Carbon farming down under

So you might have guessed from the title, that I am in Australia for 3 weeks, for the first long trip of my Nuffield experience. I have been here for a few days now, and apart from still waking up ridiculously early due to jet lag, it has been pretty good so far.  Having spent the last few days in Sydney and now in Melbourne for a couple of days for meetings though, I am looking forward to seeing some countryside (I’m not really a city girl at heart).

However while in Sydney I got the chance to go to meet with Irene Sobotta, who works for Meat and Livestock Australia on sustainability research.  She was also part of the team that developed the Farm 300 project (which initially inspired my Nuffield) so I was very pleased to be able to have a meeting and find out more about how the project was designed, and how it had been taken up by farmers.

mla-logo-blogThe Farm 300 project

Funded by the Australian Government the key objective of this project was to improve knowledge and skills of Australian livestock producers leading to a 10% increase in on-farm productivity and profitability and a 30% decrease in GHG emissions intensity.  Those are quite big targets and especially given that the timescale for projects was a little over a year.

What initially interested me about this project was the fact that instead of training the farmers, they were training the advisors, and then letting the advisors adapt that knowledge to local conditions that their farmers were facing.  The basic process of the project was to work with advisors and producers, and then find and support coaching programs developed  by advisors which are relevant to local needs and which increase profitability and decrease GHG emissions intensity. This is based on the research that there is no universally applicable list of mitigation practices; practices need to be evaluated for individual agricultural systems and settings. The advisors task was to interpret materials and the wider challenge of lowering emissions into regionally adapted programmes that can be used with producers at a local level.

The project was very much focussed on business and really making the link between productivity and lower GHG emissions. This focus on business was necessary to get farmers interested in the process.  It was business that was the priority for the farmers, as such the environmental messages had to be communicated in such a way that they could be directly linked to the impact on profitability and productivity.

Farmers were given one to one coaching as well as the opportunity to benefit from farmer to farmer learning through peer discussion groups that were managed by advisors as well as the use of benchmarking to document impact.

The use of coaching

The reasons from the MLA for using coaching were simple.  “Livestock farming is complex,” Irene explained, “coaching has been proven to be an effective method of developing farmer skills and achieving practice change at a systems level, which is what we need.”

This continual learning allowed the farmers to build their skills and knowledge. The advisors became the farmer’s coaches, as in sport, helping them see what needed doing and giving them the skills to work out how to make it better.  , to practice and adapt depending on what works. This process is called supported learning.

The overall objective was to improve the farmer’s skill level. By taking small steps and gradually working through issues and by sharing experiences with other farmers there is an opportunity to gain inspiration as well as motivation to keep going.

The benefits of benchmarking

Benchmarking is also a key part of the puzzle, understanding why things are the way they are and where things can change. The research MLA have done shows that the longer that the farmers are in a skills development programme the higher the return on capital becomes within the business.

The peer to peer element of the programme also allowed for a supportive environment in challenging environmental conditions.  “We’ve seen floods, droughts and wildfires during the program” Irene explained, “and these totally devastate farm businesses and livelihoods.  Having a supportive social environment created through the groups helped the farmers cope with what was happening.”

Impact

The GHG emissions intensity were calculated using models and it is this modelling approach which has helped to shape the next phase of the project.

The Farm 300 project has now finished and has been replaced with the Carbon Farming Initiative.  What’s exciting about this initiative is that there is now an approved methodology for beef (and soon to be sheep) producers to join in with the scheme and get payments for adopting certain management practices that have been shown to reduce emissions.  This is a great step forward.  I’m due to be meeting another person from MLA next week that makes all the models for calculating emissions reduction potential as well as leading on the methane reduction programme over here, so there will be more on this soon!

Legacy

The project finished last year. However the methodology that MLA piloted in this project, was such a success, it is to be rolled out through the other research strands that are funded. The premise of the approach was putting the emphasis on continual learning, and teaching new skills through a combination of one to one advice on-farm, discussion with farming neighbours including benchmarking progress, and sharing ideas and knowledge.

The project allowed the formation of discussion groups with the overarching subject of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but the farmers in the groups set the topic that they wanted to focus on, thus investing their time and efforts into the scheme.  The advisors, who were trained on climate change, also got access to the latest research to disseminate to farmers, but needed to switch dissemination method from one of ‘telling’ to one of ‘showing.’ This recognition of the need to include farmers in generating solutions and equipping advisors with the most up to date knowledge about the subject so that they can suggest locally relevant mitigation measures and then facilitate rather than lead discussions should enable a longer legacy of these practices on-farm.