Transcript of the Cool Soil Initiative webinar

Heather Field:

So hello everyone, and welcome to today's webinar, which is on the call for all initiative. My name is Heather Field, and I'm a climate change service development officer with Agriculture Victoria, and will be facilitating today's webinar. Before our presenter begins, just a few housekeeping items. This webinar is being recorded and will be made available after today. You are all currently muted to stop background noise. So if you do have a question please use the chat function, which is currently explained on your screen. And we'll make some time at the end of the presentation for questions.

Heather Field:

There will be a quick survey following the webinar, and it'll only just take a couple of minutes to complete and we greatly appreciate your assistance in completing that. Before we commence, I'd like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land and water offer of which we are all meeting and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging. I'm tuning in from Ballarat, the lands of the Wadawurrung people, and I would like to acknowledge all the lands in which everyone is tuning in from today. So I'm pleased today to welcome our presenter, Dr. Cassandra Schefe, And Cassandra is a soil scientist with over 20 years experience in identifying and addressing soil constraints in agriculture, with expertise and experience banning research development and extension.

Heather Field:

Cassie works with farmers, industry, and academia to support sustainable food production. And Cassie has also over 20 scientific journal papers and numerous conference proceedings, and hold an adjunct position with the University of Melbourne and Charles Sturt University, and is accredited as both a certified professional soil scientist by Soil Science Australia, and a Fertcare accredited advisor. So Cassie will prevent on the Cool Soil Initiative, which has been developed as a framework to enable key industry partners to support farmers in reducing on farm greenhouse gas emissions through a focus on improved system sustainability and productivity. So thanks, Cassie, for your time today and over to you.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

Thank you, Heather, for that intro. Thanks for having me, and yeah, welcome to anyone who's joining us today. So let's see if the technology will work. All right. So also something that Heather didn't mention is that I used to work for Agriculture Victoria for about 15 years based out of Rutherglen and yeah, it's always nice to continue to support DPI work. All right, so the Cool Soil Initiative is made up of a ... It's a public/private partner from a wide number of organizations, as you can see. Including Mars Petcare, the Sustainable Food Lab based in Vermont America, Charles Sturt University, the Food Agility CRC, Kelloggs, the Manildra Group and Allied Pinnacle. So you can see immediately we start talking about supply chain investment into sustainable food production, and we're already able to start packing out that supply chain quite nicely.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So in addition, I'd like to acknowledge the four farming groups who are currently part of this work, and without which we wouldn't have a project. So Riverine Plains Farming Group, FarmLink, Central West, and the Irrigate Research and Extension Committee. So right from the start, the connection all the way through from farmers through the final end product is quite obvious. So with the farming groups supporting on ground work, working with these large organizations and through the collaboration of the Cool Soil Initiative to then move through and get the efforts recognized through that supply. So this afternoon, we'll just have a chat about how the program came to happen. What the current program looks like. We'll have a focus on what we call the farmer engagement project and the related data, and then talk about the expansion plans and the long term proposition for this work.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So where do we come from? So the Cool Soil Initiative itself started in last year in 2020, but back in the start of 2017, Mars Petcare started working with the Sustainable Food Lab, who they've got an existing relationship with their international work, to understand what their emission footprint was in their wheat production in Australia. This came about because they recognized that as an entity, a large proportion of the total greenhouse gas were from on-farm production. And wheat is one of the key ingredients in pet food.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So back in 2017, which seems like an incredibly long time ago, the idea of working with farmers to capture and monitor and reduce greenhouse gas emissions was kind of a bit of a pie in the sky type of project. I remember when I first started working with Mars thinking, "How am I going to get farmers to come on board with this?" It was not on the radar at all in that time. Luckily for us, farmers are quite forward thinking and a lot of people recognized early on that coming on board with this program early meant that they'd be in the box seat if and when something happened. Less than ... A bit over three years on, now we're living in a very different world where emissions and scope three and supply chain emissions and industry footprints and everything else is becoming really front and center.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So back in 2017, we initially worked with Riverine Plains and Central West Farming Group to look at what a project might look like and develop a pilot project. We collected greenhouse gas emission data using the Cool Farm Tool, which is an international greenhouse gas calculator. And we'll talk more about the Cool Farm Tool in a minute. As I mentioned, even back in 2017, farmer interest was high due to general acceptance that regulation around emissions was likely, either from government or from processes.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

