure, soil carbon management grazing management and soil fertility would be inherently valuable.
“To achieve long term and continuing change to farm management practices that will raise the capacity of farmers to improve the soil carbon content of their properties in the long term.”
Promoting the idea of improving soil carbon levels in the face of one of the worst droughts on record and falling farm production generally, was going to be a very difficult task. If stakeholders were to be convinced of the advantages of joining in the Soil Carbon Programme in such an environment, the possibility of improving production had to be demonstrable. The other significant part of the equation was that improving carbon levels was potentially a slow process. Results would not be obvious for some time into the future. The potential for increasing farm production therefore had to be clearly linked to the initiatives for improving soil carbon levels.
Chris and his team worked to identify what would help motivate farmers to join the Soil Carbon Programme in this challenging environment. Chris says they decided to offer a benefit for participants up front, in the form of, “Soil testing that produced results that farmers could understand and from which they and their agronomists could make sound decisions on soil fertility and management”.
Given this starting point, the team then developed the concept further to include independent agronomy workshops to explain to farmers how to read soil analysis and to provide guidance for further decision making. They would offer access for farmers to an agronomist of their own choosing from a panel of eight to provide follow-on support in the workshop program. The team would also seek out speakers from across Australia - and even international experts - who had practical experience in building soil health, with a focus on carbon, to pass on their experiences to land managers across the catchment.
PROJECT OBJECTIVES & ACTIVITIES
Chris defines the key objective of the program as, “To achieve long term and continuing change to farm management practices that will raise the capacity of farmers to improve the soil carbon content of their properties in the long term”.
Overall, the project activities developed were quite straightforward. The CMA team determined that it would pay for soil testing for the participating landholders; provide free agronomic advice to these landholders on the soil test outcomes; run field days, workshops and forums on soil organic carbon and related subjects; and deliver free eFarmer training through adult education approaches. A final soil test would be provided at the end of the program to measure improvements in soil health.
In turn, the project would require specific actions from participating landholders:
- Committing to changing their management practices for the term of the project on a nominated area of their property.
- Agreeing to participate in farm planning and soil management training and information sessions, in which they would have access to free soil testing and agronomic advice.
- Selecting an agronomist from a panel nominated by North East CMA who would provide up to four free on-site advice sessions.
- Attending free eFarmer workshops conducted by North East CMA, for which the project team would set up an eFarmer help desk in support.
eFarmer is a web-based application which supports the capture, viewing and sharing Natural Resource Management information across farms, landscapes and catchments. The web application, together with a simple matrix, informs private land managers of the natural resource management priorities of the CMA within which they reside and allows them to identify proposed and voluntarily implemented activities on their properties that may contribute to the achievement of CMA catchment wide targets.
SOIL CARBON PROGRAMME TARGETS
2800 land managers would improve their natural resource management knowledge.
1500 landholders would begin using improved soil management practices.
1300 land managers would attend soil management forums.
500 land managers would commit to the whole project and attend farm planning and soil management training and conduct prescribed management practices on a nominate area of their land. These would be the key stakeholders of the project and its champions.
The majority of the planning for the project was conducted as part of compiling the submission for DAFF funding. Suzanne Johnstone from the team explains that the North East CMA team found developing the Program Logic document, required for an application for DAFF funding, was a useful methodology for scoping the project. The Program Logic has since provided the basic guidance for all further project documentation.
Another key document that was developed during the planning phase was the Community Engagement Plan. This Plan identified stakeholders and set out strategies for dealing with the issues that their research had shown were the keys to the success of the project. Identified communication activities included actions such as attending meetings and discussing the project with community groups, mainly local Landcare groups, and a whole-of-catchment mail out using tailored postcards supplying project information and contacts.
The team identified its stakeholders for the Soil Carbon Programme to include:
- Landholders of the CMA region
- Landcare groups of the CMA region
- Local industry supporting farming activities
- Conservation management networks
- CMA staff
The landholders of the region were the communication priority. Key messages for the communications were the ‘no strings’ soil testing, the independent agronomy advice, the use of the eFarmer planning tool and the field services provided for training and education. The communication activities would also be subject to the continuous improvement based on documented stakeholder feedback.
Credibility at all stages of the project was identified as essential. All of the stakeholders needed to have trust in the CMA team and in what the project could deliver. The farmers, in particular, needed to have trust in the information they received from the CMA team, the soil testing reports and in their chosen agronomist.
The team was certain that, only when this mutual trust and credibility was established, could they expect a commitment from farmers to the project and its outcomes.
