SHE may hail from Jericho’s back country but Natalie Williams is becoming increasingly used to talking to world figures, thanks to her 2012 Nuffield Scholarship looking into soil carbon sequestration and how farmers can create wealth for themselves in the carbon trading realm.
Her research took her to 14 countries over two years, to places as varied as Indonesian rice paddies and the White House in Washington DC.
She has since been the Australian representative at a high level business course at the Royal Agricultural University in the UK, resulting in an international support network to bounce ideas and aspirations around with, and has accepted a number of speaking engagements including at the US Study Centre at Sydney University, the ABARE Outlook conference in Canberra in March, and the World Congress of Conservative Agriculture soon to take place in Winnipeg, Canada.
In between times she has been on a trade mission to China with federal Trade Minister Andrew Robb, has started a dialogue with National Australia Bank strategists to look at the idea of slow money, and is returning to England next month to investigate the country’s leading branding and marketing system for sustainable agricultural practices, LEAF Marque.
Natalie’s interest in soil carbon stems from the rotational cattle grazing program she and husband Glen began over 10 years ago on their 7400ha central Queensland property.
It increased their carrying capacity from the area average of one beast to 35 acres to a 1:7 ratio.
“We had 160 livestock units when we started,” Natalie said. “Now we’re up to 5000.
“We maxed our carrying capacity out and thought we’d need to look at what goes on underground to keep improving.
“While we’d been fencing we could see how our soil was compacted down to a foot and a half, which all comes down to soil carbon.”
She says not much has to be done to sequester carbon apart from a simple system of rest and rotation.
They don’t put their cattle in cells but keep them in one mob and move them every week or so to fit their program, destocking as rainfall dictates.
Natalie says her overseas research showed her that livestock was an imperative in healthy ecosystems.
“They churn the soil, they pee and poo, and they mow the grass and help put down deeper roots.
“National parks lock up their grass, which becomes moribund and then brings about erosion.”
More controversially, she and Glen are big supporters of pulling country, saying that it expedites regeneration by 100 years.
“Our soil is so compacted by years of set stocking and overgrazing.
“By pulling you loosen the soil, allow moisture in and the soil biology can get to work.
“Sure, there’s an initial massive carbon flush out of the soil but sequestering really takes off after that.”
Drought is not a scary word to Natalie and Glen anymore, now that they have changed the way they think about soil.
“It’s not just something grass grows in – it’s the powerhouse, the generator of carrying capacity, and is very drought tolerant once you get the groundcover on,” Natalie enthused.
“It’s so much better than just increasing your molasses when it gets dry, and eating all the grass.”
Natalie says it’s easy enough to sequester carbon but keeping it in the soil is harder.
“You need a change of mindset to manage the groundcover and keep it in,” she claimed.
In 2002 the pair fed their cattle, a decision that cost $4/kg and nearly broke them.
“We learnt the hard way – our bank balance was depleted, the country took three years to recover, and our dams couldn’t cope.
“In contrast, last year, while it wasn’t our driest – we had nine inches – we could maintain the weight on our cattle year round, and we couldn’t do that before.”
Dung sampling is showing increasing protein levels, and 14 years of whole property benchmarking is underlining the gains made, to their ecology and to their bottom line.
Natalie points to an 11 acre farm she visited in Brazil that was making $64,000US profit a year and had six permanent employees, as a benchmark to what can be achieved.
While the Deserts Uplands region is the beneficiary of some of the most extensive bioregion testing in the world, it was done 10 years ago and Natalie would like to see how much has changed.
She also wants testing to go deeper than the customary 1m, saying the figures are not indicative of our semi-arid grasslands and its deep-rooted plants.
As far as making money from carbon goes, Natalie advocates private contracts with big corporations offsetting carbon emissions rather than an emissions trading scheme.
The ideal would be a conglomeration of properties all getting a baseline reading done at the same time as a point of reference, to allow growers to know what they can sell.
She sees a worldwide trend towards consumer demand for much more information – biodiversity soil counts, bird counts and the like.
“It’s all got to evolve but it’s starting to happen in other parts of the world.
“Graziers out here don’t have to do much to reap the benefits, but it will be the early adopters that will make the money.”
Her final passionate appeal is for fellow graziers to stop thinking of her ideas as tree-hugging.
“Farmers are their own worst enemy,” she declares.
“Agriculture in general needs to start differentiating between healthy agricultural systems and environmentalism.
“I’m doing this to make money, not to be an extreme green.
“We need to step up and be part of policy making instead of complaining about it later.”