Some of the initial work that we've done demonstrated that soil carbon values had the highest impact on emission values, and this led to a really strong project focus on supporting on-farm practices that support soil health. So right from the start we recognized and we made a decision that there wouldn't be any financial incentives or penalties for farmers to be involved in this work, and that all farm level data was anonymized before submission.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So our current program, as I mentioned, expanded in 2020 into the Cool Soil Initiative, and Mars Petcare continued to support the project and brought board some of their peer companies. So a key aspect of this is that the whole project runs under pre-competitive agreements. So the partners recognize that this is an industry benefit program, even though they'll be able to talk about it with their brands. The idea is that they're looking to bring on more partners to make it more of an industry relevant program. So as I mentioned, Food Agility CRC came on and provided a match to industry funds, and connecting through the supply chain and into the finance sector. CSU have supported the project through project administration and managing ... And the research projects that we run. And then we've got the four companies.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

What's really exciting here already is that Manildra and Allied Pinnacle are competitors in the marketplace. And so right from the start of the project, for them to recognize that it was of high value for them to contribute sets a really nice precedent as the program expands. I mentioned we've got stronger presentation of farming groups as well. So the general project focus at the moment is on dry land wheat production, as that's a common commodity across the partners that we work with. However with Allied Pinnacle coming on board, that also provides a connection into irrigated cropping, initially in corn and soft wheat.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So the key aspect of this work, which is ... Well, a few aspects of this work which is quite distinct from a lot of the other programs currently in ag, is that first of all it really provides a global perspective. The idea of this program is that companies around the world, multinationals and those who trade and move commodities, they need to account for their greenhouse gas emissions. A lot of those are coming from the on-farm. So where we're setting this project up in Australia is that the numbers that we generate and the way we go about the program aligns really nicely with what else is happening internationally. So that multinational companies, such as the ones that we're working with, and Pepsi, Heineken, Unilever, any of those other big ones, McDonald's, for example, they can all take the numbers that are generated in this program, and it makes sense and aligns with the numbers that they're generating elsewhere.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So to our knowledge, this is the first program of its kind that really acknowledges that global perspective, not just a focus on the Australian sector. So that's a really key aspect of it. And the second key aspect aligns well with that in that it is being driven by industry. So as opposed to a lot of projects that are picked up and developed within RDCs and within research organizations and then expanded, this project actually came about because these companies really clearly saw that this was something that they needed to do, and rather than wait to see what happened from a regulatory sense or a government sense, they decided to set something up that would work for them.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So that's really quite unique in this work, in that it's not just a project being developed and then companies asked if they want to invest, it's the companies actually came with the problem and looking for a solution in the sense. So from that point of view, the Cool Soil Initiative has already got significant coverage internationally, and the companies that we're working with are already looking at how they could potentially learn from this program in some of their overseas operations.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So in terms of the actual program, what we're aiming to deliver is a scientifically credible framework for the food industry to support farmers in reducing their emissions, leading to longer term sustainability and yield stability, and the focus is on agronomic strategies to increase soil health and function. So by setting it up as that framework, we're building the processes and infrastructure that's needed for this program to continue after this additional round of funding. And also so that the investors can continue to build and plug into what we've already got.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So to deliver this, the first part is that we need to demonstrate that it's relevant to farming systems and farmers, and that's why working with farming systems groups is so incredibly important, because they provide that on ground connection and trust, and they connect in with the farmers in the project and then feedback into the greater project management team what that looks like. So we've got that really clear feedback between what's happening on ground and what's important to the companies involved.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

The second part is around the framework and the platform that we're developing. So this is around how we do the research and the digital work that is needed to scale the project and maintain that scientific rigor. So for this work, we're building a data system with Charles Sturt University. We're modeling the Cool Farm Tool, which is the greenhouse gas calculator that we use, and going through an extensive review of that tool and the emission factors, impact factors and assumptions that are behind it to make sure that we know what the differences are in Australian systems that may not have been well accounted for in the Cool Farm Tool, which is of European and American focus. So we're using the Cool Farm Tool because of its international connection, but we need to make sure that we're still accurately representing the numbers here in Australia.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

