Cool Soil Initiative Launches in Australia

Mark Torrens, a grain buyer for Mars Petcare, had been watching the changes in weather and wheat yields across the Asia-Pacific region, and he worried about future supply. Four years ago, he invited the Food Lab to join him in New South Wales, Australia. We spent a few days with Mark and his colleague Sarah Heazlewood, visiting farmers and a key supply chain partner. From this visit, we launched a project aimed at soil health and farm resilience, working with a local agronomist and several farmers using the Cool Farm Tool. Those early steps have now evolved into a broad collaboration, the Cool Soil Initiative, now seeking to impact more than 1.5 million acres.

Initially piloted by Mars Petcare and the Food Lab in 2017, the Cool Soil Initiative now includes major Australian manufacturers, Kellogg’s and Manildra Group, as well as leading researchers at Charles Sturt University. Through the Food Agility Cooperative Research Centre (CRC), the Cool Soil Initiative has a $2 million+ commitment that will grow the program over the next three years.

Cool Soil Initiative partners along the grain supply chain in Australia will invest in reducing GHG emissions by supporting 200 farmers across 700,000 ha to test and investigate new management practices that deliver a win-win for productivity and sustainability. Given the key players involved, and the goal to reach across the wheat belt of New South Wales, the Cool Soil Initiative has the ambition to reach a territory the size of France and Germany combined.

The new partnership will continue program elements started in 2017 Mars and the Food Lab, working through independent farmer groups to deliver extension and capture data with the Cool Farm Tool and in-field soil sampling. The Cool Soil Initiative pays for soil sampling on up to 5 wheat paddocks as an incentive for farmers to participate in the program. Farmers are also able to designate an innovation paddock, where they can try a new soil health practice and track results more rigorously with the help of a farming system group agronomist.

Scaling the Cool Farm Initiative

In addition to the core program, Charles Sturt University researchers will use the data to further research across three key areas:

  1. Economic modeling of the return-on-investment from different practice scenarios;
  2. Advancing the use of Spatial Carbon modeling to bring down future costs of measurement; and
  3. Validating the Cool Farm Tool outputs to Australian conditions to insure that the data is credible, since one goal for this project is to become the industry standard for modeling GHG reductions and carbon sequestration.

The project will also build a new data infrastructure based on ESRI (a geographic information system mapping software). This platform will improve capabilities to interrogate data, make data spatially available, and give each farmer secure access to their own footprint.

A “middle adopter” and “corporate farm” expansion are part of the program’s long-term strategy to increase reach and scale. The “middle adopter” strategy will support independent agronomists to employ the tools and approach, and the “corporate farm” strategy will work on finding added value for very large farms that gather large amounts of data already.

Changing the Farmer Narrative 

There is a story we are told about Australian soils, that they are old and thin. When you walk across a bare wheat field in New South Wales, the soils are crumbly red and dusty. It is more ‘dirt’ than soil. Most farmers, if pressed, would say that their organic carbon is low: “bout 1%” is how the story goes. From the beginning of this work, we encountered skepticism that there was any potential for increasing soil carbon. Sure, they could cut GHGs. Australian farmers are known for their efficiency. But low soil carbon seemed to be a permanent condition.

The climate in Australia has always been challenging, with an expected drought every 10 years. Farmers receive no subsidies. Precision Agriculture technologies such as no-till were adopted en masse in the country. You can see the blip in productivity on historical yield charts directly linked to 80% of the farmers adopting this technology over a couple of years.

In our initial conversations with farmers in 2017, we heard that the “every-10-year drought” was becoming an every 5-7 year drought. Farmers are increasingly struggling with herbicide resistant weeds and decreasing ph in soils requiring deep liming and additional inputs despite the use of variable rate technology.

Farm advisors warn that farmers are increasingly exposed as they try to make up for lost productivity by cropping more land, taking out livestock, and adding more precision ag technologies, all of which require greater capital investment. Farmers have significantly increased their debt-to-income ratio over the past 10 years, exposing them to greater financial risk in bad years. This pattern is a precarious feedback loop in good years, even more precarious in a changing climate.

In addition to increased financial risk, long term studies show that continuous cropping systems without legumes or pasture struggle to maintain already low levels of soil carbon, and it is expected that farmers will have to increase their application of synthetic fertilizer to maintain current levels of fertility.

By 2020 we had more than 60 farmers in the program and are on track to meet our goal of 85 farmers by 2021. Each farmer meets with an independent agronomist in their farming system group to discuss soil constraints, management goals, provide wheat paddock data for the Cool Farm Tool, and sample soil on up to 5 wheat paddocks annually.

The data, generated so far, is surprising. The story of ‘bout 1%’ turns out to be false. Even our consulting soil scientist, now Project Manager, Dr. Cassandra Schefe, was surprised to find that farmers had a range of soil organic matter with some paddocks up to 4%.

photos above taken by Dr. Schefe during soil sampling

The data, generated so far, is surprising. The story of ‘bout 1%’ turns out to be false. Even our consulting soil scientist, now Project Manager, Dr. Cassandra Schefe, was surprised to find that farmers had a range of soil organic matter with some paddocks up to 4%. The range demonstrates that there is actually more opportunity than originally assumed to increase organic matter and therefore carbon. We had a lot of exploring to do. We needed to identify the management practices that were already resulting in the higher numbers. Farmers remarked during one meeting how refreshing it was to look at their farm data in this way and to do it with a whole farm perspective.

Over time, we pegged these top five practices that farmers can implement to improve soil carbon:

  • Adding a legume crop (pulses) to their barley-canola-wheat rotation.
  • Incorporating a cover crop or brown manure phase.
  • Moving to Control Traffic Farming.
  • Improving pasture for those farmers still in mixed cropping systems.
  • Reducing fertilizer application by adopting a split sampling method.

The key barriers to implementation are:

  • Markets for pulse crops are unreliable.
  • Farmers are not familiar with cover crops and the use of brown manure in this part of Australia (more localized farmer field trials are needed to adapt these techniques to Australia dryland systems).
  • Control Traffic Farming requires a large capital expense.
  • Farmers with livestock need better markets to maintain profitability with a pasture phase.

Stay tuned. We’re still learning. Over the next year, the Food Lab will post a series of articles on two different aspects of the project: 1. The role of system leadership to further the multi-organization collaboration; and 2. Innovations and results from on-the ground implementation strategies.

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