The Cool Soil Initiative is a $2.5 million partnership led by Mars Petcare, Kellogg Australia, Manildra Group, Allied Pinnacle, Charles Sturt University, Food Agility CRC, Sustainable Food Lab, and AgriSci that is working with grain growers through regional farming systems groups (FSGs) to test and validate management practices which can mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions on-farm, while also delivering value to farmers in the form of sustainability, productivity, and profitability of farming enterprises. The Cool Soil Initiative has a goal to reach 200 wheat farmers and 700,000 hectares of land by 2024.
In a recent public conversation, Elizabeth Reaves (Sustainable Food Lab), Chris Stevens (Kellogg Australia), Dr. Cassandra Schefe (Founder at AgriSci) and Jonathan Medway (Charles Sturt University) shared:
- How the Cool Soil Initiative uses the Cool Farm Tool (CFT) as part of a set of program services to validate on-farm emissions and support farmer knowledge and behavioural change.
- The importance of supplementing CFT work with investing in soil sampling and measuring soil carbon values at GPS locations across farms; and
- Learnings from using the CFT at scale to drive improved soil health and climate change mitigation and ensure the program is self-sustaining beyond the initial investments.
How the Cool Soil Initiative uses the Cool Farm Tool (CFT) as part of a set of program services to validate on-farm emissions and support farmer knowledge and behavioural change
[speakers comments are paraphrased for brevity]
Elizabeth Reaves: We started our journey in Australia, a region with some of the most efficient farmers in the world, where on average there is an 80% adoption rate of precision agriculture, with an assumption that we might not be able to help farmers any further. What we found, was that farmers were working hard to further improve efficiencies and were eager and open to thinking further about soil health. This invitation from farmers to better understand their soil health and improve efficiencies was the driving force behind the Cool Soil Initiative, an initiative that has grown in partnership, farmer engagement and funding since 2017.
Chris Stevens: We have a model to help understand what we believe are key enabling factors to reach our goals. These include measurement, technical assistance, peer to peer knowledge sharing, cost & risk share, market pull and access to finance. The enabling factor to provide measurement includes credible and auditable data, which is provided by the Cool Farm Tool.
We currently have four farming groups in the cropping areas of New South Wales. Farming groups are important because they enable information sharing, support technical work in the field, and allow us to reach more farmers through communication. By 2024, we will have 200 wheat farmers and 700,000 hectares of land – about the size of Germany and France together – under climate-smart practices.
Dr. Cassandra Schefe: This model facilitates scale. As the farming groups exist throughout Australia, we can easily expand, creating new hubs for those farmers as we go. The Farmer groups are also very well trusted and respected in their communities.
Elizabeth Reaves: When we created the Cool Soil Initiative and planned to use the Cool Farm Tool, we wanted to ensure that data collection and results create value for farmers across the supply chain. It is important that they have free access to data that was previously unavailable to them, and that the data is not tied to sales, but to support decision making and educational purposes. The Farmer groups are crucial in this way, because they provide data management: sharing data to farmers and providing educational and decision-making support. For customers on the other side, the initiative provides impact data for farming practices and farming systems, facilitating additional market incentives. For all stakeholders, it is helping to identify good stories about farm management, about gain concrete insights about what makes a certain type of practice harder or easier to implement than others.
The importance of supplementing CFT work with investing in soil sampling and measuring soil carbon values at GPS locations across farms
Dr. Cassandra Schefe: When we started this program in 2017 with 10 Australian farmers in two farming systems, the Cool Farm Tool was the tool of choice. We immediately saw that some questions were European in interpretation or American in focus. We needed more information to understand the data and what is going on behind the scenes of the farm. So, we combined questions from the Cool Farm Tool with additional relevant questions in a spreadsheet, modified questions to be more specific and understandable to Australian farmers, and then manually input the responses back in the CFT.
Most farmers reported their soil organic matter was about 1%. However, as we measured carbon values at different GPS locations across paddocks, we discovered that the variance was wider than expected; soil organic matter could be up to 4% in some paddocks. In European systems, soil carbon of 1.2% is low but in Australia, known for continuous annual cropping systems, numbers greater than 1.2% are incredible. This gave us the confidence that there was leverage in the system to build more soil carbon.
This also made clear that averaging a whole farm’s pH or carbon figures wasn’t going to represent reality on the large Australian farms from 2,000 to 90,000 hectares. So, we asked farmers to capture individual paddocks (fields) and offered to pay for the soil testing for each of them. This gave us granular data across soil types, growing styles and conditions to measure change over time. One cool thing was that this data could be stored in aggregate and run through an API to the CFT. That was a big step up and it allowed us to scale.
Jonathan Medway: Last year, Charles Sturt University came on board. We used an online GIS mapping system with historical satellite imagery to capture real-time farm data which meant that farmers could simply use smartphones for the data collection process. They can log in to the portal, select a paddock from the farm and the system automatically fills out the data from previous years, reducing the time and effort required for farmer participation. The GIS mapping system is not just a recording system that generates numbers for corporates and participants; it establishes a direct link between an increase in sustainability and profitability and being able to manage GHG emissions and restore soil carbon. We also recognised that there is more value to be unlocked from spatial information such as average biomass and previous years of satellite imagery for every grower as far back as two decades.
Learnings from using the CFT at scale to drive improved soil health and climate change mitigation and ensure the program is self-sustaining beyond the initial investments
Elizabeth Reaves: When asking farmers at a recent farming group meeting about their participation in the initiative, we received confirmation that using the Cool Farm Tool increases functionality and adds value for farmers. Representing the group a participant said: ‘…participating in the Cool Soil Initiative is a way of de-risking the industry and demonstrating industry and farmer alignment towards attaining new Europe and Asia export market requirements as well as net-zero commitment standards in Australia – a large market opportunity.