The next part is around soil carbon, in that part of this work is actually taking soil samples in paddocks and those soil carbon and pH values then feed into the greenhouse gas modeling. So we need to know that where we're taking those saw samples in the paddock is in the best possible place. And that's where a GIS platform of work comes into it. And finally, in terms of return on investment, we're scoping up some economic work, looking at all the practices involved. Stacking of practices to see what impact that has, and then linking that into the finance sector to see if there's ways that we can present some more, I guess, financially, economically attractive options.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So finally, the food industry partners in the project to receive clear feedback on how their investment is adding value to the industry. And to do this, we need to be able to demonstrate really clear metrics of value for them so they can communicate the value of the work and they can report on that within their internal systems. We also need to be able to clearly demonstrate a greenhouse gas reduction from this work, obviously, and apportion those reductions across the scope three emissions of our partners. And then the final part is around that consumer connections and investing for the future of the industry.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So I mentioned the Cool Farm Tool, and just to delve into that in a bit more detail, it's a very basic greenhouse gas calculator that's orientated around farmers. And as I mentioned, we take soil samples as part of that work to measure that, and just to answer a question from Bruce, is that the samples are only taken from zero to ten centimeters as that's really what's needed for this work and means that we can capture more of an understanding what's happening across our systems without the cost and time required to go further. But we'll come back to that a bit later. So the Cool Farm Tool is maintained by group called the Cool Farm Alliance, which is made up of all these member companies who invest into that to maintain the tool over of time. So as you can see, there's some big players there and they're all using this tool across their commodities and across countries.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So we've recognized right from the start that this was optimized for North America and Europe, and so there's some assumptions in the tool that don't work for us. So we've been conducting a thorough model review to pull through that information. And the other thing we've been doing is not comparing, but understanding the different greenhouse gas tools. In Australia, obviously there's several. And they've all been developed for different contexts and different reasons. So part of this is not saying this tool's better than that tool. We're saying that if you're looking for a general regional basis, then the tool that Melbourne Uni with Richard Eckard have developed, that might be most appropriate. If you're looking for more of a system overview tool, then something like Farm Print might be appropriate. And if you're looking around commodity based accounting, then the Cool Farm Tool would be the one to use. So with that, we're also working with the Cool Farm Alliance to develop this Australian backend. So we can API from our data sets through to the tool and get that information.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So when we first started using the Cool Farm Tool, we were actually using the web interface of it. We realized very quickly that wasn't going to continue to work, on the basis that some of the questions that were asked by the Cool Farm Tool were open to interpretation of what that meant for Australian conditions. And the other thing is that because the greenhouse gas accounting actually only captures what happens in that season for those numbers, we don't get any of that context around what's happening in the rotations before that and how the management history has influenced what we do in this season.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So right from the start, we then very ... In a not very efficient way, set up an Excel spreadsheet, pulling out the key information that we needed from the tool and pulling in some additional stuff. This information was then double handled into the tool, which wasn't very efficient. The next iteration was around setting up this in an Excel database system, all the information was captured in long format, and then that could be APIed through to the tool. And that's worked quite well, but still requires that double handling and doesn't allow any auto-filling of cells or any of that.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So where we've got to now is our use of a smart form. So farmers who are entering their data for the project go through the smart form, it only brings up the questions that are relevant to them, and so it misses all that extra guff and auto fills a lot of stuff where appropriate. This is still double handling from a farmer point of view, and so as we scale up we're talking to software companies around API connections so that we can pull through data more efficiently. The other part we're doing is, I mentioned around the GIS component. And as we'll be collecting the GIS spatial imagery to understand where to take the source sampling from, we figure, well, why not use that to then give that back to farmers as some additional information? So this will be packaged up and presented in a digital atlas for each farm as part of the project. And some farmers will use it and some won't, but at least that information's there in a way that they can access it.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So this is quite a bit of a mess, but just demonstrates the scope of the project and how all the information flow goes through it. So I mentioned we've got this central data storage capability, and this means that we're not pulling our information through to any third parties. Any information that farmers bring into the project, that goes into this data storage at Charles Sturt Uni, subject to complete data privacy agreements and everything else. And from there, there's no external access to that.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So on our farmer engagement project then, if farmers would like to share information from their ag management software, that happens with their approval to then move that in. And if they wanted to move any information out, then they can do that as well. But that's completely at their control and their approvals. What we learn around soil carbon and other parts of the system from this work then feeds into the economic piece around what's the role of farming practices in improving yields and sustainability, the right soil type in driving that, obviously the influence of climatic conditions, all those kind of things.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So then our spatial soil carbon project pulls in both spatial soil information and GIS outputs, and also pulls all that to gather also in one hub. We'll be pulling through any of the external relevant data such as ASRUS and climate records, et cetera, to fill out the information that we've got. We're working on the Cool Farm Tool for the greenhouse gas analysis, and that then APIs out and gives the reporting for those greenhouse gas emissions. Then we've got the review project around that Cool Farm Tool and how it's working. And then finally, we've got it reporting through to our industry partners, and that's done in an aggregated regional way. So our industry partners don't have any visibility into that central data storage, and they get reports based on the regional distribution of that information.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So as I mentioned before, we know that the Cool Farm Tool isn't most appropriate for everything that you might want to do with greenhouse accounting. And so by setting all the information up in a central storage, then over time we'll look at connecting in potentially to the Melbourne Uni tool and Farm Print and others if needed, so that there can be reports done using those systems for other reasons.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So focusing on the farm engagement part of the project, this is where the farming groups come in. So staff from the farm groups then engage with and recruit farmers from within each of the regions. So we're working on those local relationships. Farmers can nominate up to five paddocks each year to be part of the project and they provide paddock history, the input data, and the yields. And this then goes for greenhouse gas assessment. Each of the farmers receive up to five free soil tests a year, which align with the paddocks that they're inputting the data from.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

