Hamish and Jess Webb run Myanbah, a 3,200 acre sheep and cattle operation outside Uralla NSW. Hamish is also CEO of Precision Pastures, a soil, pasture and carbon services company and Jess is a board member of Beef Australia and UNE Life (University of New England). The couple came back to farming several years ago after pursuing corporate careers, and their focus since their return has been on improving production – with their soil carbon project offering a fortunate environmental co-benefit.

“What we noticed was that the approaches we have been adopting to optimise livestock production, such as fixing soil constraints, using rotational grazing, and matching stocking rates more closely to carrying capacity, are resulting in improved soil health and positive outcomes for our natural capital,” Jess says.

“While we were trying to improve the productivity of our soil, this has led us to a soil carbon project where we will have the ability to generate Australian Carbon Credit Units.”

The family believe there is potential to increase their soil carbon levels by up to one per cent through soil improvement programs. They’ve already seen a 0.24 per cent increase in soil organic carbon down to 50cm in a three-year pasture trial, which gave them the confidence to go ahead with a full-scale program. Jess and Hamish predict the project could deliver several million dollars worth of carbon credits over 25 years.

“The trial saw increased carbon levels from 10cm down to 50cm, along with a lift of carrying capacity of 72 per cent,” says Hamish. Increased carrying capacity means the pasture is able to carry more stock because of its improved condition.

Hamish and Jess Webb, Uralla, NSW

Upfront costs a barrier for carbon projects

While the potential return is excellent, Jess and Hamish note that funding the startup project phase is something every farmer thinks about.

“One of our first questions was ‘how do we fund it’, and with my Precision Pastures business, it’s a question every single client asks, too,” Hamish says.

“The soil carbon method protocol is very rigorous and that comes at a cost, often in the range of $8 to $12 per hectare for the soil sampling costs for the baseline, plus the pasture improvement program and that can be a real bottleneck for progress.”

Hamish and Jess funded their project costs through a CommBank Agri Green Loan, and they say the project may not have got off the ground without it.

“The entry costs to soil carbon are considerable and CBA via the Agri Green Loan enabled our participation. The Agri Green Loan offers a very attractive rate and it is really simple in terms of administration. This project would not have gone ahead without it. Now when clients ask about financing their own projects, we tell them this is what we’ve done personally, and it’s worked really well.”

Production results come first

Jess says the soil carbon program was driven first and foremost by a desire to improve production outcomes from better functioning soil. They were already thinking about soil improvement before the thought of a carbon project ever crossed their minds. Soil tests after they bought their property showed they had significant issues with acidity and low sulphur, potassium and phosphorus.

“Our approach is first and foremost about our livestock, but we’re always looking at the co-benefits of what we are doing and this soil project has been a great complement to the way we operate our business,” Jess says.

“We’re don’t see ourselves as big risk-takers. We do seek out advice and we make sure we listen to the naysayers because we want to really think through what we are doing. When we started investigating soil improvement we learned that the things we were planning to do would be eligible for creating carbon credits.”

Measured approach is best

While carbon projects can potentially deliver great results for producers, Jess says many are understandably wary, particularly because the project timeframes are so long. “There’s a definite learning curve before committing to a soil carbon project.”

“The commitment is long term. People are right to be concerned about what it could mean for their succession plans, or what happens if they sell their property. It’s really important to see your solicitors early to understand the implications, to engage in your own research and do your on-farm trialling, get together with other farmers and make sure your ideas pass the over-the-fence test,” she says.

Hamish adds that it’s important to understand the specific opportunity for the specific property.

“Surround yourself with advisers you trust and take the time to learn. There’s no need to rush, but there’s no need to be scared, either,” he says.

Hamish and Jess are now starting to look at the potential for biodiversity credits on their property.

“We’re exploring it with the same mentality we brought to soil carbon – first of all, it needs to work in with our production enterprise, and then we consider the co-benefits.”

Want to know more?

Read more about CommBank’s Agri Green Loan here.

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