On-Ground Action for a New Agri-economy

Article written December 2011


In the last few weeks three federal government programs have been released, 

calling for grant applications.

Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency (advertised 26 Nov 2011) Grants to “assist industry associations and non-profit organisations deliver information to small and medium businesses and community groups that demonstrates how they can respond to the carbon price by being smart with their energy use".

Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (advertised 3 Dec 2011) “Action On The Ground Program - Carbon Farming Futures” ... $99m program Program brief - “On-farm projects to trial and demonstrate practices and abatement technologies to reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and/or to increase and maintain carbon stored in the soil.”

Eligible applicants - individuals, groups of landholders, non-government, government and farmer “care” “grower” groups/organisations.    

Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (advertised 10 Dec 2011)         
“The Biodiversity Fund” Round 1 Program brief - “Support for land managers to store carbon, enhance biodiversity and increase the resilience across the Australian landscape”

These three programs present a great opportunity for South Australia and the regions to commence the transformation of the rural agricultural landscapes. In a previous post I provided a brief viewpoint of the agricultural landscape. 

Rural communities are at significant risk in the future as a result of land clearance and land use activities. Decline of regional rainfall is linked to removal of surface vegetation cover (see http://eprints.usq.edu.au/18483/ ).

Have a read of the latest (2008) State of the Environment Report for South Australia.

Also, have a read of the recent Draft Climate Change Adaptation Framework. There is some very serious stuff in this Framework.

Large-scale revegetation of the cleared agricultural landscape in South Australia will have long-term benefits. If just 10% of cleared land (i.e. about 1.2 million hectares) was to be revegetated, a 20-year program at 60,000 ha annually would achieve this. 60,000 ha! 

That is 15 times the present revegetation rate. It is my assessment however that 20% of cleared land should, MUST, be revegetated, just to arrest the continual decline in the natural resources base and to support the existing agri-economy into the future. So that means 120,000 ha per year for 20 years. 

The employment effects of such a scale of work would be very substantial, and very long-term, and would conceivably underpin a resurgence in many rural communities in SA, including the Mid North. 

For example ... on-ground assessors, establishment of seed orchards, seed harvesting, direct seeding, nurseries, TAFE training in all aspects of assessment-orchards-planting-management-measurement, carbon storage assessors, technical capabilities, labourers, off-site managers, carbon traders, biodiversity managers, teachers, program managers, site supervisors ... the list goes on. 

The grant programs described above present a very significant entry opportunity to a new agri- economy, one that integrates existing cropping and grazing systems with the return of native vegetation systems. There is no doubt that carbon sequestration provides tremendous scope for additional on-farm income. 

But the critical question is ... are we prepared? Aside from the farming sector, are our local Councils ready to access these grants? Is our regional Northern & Yorke Natural Resources Management Board ready? 

The Carbon Farming Initiative has been in gestation for a year and is now law. The Climate Change Adaptation Framework is still progressing, but what have we heard at the local and regional levels? 

Here’s a quote from the state government ...

The purpose of the framework is to start the discussion in communities about how to adapt to climate change and take action.” (Ref Draft Climate Change Adaptation Framework website)

Let’s just take action, be a part of “action on the ground” and access as much external assistance as possible to provide the basis for sustainable rural regions.

What are the opportunities for local Councils?

Rural Councils are sitting on one of the largest idle land banks that exist - vacant road reserves! 

And old defunct water reserves and Crown land. The area is staggering. It is away from the community eye. This land bank was created in the latter years of 1800‘s when land was opening up for settlement, but in later years became redundant when the means of transport changed from horse-and-cart to rail to motor vehicle. 

Also, farm size increased substantially from those early years, thereby resulting in the redundancy of the small farm block (that had to be fronted by a road). 

Today, vacant road reserves lie like ghosts of the past in the landscape. On your travels through the rural areas, see how many vacant and under-used road reserves you can find. In the Mid North, there is a very expansive network of these, many of which are rented for almost token sums just for grazing space.

Obtaining road rent for a pittance is not the best use of this land, nor is it the best use in terms of natural resources management and biodiversity support. 

It’s now time that this land was given the hand of care, to return its true value, and to restore its "natural capital". Economic advantage can be sourced by participating in carbon farming and biodiversity initiatives. 

What an income stream this would be for local Councils and communities in the future. I have yet to see any comprehensive assessment from any rural Council in the state about using vacant road reserves as integrated carbon sequestration and biodiversity corridors.

Vacant road reserves, water reserves, and Crown land could be aggregated amongst a group of neighbouring Councils, a single operating unit then created, and the means to revegetate these areas established. Perhaps a joint venture with the private sector would be the optimum model. 

Councils could go it alone and include their other vacant and under-utilised land. Whichever way it is done, there are enormous opportunities to be had in the carbon market, and local Councils need to participate in this. And of course, farmers also.

So, where does this bring us to? 

The federal government programs are basically urging regional communities, organisations, and farmers to get organised and get involved. What is needed is a big vision, and the systems that subscribe to this vision. 

On ground action in a big way is what is needed for the future resilience of rural communities ... and for the cleared agricultural lands.

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