And this means that we get the best quality carbon and pH data to go into our assessments. If we weren't providing these soil tests and we were relying just on farmers to tell us what their carbon and pH values might be, it tends to be ... pH is about 5 and carbon bays are about 1.2. So if we were to rely on farmers giving us that information, we would lose that sensitivity around spatial variants across their farm, but also there's sensitivity over time when we come back to those paddocks. So that's a really key component of the work is actually ensuring that those soil tests are taken.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

Then the farmers receive their greenhouse gas assessments each year, and they're invited to attend a series of small group peer sessions and annual grower group meetings. And this is done to really get that relationship based peer learning approach happening. So small groups of farmers talk through what the problem is, what the issues are, what options there are. Why carbon might not be increasing in that system, or why the nutrient use efficiency aspects are so low. And then once we everything up, then we find that farmers will pretty much come up with their own solutions on how to make change. It's just having that peer group to bounce off is incredibly valuable for that.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So this is where what we call innovation trials come in, is that when farmers are wanting to try something different and they're saying, "Well, look, I've never grown a pulse before, I'll give it a go," or, "I want to try a brown manure to see how that works with my herbicide resistant weeds and what that looks like in terms of benefit for the following crop," we'll actually provide additional funding to baseline those demos or paddock trials so that the farmers then receive some objective information back on what that looks like, and they can then continue to make decisions based on that information and share that amongst the group as well. So that small group peer aspect is really important to this work. It really underpins the fact that this project is not just around reporting emissions and getting numbers, but it's actually about making change. And without this peer involvement and the willingness of farmers to be involved in this work, then that's not going to happen.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So as I mentioned, all data is coded and anonymized, and we've got data agreements in place recognizing and respecting that farmers will continue to own their data. So as I mentioned, we do all this work, we get all these numbers, but the real value in this program is building on those local relationships and the peer learning. So it's not really about someone coming in and telling farmers what to do, it's around working with farmers to set up the information that's needed for them to understand what changes might be possible. In addition to this, we're also working with a number of corporate farms through a slightly different approach and supporting them in making change as well.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So in terms of the farming groups, many of you will be aware of where they sit, but just to give a geographical spread of where the project is currently operating, working with the Riverine Plains group, this is [inaudible 00:29:58] down here, FarmLink, IREC following the Murray, and then Central West. And as I mentioned, the real value of these groups is that they're independent, they're locally trusted, and they provide the opportunity to support farmer driven innovation ideas through peer learning. Then as well with the information that's collected from farms, when there's really good practices coming through, then we're able to use that to ask farmers then to share their good stories. So other farmers are then learning from what others in the region have done.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So just to demonstrate the range of emissions that we've collect from our 2020 numbers, if we look at it on an emissions per ton of grain and emissions per hectare of land basis, we can see that as we go north, we do get a significant reduction in our medians, which is to be expected as our yields go down and also our inputs go down. And it's the same with our per hectare basis. And apologies, I couldn't keep the scaling the same.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So with this as well, a key part of the Cool Farm Tool is it acknowledges the offsets of parts of the system that then contribute to reductions in these emissions. Because we can see that some of these farmers are, are really low and they're even negative, which means they're net sequestering in that year. So this is where things like use of pasture phase, reduce tillage and high soil carbon values have a big role to play, and ensuring that we can capture these accurately in Australia is really important for this work to get best value. Because these things all have different meanings when we're talking about international research and outcomes.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So in terms of our soil carbons that we've got, and this is a really key, exciting thing about the project, is because we are capturing GPS located soil sampling, we are capturing a lot more of the variance in the systems than what we'd expect. So what we're finding is that even though we've got ... Our average in each system might be, let's say for Riv Plains, average is about 1.5, Farmlink is about 1.3, and Central West is about 1. It's really this variance that really gives that opportunity to pull out what's actually happening. So if we go through these four paddocks in the Central West zone that look like they're outliers, we then go through to see that they all had a history of loosen, they had good pH values, and they had high yields. So we can start to pull together some of the things that might be behind them.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

If we go through the 12 paddocks in Riv Plains that had carbon bays of greater than 2, nine of these had a history of [inaudible 00:32:56]or a pasture phase, they all yielded well into 2020, unless they experienced water logging. What we also found was that in 2019, sorry, in farmers who grew legume in 2019 in Central Western Riv Plains, with the Farmlink dataset still being too small to make a lot of this information, but in Central Western Riv Plains, if there was a legume immediately prior to the wheat, that also correlated to higher carbon values and higher yield bands. So really talking about higher yield stability in those systems.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So the real awesomeness about these numbers is that we've got these numbers, and then we've got our input data, and then we've got our history data, and then we've got our peer groups. So it's really about drilling back through and learning from the information that we've got and sharing that with other farmers to see how that could fit. Now we know that not every farm in the Riv Plains region will be able to get up into these values, but even just to realizing the high variance from the 1s to 2 there's a lot of soil tests above 1, which is really exciting. So there's a lot there that we can learn from.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

