Cleared land replanted for 'carbon farming'
Reporter: Chris Clark
First Published: 24/06/2007
SALLY SARA, PRESENTER: While the major political parties debate the shape for a national trading system of greenhouse gases, many businesses aren't waiting. They've already started buying carbon credits to offset their greenhouse emissions, and most of those credits will come from the planting of trees - so-called carbon sinks.
In some parts of the country, land which was cleared generations ago is now being replanted for a different sort of farming. You might call it carbon farming.
CHRIS CLARK, REPORTER: When the weather changes out near Condobolin, in central-west New South Wales, you get plenty of warning. And each time there's a drought, farmers watch their land disappear. This time, thankfully, rain's on the way, and Paddy Reardon's trying to get the last of his wheat in the ground before it hits.
PADDY REARDON, FARMER: That's No. 4. So, that will make about eight.
CHRIS CLARK: After a shocking run of seasons, it's the best start in years.
PADDY REARDON: Swing around here, go back up there, two alleys, you'll see where I pulled out last night.
PADDY REARDON: Just keep at it. Now, that machine will be empty when you've done 20 hectares.
CHRIS CLARK: Four generations of Reardons have farmed in this area, dutifully ripping out the native mallee. Now, Paddy Reardon's putting some of the mallee back and being paid to do it.
PADDY REARDON: In 2002, I just sat here and watched this place blow away in the worst drought we've ever seen, and there wasn't a blade of grass left and the whole countryside was just blowing continuously day after day, and I just wanted to do something to stop that.
CHRIS CLARK: He's leased part of his property to a company that will grow mallee for carbon credits. The carbon the trees store is sold to industries, which set it against their greenhouse gas emissions.
PADDY REARDON: There's gonna be approximately 260,000 trees planted over approximately 1,600 hectares. And that has to help reduce erosion immensely.
CHRIS CLARK: And he readily concedes Reardons long-departed would be aghast.
PADDY REARDON: I think they'd be horrified, in a way, to see what we're doing, because it was mallee trees that they pulled out, which covered most of this land, and it's mallee that we're planting.
CHRIS CLARK: Paddy Reardon's not alone. A couple of hours down the road near West Wyalong, the same thing's happening. Trevor Stever's had good rain too.
TREVOR STEVER, FARMER: We've had an incredible start. It's been an absolutely perfect start.
CHRIS CLARK: Apart from good rain, the other difference this year is the layout of his paddocks. The ground's ripped, ready for tiny mallee trees to be planted. Half a dozen lines, a couple of metres apart, 100m between each belt.
So, this year, for the first time, he's having to steer the air seed between the rows that have been ripped, ready for the mallee plantings.
TREVOR STEVER: The paddocks are going to be... they're approximately 1km run, so, 1km by 100m, so they're long, long runs, which makes it easier on the operator and easier on the machinery.
CHRIS CLARK: For years, Trevor Stever wanted to put some trees back onto his farm, but didn't have the money to do it. With demand for carbon credits, though, he found people willing to pay him to use his land to do exactly that. He's leased 44 hectares of his property and sold another 270, which will go under mallee entirely. (To Trevor Stever) And on the left-hand side, you used to own this?
TREVOR STEVER: Yes, we did. This is now owned by someone else, and they're putting a total plantation area in there.
CHRIS CLARK: So, hundreds of thousands of trees, presumably?
TREVOR STEVER: Probably about 600,000 on the... about 670 acres. Be approximately 600,000 I'm told. So, it's a lot of mallee.
CHRIS CLARK: And it gets bigger still. Go further north in New South Wales, and the same company which is preparing Trevor Stever's land is ripping another large property. Mallee, fence to fence, all for carbon credits.
On a day like today, with the topsoil blowing away in the wind, the idea of planting trees seems to have a lot to commend it, but the whole business of growing trees to store carbon is also a stunning example of how the value of land can change over time. So, what has been a grazing property for generations, now looks more profitable as 1,000 hectares of mallee.
ANDREW GRANT, MD, CO2 AUSTRALIA LTD.: When I started my career 20 years ago, I worked with an arm of government that was about reserving Crown land for national parks, and another arm of government was paying mallee farmers $40 a hectare to clear their mallee farms.
CHRIS CLARK: Andrew Grant runs a company that plants mallee to sell as carbon credits.
ANDREW GRANT: So, in my lifetime I've seen it go from a mandated action that you had to clear country, to now, a mad scramble to try and raise public funds to help farmers restore and shore up the sustainability of their operations, so, this is an industry in transition.
CHRIS CLARK: Mallee trees, by nature, are well-adopted to low rainfall. They're long-lived, which is important for people who want to buy carbon credits.
PADDY REARDON: The broad-leaf mallee is commonly known as blue mallee.
CHRIS CLARK: Native to here?
PADDY REARDON: They're native to this area.
CHRIS CLARK: So, what exactly's involved in becoming a carbon farmer? Paddy Reardon doesn't own the mallee trees planted on his property - the company which planted them has to look after them.
PADDY REARDON: They have to do all the soil preparation, they do the planting, they do any weed control, maintenance on trees. They... if trees die out due to drought or dry season or whatever, it's their problem to replant them.
CHRIS CLARK: And how much money's in it? Well, that depends on the value of your land and how much you want to give over to trees, but, in Paddy Reardon's case, it's in the tens of thousands of dollars for a 150-year lease.
PADDY REARDON: The money is fairly close to what land is selling for around the area, but unless you were prepared to sell them a large chunk of your land, I don't think you would make much money out of it. We did it for other reasons.
CHRIS CLARK: Strictly speaking, Paddy Reardon still owns this land - he's just leased it to let someone else grow trees. He has to keep stock out of the plantings for the first three years, and, ultimately, he thinks the mallee will work perfectly with his long-term plan for the farm, which centres less on cropping and more on livestock.
PADDY REARDON: From the point of view of livestock management in years to come, as the trees mature, those long, thin tree belts will be a nice spot for old ewes to go to lamb in cold weather. It'll be a beautiful spot. You'll find them all in the summertime - they'll all be in the shade.
CHRIS CLARK: Above all, being a carbon farmer means being in it for the long haul.
ANDREW GRANT: They have to be comfortable with the long-term nature, because once those trees are in they then, become a fixed asset of the property, and it runs with the land, so, when the property's sold, the purchaser can't come in and remove the trees, because the trees have to continue to sequester carbon.
CHRIS CLARK: But if you don't want to sell or lease your land for others to grow trees, you might still be able to take advantage of the new market in carbon credits. Garth Strong started planting trees years ago on the family farm at Neranderra, in southern New South Wales. And the farm's about to become the first to be accredited under a system for claiming carbon credits from Landcare tree plantings. It's called the Landcare CarbonSMART plan.
GARTH STRONG, FARMER: Well, at the moment we've got about 20, 21 hectares in the plan. That's out of a total of about 90 hectares that we've planted.
CHRIS CLARK: Under the scheme, trees put in after 1990 on land that was cleared before that date can attract carbon credits.
GARTH STRONG: From what trees we've got in the system, they seem to think we'll probably get about $40 a hectare a year, which is not a huge amount of money, but it's better than nothing.