In developing their grant funding proposal, the project team identified three streams that required funding for the Soil Carbon Programme:
- soil testing
- agronomists and associated training and information delivery
- staffing of the project
The CMA Board reviewed and supported the soil carbon initiative proposal and recommended it to DAFF as one of a number of North East CMA proposals recommended for funding. DAFF agreed to fund the Soil Carbon Programme to $2.2 million over four years, running from July 2009 to June 2013. The allocated funding supported all the proposed soil carbon activities as well as salaries for 3.5 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff positions.
RISKS & CHALLENGES
Early in the planning phase, the project team expected that continuous risk and impediment management would form a large part of project management. The team identified risks to the project and developed strategies to manage them.
One of the major risks identified was the potential for staff turnover, and thus a loss of competencies from the project, as project funding was expended and staff sought other secure employment. To address this, the management team set to identifying opportunities for future projects and associated funding to ensure ongoing tenure and retain and use existing competencies.
Another significant risk identified was the difficulty of engaging 500 landowners in the program and keeping them committed for the four year duration. The team determined that maintaining ongoing communication and ensuring continued engagement through active participation in regular events would be the best way to manage this risk.
The planning phase also identified a number of likely impediments to the success of the project.
Being conducted at the height of a major and long term drought, many of the landholders would be focussed on surviving the drought and would not necessarily be interested in improving soil structure, carbon content and fertility. Additionally, many landholders were accustomed to dealing with a number of organisations, entities and individuals who were committed to traditional farming practices. Farmers had long followed their advice and support and may, therefore, be reluctant to abandon comfort zones and begin something new.
As part of their impediment management program, Chris and his team decided that their impediment management approach would include:
- Soil testing for the 500 participants undertaken by a trusted scientific entity that was used in a previous large scale Landcare soil testing project.
- Free explanations from experts on how to interpret soil testing results.
- Providing free advice to farmers from a CMA-identified panel of independent agronomists.
- Conducting field days and seminars with guest presenters suggested by farmers who were not committed to any particular method of farming or landscape regeneration to the exclusion of other ideas.
- Ensuring that all advice came from independent sources and was not delivered by local, state or commonwealth agencies.
- Ensuring that the project team members and the agronomists listened to the landholders and reported back their comments, ideas and suggestions.
MANAGING THE PROJECT
Although the communications activities were relatively unsophisticated, Suzanne explains, “We were swamped with Expressions of Interest, to the extent that we had a backlog that we were having trouble dealing with”. Overall, 505 landholders have been selected to participate in the initial soils testing component of the project, from a range of farming enterprises including grazing, cropping, horticulture, viticulture, dairy and mixed enterprises.
As the project got underway, North East CMA organised and funded the initial soil sampling, comprising 22 soil cores extracted from 2 x 100m transects from each property. Soil was subdivided into four depth categories between 0-30cm and pooled prior to laboratory analysis for soil carbon as well as other chemical and physical soil characteristics. Group on-farm soil advice from their nominated panel of agronomists through field days and forums was also funded and organised. Landcare groups and networks, industry programs with similar focus, and individuals with an interest in improving their soil carbon management were identified and engaged. Regular newsletters and soil improvement information sheets were distributed to maintain interest within in the project.
The project was fortunate in that the staff carried over from a previous project had a broad range of natural resource management and agricultural skills and also had the advantage of tapping into existing Landcare coordinators and project managers that had great field and community experience. The team built on the previous experience and took on new skills. Chris notes, “Training in other areas was conducted, such as use of the soil sampling machine and preparing a formal process and following it for consistency of data and for reducing sampling error”.
Chris and his team manage from the project baseline plan and the original brief. The project is managed across three streams into which individual components have been grouped.
1. Soil Testing – soil testing and seminars for interpreting results.
2. Training and Education – agronomy sessions, field days, seminars and the eFarmer training.
3. Quality Management – post-activity surveys, eFarmer help desk feedback and ongoing communications including CMA Internet site updates.
The Quality Management stream of the project aims to ensure continuous improvement of activities and information resources. Anonymous post-activity surveys administered to review training outcomes and take-up provide an opportunity for respondents to comment on content, speakers, activities and to suggest changes and improvements. This information is analysed by the CMA team and changes made to programs and activities according to need and available budget.
The CMA team depends on these anonymous surveys to check achievement of objectives and targets and to provide input to improvement of future activities.
The information from surveys is also vetted and commented upon by the agronomists participating in the program and compared with anecdotal information from North East CMA staff.
FIELD DAY FEEDBACK
Feedback from field days held in February 2012 showed that all attendees answered ‘yes’ to the question “Has your knowledge of Soil Health improved from this session?”, each marking five out of five that they had “learned a lot”.