I just wanted to flag as well, another part of the soil carbon work is around communicating the value of this work and the context of where it sits in terms of the carbon trading space. And a key part of this was around understanding what our current carbon stocks are in our regions. This also comes into play in that I mentioned the pasture phase being key importance. We're looking to generate some more information around the fluxing of carbon from pasture phase to cropping and back again. We've looked at all the historical Australian work, and just looking to do some example work within the regions as well.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So because we were going to do some comparative side by side paddocks, it will mean that we can start to track those paddocks over time and see as they go from pasture to cropping, what that actually looks like. So as we were going to do this sampling anyway, we thought that we may as well do it according to the ERF and generate some more information out of it. So just to give an example of how our sampling structure was done for these paddocks, a total eight paddocks were used for this work. So really about demonstration and just starting to talk about it at this stage, with new paddocks being established through the regions all the time.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So you can see even on this paddock, soil carbon values range significantly in the 0 to 10 from about 1.1 all the way up to 3.3. So depending on where you sample, obviously it's going to have an impact. But if we had done the transect sampling, we would never demonstrate any change over time because there would be so much variance in that background. And while we were doing that, we obviously then worked out our carbon stock calculations and we also measured pH values use as well, particularly in the Riverine Plains area, sub soil acidity is of significant importance and that's a key limiter in how much we can improve our soil systems.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So just back on the carbon story for one last time, this is something that's still evolving, and it's something that we're just starting to understand the key ramifications of the different systems. But I just thought I found this really interesting and thought that others might as well. So there's a lot of focus on soil carbon at the moment, and the perceived value of carbon trading to farmers. But the challenge we've got is that all soils have a threshold based on their climate, their soil type, and their management. There's many good farmers that are already on the wrong end of the curve, so they've already made those exponential gains due to changing practice, and they're starting to flat line. So really limited potential to continue to build those carbon in their systems, with increased seasonal variants and risk associated with that.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

At the same time, there's increasing pressure or incentives for farmers to demonstrate carbon neutrality, or a negative carbon footprint, in order to sell commodities into various markets. So this means that rather than sell those credits to third parties, it may become more attractive for farmers to retain these to offset their own system emissions. So the key thing here is that a farmer can't sell a carbon credit to a third party through an ACU or a voluntary market, and then also report on their emission footprint and reductions in that footprint through their supply chain. So this is called double dipping against the same bank of soil carbon and production related emissions.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

This means that if farmers sell their carbon, then they've lost that themselves. Which really ... Short term might sound attractive, but long term really could be of concern. So while the Cool Soil Initiative doesn't give financial incentives for carbon per se, we don't have any lock-in contracts. So we ask farmers to participate in the program. They don't sign any ongoing commitment to participate. The only thing that they sign is a data sharing agreement. And this means that they can come and go. If they don't see value in the program, they can leave.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

Fortunately we haven't had any farmers leave because they don't see value, but we'd really be looking to see ... We need this program to be something that farmers want to be part of. So by participation in the Cool Soil Initiative, farmers can quantify their carbon balance on-farm, particularly within their commodities, and they can use any net carbon gain to offset their own emissions. They can demonstrate carbon net zero through credible accountable processes. Cool Soil Initiative is audited by the Gold Standard, which is an international organization, and all our processes are fully transparent. So not only can farmers demonstrate that, but they can get recognition for it within their markets.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

It also provides the platform to enable them to report on their emissions and reductions thereof, through their supply chains, and maintain that market access. They can also choose if they wish to share their sustainability metrics as developed through their program, potentially with their agribusiness partners or other third parties over time, which may result in some longer term financial gain for them. So really we're setting up the process to account for the emissions in the system, and recognizing what farmers are doing really well, not just baselining saying, "Well, you have to do better."

