Real-time data offers real possibilities for farms that are giving back to nature

A warming climate and more extreme weather have underscored the need for more accurate, real-time information to help farmers improve their resilience.

Natural capital accounting has established itself as one of the ‘buzz phrases’ of 2022. More Australian farmers, land managers, conservationists, and even economists advocate nature-based farming practices to heal a land increasingly ravaged by climate change.

But among the calls for more sustainable agriculture and the restoration of native vegetation on farmland, few people realise that the movement for more “balanced” and “organic” farming has been with us for decades.

In the 1940s and 50s, farmers operating in a less informed and connected environment nurtured strong bonds with other farmers to help each other survive droughts, bushfires, pests, and other challenges.

To stay in touch with the latest production practices, a number of regional grower groups sprouted across Australia. One of the first was the Australian Organic Farming and Gardening Society, whose support for organic and mixed farming, tree-planting and water conservation showed a natural capital appreciation far ahead of its time.

Sharing data seamlessly

In recent years, a warming climate and more extreme weather have underscored the need for more accurate, real-time information to help farmers improve their resilience. Fortunately, online communications and real-time data processing have made it increasingly possible for the grower groups of today to share their knowledge and experiences with the wider agricultural community.

When the first reports from La Trobe’s Farm-scale Natural Capital Accounting (NCA) Project go live on Sensand’s Blockbase platform, the roots will be planted for a new farmgate information sharing and sustainability advice network and market access.

This information will be anecdotes from participating farmers and data-driven evidence from farms across the country. With time and future platform enhancements, this could include data uploaded automatically from weather stations, satellites, and on-farm sensors measuring everything from soil quality to groundwater, trees, livestock, and biomass levels.

“Our platform will not just present this information discretely to farmers, but enable them to overlay various datasets – to compare, for example, soil moisture or water infiltration in paddocks that abut shelterbelts, or the quality of pastures that are rested at certain times of year to replenish roots and seed stocks,” explains Sensand’s digital agriculture manager, Jim Castles.

The NCA group is growing as a community of farmers who already appreciate the production potential of native trees and vegetation, water-smart irrigation, composting, strategic destocking, and pasture rotations. And according to the number-crunchers behind La Trobe University's Farm-scale NCA Project, they are not afraid to share their wisdom.

“99% of farmers want to leave their land in a better shape than they found it, but up to now they’ve just been recording what’s traditionally required by the DPI (Department of Primary Industries),” says Danny O’Brien, a director at NCA specialists Integrated Futures, who is collating operational and ecological data from the first fifty farms, to prepare a ‘natural capital performance report’ of the crops, pastures, water and native vegetation on each property.

The data will be designed to be updated over time so that farmers can monitor the progress of specific management practices and restoration projects. “In time, and when they grant permission, a farmer should be able to seamlessly share data on their crops, livestock, ecological conditions, and natural capital with approved stakeholders,” says Jim Castles.

The implications are enormous – not only for measuring changes that are improving the resilience of production but for proving to premium buyers and markets that produce meets specific ecological standards. As climate change increasingly obliges governments to promote and reward sustainable land management practices, the metrics will also be helpful for farmers wanting to access habitat credits and stewardship grants or for measuring levels of carbon sequestration that can potentially be monetised as carbon credits.

“Farmers will value this system if they can use it to make evidence-based decisions about management to improve their businesses and demonstrate their sustainability credentials to buyers, banks or insurance companies,” believes Jim. “If you have rigorous management tools for dealing with drought, for example, you’ll present less risk to banks and insurers. If you can get ½ a per cent off your mortgage or pay less land tax through a government program, it will be very attractive to farmers in the long run.”

Danny O’Brien agrees that much of the project’s success will be down to participants seeing tangible benefits.

“We’re asking for a lot of information that farmers haven’t traditionally kept because they didn’t see the value in it,” says Danny. “But as soon as they see the value, they’ll collect it. In the past, they may have recorded selling twenty cows, but not the live weight or the cattle type. But if, later on, this information becomes a requirement for reporting your greenhouse gas emissions, it’ll make sense to record these extra data points.”

One platform, multiple streams

Sensand’s technology also answers one of the main challenges confronting tech-savvy farmers – the tendency to have separate software programs managing their daily operations, financial accounts, biomass estimations, commodity markets, etc. “A platform that brings all these things together under a single umbrella will be extremely useful for them,” says Danny.

As farmers integrate different technologies into their natural capital accounts and reports – drawing real-time data from, for example, river and groundwater monitors, soil sensors, and smart collars on livestock – they’ll be able to see a more holistic picture of how different ecosystems and farm inputs are impacting their yields. And they’ll be able to determine where specific improvements can be made to address issues such as water conservation, soil carbon, drought and flood management, and crop pollination.

“These NCA farms are the pioneers of a new age, who see the value in protecting nature and utilising it in their farming systems,” says Jim Castles. “Just by preserving small areas of your farm for native vegetation and wildlife, buffering waterways, planting shelterbelts, or integrating grass strips into production areas, you’ll be laying the foundations for a vital journey that will provide more free inputs from nature for your core enterprises – and keep more carbon in the ground.”

Author, Adelaide Cochrane, Sensand