In response to the question “Having participated in the Soil Carbon Programme, do you consider that your approach to farm management practices may change to incorporate some more sustainable practices?” those that answered ‘yes’ also provided comments of the changes they may make including:
“Less emphasis on spray and more emphasis on management”
“Use less chemical, rely on biodiversity”
“Improve grazing management”
“Look at a longer management cycle to grazing”
“Understanding your landscape”
“What weeds are telling me about my management”
“Ground cover management is now my top priority”
“I will manage to increase local biodiversity”
“Maintaining water in the soil profile and using carbon to do this”
Suzanne Johnstone, as the lead in the eFarmer training, provides information based on her help desk role and hits on the eFarmer Internet site.
All the information gathered contributes to the continuous improvement of project activities and content and targeting of supporting publications. The project team regularly reviews activities and outcomes for opportunities to implement changes to the project and activities.
The well developed continuous improvement program ensures that any shortfall in expectations, of which there have been very few, becomes the basis for improvement. For example, when the manual collection and storing of information became onerous, a database was established. The database continues to be developed and its numerous functions are major contributors to efficiency in the project and have reduced resource overheads by the equivalent of half the workload of one full time staff member.
The hand auger sampling was an idea that did not stand up to early optimistic expectations and was soon abandoned with the arrival of a suitable mechanical option.
“In the first instance, we had a three months wait for suitable soil sampling machinery and undertook a program of manual sampling in rock hard, drought affected soils. We found that we did not have the resources to continue with the manual taking of soil in accordance with our planned timetable and, in any event, from an OH&S viewpoint, manual sampling was not a good idea. However, suitable machinery was eventually sourced and staff trained to use the machinery and to follow a constructed soil sampling process.”
Initial team grouping of participants did not always work out in all instances. There was a need to move some participants to other groups as their interests were not well aligned with the majority of the participants in their area.
Similarly, choice of agronomists by some participants did not align well with requirements. “Two to three of the agronomists were exchanged by some participants for others – we always planned to offer choices to participants – even offering them to other groups such as similar enterprises, independent of their geographically location. This worked well.”
Other key lessons from the project include the importance of:
- Establishing credibility through empowerment of stakeholders.
- Maintaining continuing contact with stakeholders and responding positively to suggestions and feedback.
- Continuous improvement of project activities and outcomes based on stakeholder feedback, such as:
- using independent consultants; - adaptive management; and - initially offering an obvious benefit to project participants (in this case, soil tests and agronomic sessions).
In addition, to align with the expectations of landholders, it was essential for success that the program focussed broadly on soil health, not carbon sequestration alone, but to ensure that the program did not exclude information on carbon sequestration.
SIGNIFICANT OUTCOMES TO DATE
Some interesting insights were provided by one of the projects participants, John Paterson, a beef producer in the Mitta Mitta Valley. John and his wife ‘retired’ to the area after many decades of dairy farming in the Cobram Area. Their approach to farming over that time might be considered conventional and John recognised their reliance on superphosphate and chemical inputs to keep the pastures growing.
Over recent years, with the costs of these inputs continuing to increase, John began to ponder alternatives. The Soil Carbon Programme seemed to offer an insight on other management options and the free soil testing and access to alternative agronomists were appealing. He ‘put his hand up’ and has enjoyed the experience immensely, particularly in joining others from the district and hearing their experiences.
John has learned much about soil health including getting mineral balances right, the beneficial work of dung beetles, the ability for native and clover pasture species to re-emerge and the positive effects that improved grazing methods can have on the enterprise. He has experimented with rock phosphates which support the soil biology and the pasture results are readily apparent when compared to adjacent untreated paddocks. The program has exposed John to new possibilities in grazing and he says he will, “Keep giving it all a go and see what happens”.
So far, more than the target number of landholders have become involved in the farm planning/soil management training, have accessed free soil testing and agronomic advice and agreed to change their management practices on a nominated area of their property.
“New people keep coming to our events. Involving local people in local events empowers them. Empowered people are easier to convince... and the cost is minimal.”
Suzanne reports, “The offer of free soil tests with an obligation to attend four free soil agronomy sessions with a soil specialist of their choosing attracted 505 land holders - covering a significant area of the north east region. The attendance at each of the sessions has indicated the strong interest in soils in general and soil organic carbon in particular”.
The combined area of all the properties involved in the Soil Carbon Programme is over 116,000 hectares, noting that not all of this area is subject to changed soil management practices at this stage.
“The overall objectives of the project have been largely met due to the need and interest of the region’s landholders to improve their productive resource (soil) due to the years of degradation through general inattention and drought; and genuine interest in improving their soil health for long term sustainability.”
The training and education activities have been very successful and high demand has meant that, in some cases, there have been up to six seminars/field days in a single month to different locations in the North East CMA region.