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

In terms of the long term proposition of Cool Soil Initiative, we've got ongoing interest from companies in sustainable sourcing and who look into account for their emissions. So rather than every company creating their own program, Cool Soil provides the framework for many companies to pool their resourcing and contribute to something of value. To ensure that this is all done well, we also go ask new partners to go through an alignment process, to talk about the values and expectations and make sure that everyone's on the same page.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

As the program footprint increases, its industry relevance also increases, and this means that we can develop credible greenhouse gas emission estimates and soil carbon values for a large footprint of cropping and mixed farming land, and provide some engagement into government policy. So because we're generating so much information, we can actually start to say that wheat production or cropping in Central New South Wales is ... These are the key mission numbers associated with that. Without sharing any of that raw data or any of that information that we've got that farms have shared with us, without sharing that through. So we're talking about just general reporting. So we're really looking for this to be the sustainability platform of choice for commercial partners.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So building up our governance, our data infrastructure, and our general processes with CSU to enable that national and potentially international scaling over the longer term. Where engagement with the farming groups provides an easy mechanism of scaling farmer engagement across regions, without any commercial or competing interest in that space. And I saw a question about scaling and about moving into different regions, and as investment increases in the project, we can continue to add new regions using that funding. And we're also, I mentioned working with the agribusiness sector around recognition of sustainability metrics for tailored finance products.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So this is all stuff that's really good for the industry as a whole and for the commodity purchases. But our project ethos is really around creating a program that farmers can be proud to partner with. We would love for farmers to be able to say, "Yep, we're part of Cool Soil Initiative, and these are our numbers, and we have confidence in what we're doing and we feel supported in how we're going about this."

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So I guess finally, just to put some context in the Australian space of where we're looking at. This project started off in wheat and then, particularly in the cropping sector, but we've recognized very quickly that across the different commodity sectors, there is no consistency of metrics. And I know this is something that is being addressed at cross industry level with the RDCs to some degree. But as far as the companies go, who are the ones who in the end are vulnerable and need this data, it's not nice to have, it's actually a cost of doing business. There's really nothing much out there.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So we're really looking at how can we support that consistency of metrics, the supply chain engagement and investment, and those cross sector connections? So at the moment we're working in grains and we're continuing to expand our footprint in that. We're looking forward to potentially integrating more with other RDC work and scoping up our networks of trials, testing innovation. Obviously animal systems or our extensive livestock and mixed farming. So many farmers do both, and we get a lot of questions about when can we start bringing our animals in. We're currently working with MLA to see what opportunities there are to connect those two.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

Key thing obviously is any company that buys commodities from both sectors, they want to be able to add the two together. So a classic example is McDonald's. They buy wheat and they buy beef, and a few other bits and pieces. If there was consistency in their bun greenhouse gas emission numbers and their burger, their beef emission, they could actually use that to add that together, to give them something that they can use. Because at the moment that's not in play.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So if we look across sector, across all the industries, there's really not much in the way of consistency. If we could in improve this, then suddenly we start to get learnings that we can share across sectors as well. So for example, the pork industry. If they're interested in connecting their shed emissions and their grain feed emissions, or even feed lots, et cetera. The interaction of this program with the cropping sector and the livestock sector would mean that would be highly doable.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So yeah, so I've got all these sectors and we're also talking with the National Source Strategy to understand what it is, where they're up to and opportunities for alignment, if possible. The key thing is even within each industry, it's not just one thing. How we're sort of looking to build is really strong farmer engagement and advocacy, supply chain corporate investment to make it real and make it worth doing in a way that makes sense, and then alignment with RDCs, with other initiatives and, and everything else that's going on. So really trying to pull that together.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

And obviously then if we are collecting a lot of uniform, consistent data, then that can then be used to share up on a broader level to the national inventory accounting, just to provide some context of what's happening on ground and looking at what emission reduction investment opportunities there might be as well. And then finally, and this is where I started off in the presentation, is that global connectivity of project greenhouse gas emissions. So really providing that connection between what we're doing in Australia with what's happening in the world. And that's all I wanted to share with you today. So thank you very much and I will stop sharing.

Heather Field:

Fantastic. Thanks, Cassie. I'm finally into the webinar, which is fantastic. I got to hear most of it near the end there, which was great. We have had a lot of interest in today's webinar, so we did have about 165 people register, and we've got about half of those online today, which is great. So it's been really good to have heard from yourself on the Cool Soil Initiative and your valuable insights on that carbon trading as well. And I'll be popping a couple of links in the chat, particularly around what to consider regarding selling carbon from trees and soil, that sort of thing. So I'll do that shortly. Great. We do have questions that have come in, and I think you've addressed Rebecca's in regard to expanding further to other areas of Victoria. We did have a question from Tim, "Are farms using regenerative or organic farming practices or systems involved in the research?"