Chris Stevens: Farming group meetings have also made clear that farmers are keen to understand the future of carbon trading, carbon reporting and the government’s direction. Hence, they see that the work of the Cool Soil Initiative enables them to be proactive and equipped to move in the right direction when the government is ready.
A key takeaway from recent talks with the project’s farmers groups was that the program is helping in terms of climate resilience. New South Wales has had 2 years of drought, the worst drought on record. A lot of farmers have had total crop failure for 2 years. Farmers who had incorporated the management practices, had learned from the initiative and were able to harvest crops. Even if the yield wasn’t what they would normally expect, they were better off than many other farmers that had to struggle with this trying situation.
Dr Cassandra Schefe: While farmers are involved in the initiative because of de-risking, the involvement of multinationals such as Kellogg’s and MARS Petcare in the Cool Soil Initiative means that the Australian commodity footprint is connected to the rest of the world by measuring supply chain emissions with the Cool Farm Tool.
Elizabeth Reaves: One of our learnings from the initiative is that soil health innovations are going to take a little longer than we might expect in some systems because of limited rainfall. So, there is a high-risk, long-term horizon to start implementing and consequently seeing some real results. Other takeaways are:
- The Cool Farm Tool is a catalyst for farmer-industry interaction.
- Scaling the tool requires scaling data infrastructure. As we wrestle with increasing scale of the initiative, the GIS system that Charles Sturt University is building is critical.
- Scaling the number of farmers requires a commitment to continue to add value to farmers in terms of how data is used.
- Scaling requires a commitment to delivering against the drivers of farmer change and maintaining program integrity.
- From an agronomic perspective, soil maintenance is as important as soil improvement.
Chris Stevens: This is a unique program in that you do not see many industry-wide collaborations like it. One of the key parts of it is that it is pre-competitive because we all wanted to keep farmers farming and maintain the business by addressing the gradual erosion of yield and poor soil health. Anybody involved in the wheat industry should be involved in this program because it is beneficial to all. As we look to scale up as a team, we are also looking at how we can take the initiative to irrigated crops, other dry-land cereals like oats and barley and the rice industry. So, it is also about expanding into other crops. How do we get half the grain industry in Australia to adopt what we think is a great program? It is a challenge that will come down to resourcing and being able to manage farmers and their farming.”
Dr Cassandra Schefe: This is an incredibly unique collaboration that
- Has a strong University partner involved for research but that is not driving the agenda for the whole work,
- Has strong industry clients trying to address the issues of climate change in the supply chain but not looking to get a commercial whim out of it
- Everything we do has not been done before which means we have to design our path forward as we go. So, I think it is an exciting program to be part of.
There is an opportunity for longevity so the program could still be applying in 15 years, covering the whole of Australia and including more industry players. If we have the technology and the resources, we certainly can scale up, but most important is that the program continues to be farmer-focused. It only works if farming groups are proud to partner with us, wanting to continue to invest in the initiative for the good of their farms and the industry.”
Jonathan Medway: One unique aspect of the project is that as much as it is looking on-farm, it also looks across the entire value chain. Government agency and policy makers are looking at what we are doing. We are setting the initiative up as a self-sustaining project beyond the currently funded 3 years.
The link of GIS systems and precision ag technology is an obvious match in that the extent that the variability on farms is worth investigating by looking at the farm activities farmers should be incorporating to even up the soil carbon stock on the farms.
Opportunities for soil carbon sequestration
We have 20 GPS locations within individual paddocks collecting soil carbon profiles to investigate how the soil carbon ranges. We use satellite imagery to identify the change in the productivity of individual paddocks and explore the soil carbon implications of each change. For example, it is common to find a 1% to 3.5% range of soil carbon within an individual paddock. This is a challenge for identifying where the farmer should be monitoring the soil carbon when entering a carbon trading program, but also an opportunity to increase the soil carbon of the part of the field with lower carbon stocks.”
Dr Cassandra Schefe: “For soil testing, we broadly do surface sampling (0 – 10 cm) but in specific areas, we go deeper. We ensure our measurements align with the farmers’ samples by using the same equipment. It is common for paddocks to have deep sands and really heavy soils within 500 meters. So instead of trying to average every measurement across the farm and being unable to tell any differences, we use GPS-located sampling. The work we are doing in the soil carbon trading space to understand the applicability of carbon systems is in line with the Australian government’s Emission Reduction Fund methodology.”
Elizabeth Reaves: We currently have 85 farmers, 12,563 hectares of wheat farms and almost 200,000 hectares of farms. We are seeing increased use of pulses to provide an extra soil health benefit and an increased number of “innovation paddocks”.
Dr Cassandra Schefe: The idea behind innovation paddocks is that within a farming system, a few farmers will volunteer to try a new practice that fits their system and must demonstrate an increase in soil health. By being non-prescriptive about the actual practices, we are giving farmers the free will to operate and experiment. The project however holds the farmers accountable for making the change. We are investing in soil sampling for those innovation paddocks to understand what is happening on the farm so that we can measure the magnitude of the change. The only criterion for reporting is to share what changes they made, what they found and what they learned with their peer groups and larger farmer groups. We see it as an opportunity to start demonstrating changes in farm practices on the ground.”
To watch the full-length conversation, follow this link and skip to 00:14:28 – 1:05:00. Learn more about the collaborations of the Sustainable Food Lab and the Cool Farm Alliance on the Sustainable Food Lab website.