Highlighting some of the significant outcomes of the program so far, Suzanne observes, “New people keep coming to our events. Involving local people in local events empowers them. Empowered people are easier to convince... and the cost is minimal. We now have over 2000 landholders on our database from attendance at our events!”
The team also points out that credibility is the key, “Farmers can see that we respond to their suggestions and that there are no strings attached”.
The anonymous exit surveys conducted by the team have shown that the field days on farms have developed promoters and champions of change, who, in themselves are not usually promoters of new ideas.
While noting that it is too early to point to dramatic changes in soil carbon levels where changed farming practices are in place, the team are confident that participants can show improvements in soil structure, pasture cover and stocking rates.
As an indicator of the success of the program, the team point out that no participants have really separated from the Soil Carbon Programme and, indeed, some from the wider population have sought to join.
“From a provider of integrated catchment management programs, the delivery and uptake of information from this project has been very successful. We will be going back to all 505 landholders in the last year of the project to undertake soil carbon testing and interview each landholder to understand what changes they have adopted as a result of attending the information sessions and the general heightened level of information that has been made available through this program. The data base of information collected as part of this project through interviews and soil tests will be assessed to understand the health of the regions’ farming soils and opportunities to improve the environmental service the soil provides.”
Interim reports are demonstrating that, as a result of being involved in the Soil Carbon Programme, many participants are adopting agricultural and management practice changes across their whole property, not just on the sites committed to the soil testing activities. Changes already adopted include:
- Increasing paddock numbers and transition to rotational grazing management
- Improved ground cover maintenance
- Promotion or sowing of perennial species
- Maximising species diversity in pasture
- Increased stubble retention
- Changes to fertilisers used, such as seaweed and trace element application rather than only annual NPK application
- Application of more precise Calcium products, such as sulphur/calcium/magnesium mixes
Once the final interviews and soil testing are complete a thorough assessment of the Soil Carbon Programme will be undertaken.
“This has been the most rewarding project in the 15 years I have been involved in NRM activities... there have been more ‘light-bulb’ moments associated with our work with farmers than I can ever remember.”
Chris and the team see a clear need to communicate their successes beyond the farming community. The region includes some major urban population centres, in particular Wodonga (and nearby Albury) and Wangaratta, that are home to schools, community groups and business and agricultural production organisations and also industrial entities that support agriculture. In addition, the team has identified a number of complementary programs being run by Landcare that could provide opportunities for mutual benefit in widening awareness of the economic and environmental benefits of farm landscape regeneration. These areas will be addressed through the regional media as an enhancement to the existing stakeholder engagement activities.
As another aspect of soil carbon improvement, the project team are involved in, is an in house experimental program which is using willows extracted from stream regeneration projects to produce bio-char in a portable charcoal furnace. Further bio-char funding has been received by the Soil Carbon Programme, to implement field trials in bio-char and test its value for local agricultural enterprises.
Chris and the team believe that the momentum created by the Soil Carbon Programme could well be the starting point of a further projects that deal with the integration of soil hydrology, soil fertility and vegetation in triple bottom line outcome for CMA landholders. Project of this nature could logically build on the considerable amount of data collected a part of the Soil Carbon Programme.
Perhaps the success of the project to date can be best summed up by Suzanne Johnstone, who comments, “This has been the most rewarding project in the 15 years I have been involved in NRM activities... there have been more ‘light-bulb’ moments associated with our work with farmers than I can ever remember”.
SHARING THE SUCCESS
This project is achieving catchment-wide change in knowledge of how to build healthy soils, using a range of methods that best suit the individual farmers. This closing of a critical knowledge gap, supported by practical advice and action on the ground, provides a positive example that others could follow. With funding of $2.2 million over four years, over 500 farmers are actively involved and up to 1500 are beginning to use improved soil management practices. This equates to around $1500 investment in each farmer over a four-year period.
The project demonstrates a very cost efficient way of encouraging change in farming practice. If extended across Australia’s 53 other CMA/NRM organisations it would realise 25,000 farmers actively changing their soil health for the better, together with another 50,000 looking to make a change.
Through an expanded communications program, the results can be explained to not only land managers but also to local government, businesses and schools to provide wider community awareness of the importance of soil health and the methods of achieving improved fertility.
The knowledge gained and then successfully applied through such a program could also be recognised through the awarding of a formal qualification through local training providers.
THIS CASE STUDY WAS PUBLISHED IN SEPTEMBER 2012 AS PART OF THE SOILS FOR LIFE INNOVATIONS FOR REGENERATIVE LANDSCAPE MANAGEMENT PROJECT.