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

Yes. So we don't discriminate between what farmers are doing. If you look at a lot of the individual practices that come under regen and some of the organic farming, it's really a continuum scale. So you might find some farmers that you might think are quite conventional, have a few things ticking away in the background that might not be easily seen when you first talk to them. But really rather than saying that we're supporting regenerative ag, or we're supporting organic ag, we're really saying, well let's support the farmers in this region and understand the range of systems that they're working with, knowing that we can all learn from what each other's doing.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So it's a case that we bring the numbers in, and we have our peer groups and we find that having a diversity of farmers means that we get a bit of left field thinking, there's people challenging each other's ideas in a good way. And just really looking at what that spectrum is. So we're certainly not saying that we are a regen ag project, and we're not saying that we endorse specific practices or systems. What we are interested in is what opportunities there are for farmers to refine the systems that they're working in to improve their long term sustainability. And that might mean pulling in something a bit left field, or it might mean sort of learning from what the neighbor's already doing. So we're very, very conscious that ... We're kind of open to broader farmer engagement.

Heather Field:

Thanks, Cassie. And Andrew has also just popped in the chat, that he's new to regenerative agriculture in the north central and is keen to know if there's any specific measures, test types that we could include, that the Cool Soil Initiative can use for data in future?

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So look, pretty much the input data that's associated with that crop of land, particularly. But the key thing is that we're collecting that information from the farmers, not from third parties. So if someone's been funded to do some soil testing, then that's one aspect, but yeah, should the Cool Soil expand into different areas, then the agreements of that data sharing will be with the individual farmer. We would never be asking for that data from a third party. So I guess it's really not ... It's not really a big deal.

Heather Field:

Thanks, Kathy. Yep, great. And Colin has a question. How do you see Cool Soils integrating with other platforms that incorporate biodiversity, social, and animal welfare components in all in stewardship values for farmers?

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

Well, I see that we can certainly connect in from the individual farmer level. So if farmers are looking to be part of other platforms or other programs, then this provides an easy way for them to access their information to plug into that. So it's really from that farmer approval hub that then they can streamline through. So at this point we wouldn't be looking to expand the Cool Soil program into those spaces, because we know there's already quite a lot happening. But if we can be very clear around what we do and what the farmers who are part of the program can generate as far as information, then if that helps with some streamlining and reduces some double handling, then that's always a win.

Heather Field:

Great, thank you. And we've got a hand up, so my co-host Jemma is going to unmute if possible Vicky, and if Vicky can unmute herself, that would be great and she can ask her question verbally. Not sure if she can.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

Just while we're waiting for Vicky, comment on the freight sector. At this point we've made a decision to draw a line at the farm gate as far as freight goes. So we're capturing our diesel and energy usage on-farm for irrigation and other things as well, but we're not capturing the freight sector because that actually comes in under another set of accounting. But the key problem we've got as well is that when we report on freight movements on-farm, we're sort of talking about the, okay, we take a truck down to Geelong to deliver grain, but then that truck will probably do a back load of fertilizer or lime with it. And how do we account for stuff like that without actually penalizing that kind of approach.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

And also the key aspect with that as well is that we don't want what happens in the freight part of the accounting to blur or distort what's happening on-farm, because that's really where we wanted to see our impact and see our numbers. And so it may be that people aren't doing a great job on-farm, but they're only supplying their grain to the nearest grain corp receival site, and they're picking up their fertilizer from the local retail ag store, for example. So that kind of thing would actually offset what's happening on-farm and make things look a lot better than what they might be. So really look to just focus the on-farm accounting, which is confusing enough as it is.

Heather Field:

Thanks Cassie. And Vicky hasn't got a question, so that's all good. We've got a comment and a question from Sam. So Sam's indicated, "Best presentation on carbon I've seen so far," so well done on that and I must agree, it was terrific. So Sam does want to know how onerous the data collection process is for the farm business, and is there any projects happening that you're aware of that may simplify this?

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So within our program, we've gone for smart forms to try and make it as easy as possible, and also for those farmers who don't have comprehensive farm management software, we're looking to ... That's why we're keeping it simple. But for those who have farm management software, our end game is to be able to API or backend connect directly to that so that there's very minimal data requirements for farmers going forward with that. So that's really as good as it gets for that kind of work. I know at a broader scale across the RDCs, they're looking at a project to pull in more autonomously emission numbers into farm management packages, but that's still quite a while away. So that's really, I guess the gold standard is if we can share data directly, then that's complete bonus.

Heather Field:

Thank you. We've got just a comment from Adriana, "Great to see so much farmer-", I can't even say the word, "Advocacy integral with the project." So that's great, thank you for that. Nick has a question around, "Does Cool Farm Tool compare with Melbourne Uni calculator when applied to farms, and is there a high or lower?"

