CARBON NATION – article in The Weekly Times

This article appeared in The Weekly Times on May 15, 2019. You can download it as a pdf here. The images in the article are from the exhibition Shapes of Knowledge at Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA) curated by Hannah Mathews. These photos show the installation by Lucas Ihlein and Allan Yeomans at MUMA, featuring a fully working model of the Yeomans Carbon Still.

By Colin Taylor
The Weekly Times
May 15, 2019

FARMERS hoping to cash in on the Federal Government’s promise to pay them for carbon capture may like to hear about a new pathway that potentially makes the process faster and easier.

The Yeomans Carbon Still, the brainchild of Queensland inventor Allan Yeomans, is designed to make more practical the measuring of soil carbon content and so buttress the role farming can play in mitigating the effects of climate change.

Allan is the second son of the late P.A. Yeomans, pioneer of the Yeomans Plow and the Keyline system of regenerative agriculture, set out in his 1954 book, The Keyline Plan.

Along with Allan, P.A. Yeomans introduced tined implements into Australia, later developing their own, and forged concepts now used by farmers around the world, undergirding the later development of the principles of permaculture.

Allan, 87, still heads Yeomans Plow, now based at Arundel on the Gold Coast, and continues his passionate advocacy for the concept he first proposed in 1989 of the sequestration of atmospheric carbon dioxide into soil by the enhancement of soil fertility.

“I’ve been thinking about climate change for more than 30 years and I knew it was possible to take carbon out of the air and use soil to do it,” he said.

“There’s already too much carbon dioxide in the air, but farmers, through the ordinary process of farming, can convert it into humus and store it in the soil sink.

“At present, there’s no adopted standard in the world for measuring organic carbon in soils and so, at the moment, we don’t have a system in this country where farmers can easily be paid for that sequestration.

“We simply want to measure how much increase there has been in organic carbon in the form of humus and dead material in a way that’s easy and practical to measure with believable results.”

The Yeomans Carbon Still – a machine the size of an office desk – takes a 2kg sample of soil using an in-field kit comprising a powered four-inch or 10cm auger, powered mixer and sampling sieves.

In a two-hour process, the sample is weighed and dried, then heated to more than 500C – the temperature at which carbon and other organic matter will burn off.

It’s then cooled down, weighed and the difference in weight is the amount of carbon compounds that were there – a process known as Loss on Ignition.

Allan said the machine was easy to use, easily set up in a farm shed and required only a power supply and access to a basic service station-sized air compressor.

“The current tests now date back 100 years, when they were measuring calcium levels or magnesium – all done in laboratories with equipment starting at around $120,000 – but they only test tiny samples of maybe half a gram to two grams,” he says.

“It’s hard to believe and accept that such tiny samples could give accurate representations of the carbon content of a 100ha or 1000ha paddock – even one of 10ha.

“This machine now sells for around $10,000 and two have already been sold and delivered to universities in Europe.”

Allan says patents have been granted in Australia, the US and UK, with applications current in other countries.

“However, at this stage in Australia, farmers and laboratories won’t buy it until it goes through the official approval process done by the laboratories themselves,” he says.

“If all the farmland in the world lifted its soil carbon content by just 1-2 per cent, it would be enough to pull back out of the air all the excess carbon dioxide released since the Industrial Revolution.

“Australia, China and the US have by far the most land available for carbon capture, so our influence on global warming is potentially more significant than any European country or even the whole of Europe put together.

“It’s enormous, but it’s rarely talked about.”

Carbon Farmers of Australia is a company operating as a licensed carbon farming project developer under the Federal Government’s Emissions Reduction Fund – active across Australia as well as agroforestry work in Nepal.

The organisation initiated the first formal training program on soil carbon in 2008 and wrote and published the first Carbon Farming Handbook the following year.

“We have about 200,000ha under different projects with different farmers,” said director Louisa Kiely, a wool grower with husband Michael in the Wellington district of NSW.

“Basically, we assist farmers through designated methods, such as improved grazing management, cover crops, pasture cropping and compost, to be able to store carbon in trees and vegetation, which store it in their structures and take it down into the soil.

“Allan has done an amazing job with his Carbon Still, but it can’t be used with the current soil carbon method, which is very specific in its requirements.

“This is a government method by which it is approved that you can test your soils in a certain way – depth, breadth, how you mix the sample, how you decide where to sample are all specified.”

Louisa says that material is then sent to a National Association of Testing Authorities-approved lab and comes back with a baseline measurement of tonnes per hectare of soil carbon.

“You then do an activity to increase soil carbon and test again a year or two later,” she says.

“If you have shown an increase over that time, there are calculations which allow you to trade part of that increase under the government program for what’s called an Australian carbon credit unit.

“That’s the process known as carbon-offsetting.

“Not all farmers want to go down this path because it’s so heavily regulated, so if someone wanted they could enter into a voluntary agreement under a new process called carbon-insetting.

“Any farmers who wanted to use the Yeomans system could do the same thing – they could measure, run an activity, measure again, then make a claim on their soil carbon increase.”

Louisa says farmers can then put that to the market and a company that wants an easier way to make a claim can buy direct from those projects in order to win carbon credits.

“However, that route is not government-regulated, nor government-approved, so you’d have to be extremely careful to ensure the evidence for your claim was rock-solid.

“What Allan needs now, in my opinion, is to build the team of supporters around him, gain his necessary approvals and see his system get under way on a couple of farms.

“He’s not that far away.”

The ninth National Carbon Farming Conference and Expo will be held in Albury, NSW, from August 5 to 8.

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