Natural Capital unlocks key to performance

La Trobe University researchers and partners have developed a tool that enables farmers and industry to unlock the value of natural capital and use it to their advantage.

There would be no farm without its foundation of soil, water, birds and trees – it’s known as natural capital - and now, La Trobe University researchers and partners have developed a tool that enables farmers and industry to unlock the value of this resource and use it to their advantage.

The project, known as Farm-scale Natural Capital Accounting, is the culmination of four years’ hard work, spanning 50 farms across New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania.

Farmers can use the accounts to improve their management of natural capital and measure their farm performance, while maintaining natural resources and biodiversity.

Lead researcher Associate Professor Jim Radford, from La Trobe’s Research Centre for Future Landscapes, said putting a value on natural capital has the potential to empower producers to leverage their sustainability credentials for commercial benefits.

“This is the first time whole-of-farm natural capital accounts have been produced in bulk from different geographic locations across a range of farming sectors, such as grazing, cropping, mixed farming and farm forestry,” Dr Radford said.

“This project demonstrates that it is possible to generate detailed, comprehensive, farm-scale environmental accounts.”

About one quarter of all Australia’s bird species were recorded across the 50 farms, including 34 species listed as threatened.

"The COP 28 meeting on climate change in Dubai will garner the attention of the world over the next two weeks but the battle against climate change takes place on the ground and farms are on the front line,” Dr Radford said.

“Natural capital accounts measure the actions farmers take to reduce emissions and increase carbon sequestration, while improving their farm productivity and helping nature."

A key participant in the project was Orana Park, which is a cropping and grazing operation spanning 5250 hectares near Serpentine in Central Victoria.

Orana Park’s account revealed the farm contained more than 70 species of birds and 145 varieties of plants, including four threatened species. The account showed positive trends in ground cover across the farm and overall, the property sequestered and stored more carbon than it emitted, mostly in the soil.

Farm manager Matt Davis, from Tiverton Agriculture Impact Fund which owns and operates Orana Park, said the ongoing data from the accounts will enable the business model to increase its work alongside nature.

“Our team has always understood the value of nature to farming and the future, but it was the lack of data for farmers about their natural capital which was the limitation,” Mr Davis said.

Sheep farmers Jo and Greg Bear, from Loddon Vale near Kerang in northern Victoria, expect this tool to be a “game changer” for sustainable agriculture.

"As long-term farmers, we have witnessed first-hand the tremendous impact that looking after natural capital has had on all facets of our business and our personal life, but we had no data or evidence to back up this experience,” Jo said.

“Natural Capital Accounting fills in the missing link by providing valuable evidence to key stakeholders in our business now and into the future.”

The tool is set to benefit the entire agricultural supply chain, including food and beverage companies, clothing manufacturers, retailers, financial institutions and, ultimately, consumers through increased visibility along the supply chain.

“Early results show that investing in natural capital benefits both finances and the environment, proving that when you care for nature, it cares for you,” Jo said.

“This tool reduces our environmental footprint, it aligns with market demands and partnerships, shows the profitability of sustainable farming, fosters discussions with banks and authorities and brings well-being to farmers, families and communities.”

In Tasmania, about 50 kilometres north of Hobart at Apsley, merino wool farmer Sarah Barrington said the data will increase opportunities in the sale of their wool and associated higher and stable prices.

“This scientifically rigorous and independent data will allow us to inform users of our merino wool as well as those in the pipeline, who need to qualify or quantify natural capital on our farm,” Sarah said.

As farms varied in types and structures, the research revealed each farmer also had their own perspective on which elements of the accounts proved helpful in supporting their management decisions in farming operations.

“This project has confirmed aspects of our natural capital that we were already aware of and enlightened us about new aspects, such as bird species and carbon balance,” Sarah said.

Natural Capital Accounting was funded through the Australian Government’s Smart Farming Partnership Program, with co-investment from La Trobe University and Odonata Foundation.

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