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

Yep. So the key thing is they're different, and they're different on a lot of levels, and they're different because the Cool Farm Tool asks for a lot more detailed information than what's asked for with the Melbourne Uni calculator, which is fine. So if you'll think about the context of the two, the Melbourne Uni calculator was initially developed as a policy decision making support, I guess. Back in 2013, I think Richard was saying. So from that point of view, it came about to see at a very general level what the emission estimates were across Australia. And so if you look at the questions that are asked in Melbourne Uni calculator, they are quite broad and there's a lot of things that aren't accounted for, there's sort of a lot of rule thumbs made on that. Which is fine, because you're really looking at that higher level estimations.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

With the Cool Farm Tool, we're really pulling out that specific input data from that paddock. Which is actually something different that we are doing in Australia, is that in overseas using Cool Farm Tool and other calculators, they tend to be one number per farm, and that's emission. You're just averaging the whole farm, and that's the number that you get. Because of the variation in our soil types, and our carbon levels, and even our rainfall, and yield, and inputs across our farms, we didn't think that was appropriate to just throw the whole farm in one heap. Because that then means that you have one carbon value associated with all your wheat. You have one yield number associated with all your wheat. You have one fertilizer input number. So it just in no way is it representative of the conditions in that season, and it also doesn't leave much opportunity to demonstrate change over time because you don't have any of that sensitivity.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So when we think about the calculators, we shouldn't be going, "Oh, this one's better and this one's worse." We should be thinking if the question that I'm asking is around this ton of grain and its emission footprint, and what that means when it's sold off farm, that's a different question to saying ballpark, how does my region fit into terms of emissions, or how does my farm generally look, estimate in terms of emissions? So you really can't say that one's better or worse. The Cool Farm tool tends to give higher numbers than the Melbourne Uni calculator, but a lot of that's actually because there's more information that goes into that, which makes sense.

Heather Field:

Thanks, Cassie. Yeah, that's been a question that I know a few of us have been trying to grapple with, so great to get your explanation on that. We have a question around who should we contact should we like to discuss our farm systems and joining the CSI, even though it has not expanded to all areas of Victoria? Any comments?

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

Yeah, so really we can't expand if we can't support at this stage. And so it's really a case of ... Continued expansion of CSI is subject to more companies coming on board and supporting that expansion. So I think it's just going to have to be wait and see a little bit on that one. We'd love to say, "Yeah, look, we'd love to have all farmers on board," but if we can't offer you any support in that process, then really wonder if that's a viable option. So over the next ... So we've only been going for a year in our current form, and over the next year we'll start to consolidate and plan for our next iteration, post-2023. So yeah, stay tuned.

Heather Field:

Thanks, Cassie. And we've got one final question I can see from Craig, could you please compare the accounting for nature method with Cool Farm Tool?

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

Unfortunately, I can't. I don't have the detail on that one. We do have a researcher on the project who's looking at these different tools and pulling them all apart, but I'm not as across that as he is in terms of the specifics around the accounting for nature methods, so unfortunately I can't.

Heather Field:

Okay. That's fine. Thank you. And thanks for your question, Craig. So I think we have come to the end of all the questions, I'll just do a double check that there isn't any others. No, doesn't look like it. And I will just pop a couple of links into the chat now. One is ... Hopefully this will work, otherwise. ... Oh yes, it has. One is the making sense of carbon and emissions on-farm booklet, which is worth a read. And also a webpage on selling carbon from trees and soils and what to consider. So have a ... Yeah, anyone who's kind of wanting a little bit more detail or information around either of those, worth having a look at. We did have another question just pop up from Emma, are landholder's getting data on the one paddock or across the farm? Can they get a property footprint?

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

So at the moment we are capturing data on up to five paddocks per farm. But our plan is that if we can streamline that data entry, then we can certainly expand the number of paddocks that we're getting. And if people are after a full property footprint, which is more of a life cycle analysis, then that might be more appropriate with something like Farm Print, which is in development at the moment. And there's some other companies, I think that are doing lifecycle assessments as part of a net emission footprint as well. So that's kind of where we're at. Because we're commodity focused, we have been looking at specific paddock data. Yeah, looking to expand over the whole ... In the first case, the cropping footprint of that farm, but yeah, in terms of a full property aspect, then that's a different thing entirely.

Heather Field:

Thanks Cassie. And, and we do hope to run a webinar next year on Farm Print once they're a little bit further along with their development, so stay tuned for that one. All right, well we've come to the conclusion of our questions. So I just want to pass on a big thank you to Cassie for giving up your time today and a great overview of the Cool Soil initiative, the results and what you've learned so far. And thank you to everyone who has tuned in, and some really, really good questions there, which we appreciate.

Heather Field:

So as I mentioned, there will be just a short survey that will pop up on your screen today, and really appreciate if you can just spend a minute to complete that one. And everyone who has registered today will receive an email with the recording. So if you do need to have another look back on what you've seen and heard today, please do so. So thanks again, Cassie, appreciate your time and thank you everyone for joining.

Dr Cassandra Schefe:

No worries. Thank you, Heather. Have a good day. Cheers.

Page last updated: 23 Nov 2022