An “ambitious” carbon farming project in the Mid West has been dubbed the “poster child” for the practice in WA’s low rainfall zones, with hopes it will prove it can be done and generate millions across the grainbelt. As the world moves towards carbon neutrality with industry bodies and governments setting net zero targets and Australian Carbon Credit Unit prices skyrocket, it is believed to have “immense potential”. Through its $15 million Carbon Farming and Land Restoration Program, the State Government has thrust its support behind Perenjori’s Weelhamby Farm to the tune of $738,600. The boon is in the form of a pre-purchase ACCU agreement, the first of it’s kind in WA, with Weelhamby paying back an “agreed portion” back to the State Government once the projects start generating ACCUs. Heralded as “pioneering,” the integrated biodiversity revegetation project and pasture rejuvenation project will see strategic wildlife corridors planted 50m wide across the farm, coupled with multi-species cropping and rotational grazing. If proven to work, industry leaders believe it will be a “game changer” for farmers and prove it can not only be done in low rainfall areas, but without sacrificing large portions of productive land. It is also anticipated to increase agricultural productivity, mitigate salinity, improve soil health, help growers become less dependent on fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, and provide Indigenous opportunities. Weelhamby is the biggest project funded through round one, with two ACCU Plus projects registered with the Emission Reduction Fund running side-by-side. It comes as the State Government aims to “unlock the potential” of the Wheatbelt, following the successful generation of millions of dollars worth of ACCUs through some 70 projects in the southern rangelands, spanning more than 12 million hectares. The push has raised questions among agricultural circles over it’s viability in lower rainfall zones and whether it would be financially viable in the grainbelt where land prices have soared. ACCU prices have skyrocketed in recent years, from about $18 in 2019 when the State Government moved landmark legislation allowing the practice in WA, to about $50. WA Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan said the projects would not only provide an additional income stream for farmers, but a raft of “co-benefits” which would bolster the landscape’s ability to withstand climate change. “The northern and eastern Wheatbelt are the areas of most concern, these are the areas which will be most adversely and profoundly affected by climate change,” she said. “If we do this right, it is possible that we might actually even start dealing with some of the fundamental climate change. “Because there is evidence that in the South West Land Division, it is not just carbon pollution driving climate change, but we have lost a lot of the small water cycle because of clearing and that has made this place a lot hotter and drier.” The practice is considered a “key element” in meeting Labor’s WA climate policy’s net zero emissions by 2050 target. The Farm Located east of Perenjori, the 5500ha mixed sheep and cropping Weelhamby Farm is bordered by three nature reserves and the neighbouring Weelhamby Lake. It is has 1500ha of remnant vegetation and is home to an array of wildlife, from red kangaroos, snakes and racehorse goannas, to an impressive variety of birdlife, including budgies, black cockatoos, major mitchells and wedgetail eagles. Spring time also sees carpets of the famous everlastings dot the landscape, with the region’s golden “pom poms” brightening up the hills and valleys. Farm manager Phil Logue and project agronomist Ken Bailey have had plenty of first-hand encounters since starting work on the property in April. Mr Logue said rescuing two nankeen kestrel chicks — which fell out of a nest in a grain auger — and putting them in an old tractor tyre, where their parents looked after them until they could fly, was an “absolute highlight” of his time on the farm. Mr Bailey also spotted the biggest racehorse goanna he had “ever seen” on one occasion, estimating it to be almost 3m, and on another heard a scuffling in the bushes, from which a huge goanna emerged with a rabbit in its mouth. It is not the first time the farm has been the centre of conservation efforts, with previous owners engaging with the Northern Agricultural Catchments Council to fence of and protect 127ha of remnant vegetation. The Project The aim of the Weelhamby Carbon Project is to sequester carbon in soils and vegetation, while operating a profitable mixed-farming operation. It is multifaceted, with two separate projects running simultaneously — one to improve soil carbon by planting perennial pastures, multi-species crops and rotational grazing, with the other to sequester carbon by planting a mix of local tree and shrub species in strategic wildlife corridors. A map of the projects shows 50m wildlife corridors weaving throughout the property, with soil carbon projects in the spaces between. Ms MacTiernan called it “the poster-child of projects” and commended the team for their vision and passion. “If we had designed the perfect project it would’ve been this one,” she said. “This will be an important experiment for us ... and we can establish the science behind (carbon farming). “Our primary aim is not actually carbon sequestration, for its own sake ... our focus as an agricultural portfolio is what this can do to build resilience into the landscape.” It will become a public demonstration farm, hosting field days where interested farmers and industry representatives can visit, sharing updates and economic results along the way. First Steps Weelhamby owner David Martin said following the funding, it was “full steam ahead” on the project he believes it will deliver “significant” biodiversity, community and industry benefits. Carbon Farming Foundation chief executive Lachy Ritchie said his team had already been busy collecting seed and working with local suppliers, with first plantings scheduled for winter. The WA not-for-profit is on a mission to help farmers regenerate one million hectares within 10 years, and has come into the Weelhamby project as a partial investor. “This one is very special for us, this is the only one we’ve invested our own money in so far, and it was because it was such a pioneering project, so unique, that we really felt we needed to get behind it,” Mr Ritchie said. “If it can be done out here and we can get that integration of trees with soil carbon and we’re not taking big chunks of land out of production, if we can prove that model works out here — it’s going to be massive for the industry.” The corridors will include between 30-50 native tree and shrub species, which will allow movement of wildlife across the farm, as well as provide shelter for sheep with the aim to improve lambing rates. On the cropping side of things, Mr Bailey said they hoped to boost biological activity in the soil by planting several species together, and using 50kg of clay-based compost produced in Dalwallinu as fertiliser. “The idea is to have four families ... every plant has it’s own functional group of biology,” he said. “The symbiotic processes are all enhanced when you put four families together — that’s the research — to the point where you get a 25 per cent over yield ... you can end up with 25 per cent more grain (than in a monoculture). “The plants actually co-operate with each other, so if one is really hungry for nitrogen and another is producing nitrogen, then they’ll share.” Together with Mr Logue, Mr Bailey has already introduced rotational grazing, with plans to seed multi-species crops on 20 per cent of the farm this year, as well as planting 8-10 species of perennials. “The first step ... is to establish cover crops and the microbes — the builders of carbon — into the soil,” Mr Logue said. “We’ve got to start from the ground and work up and plant a diversity of plants to aid the underground community to do their work.” Mr Logue said he had to shift his thinking, with plants he once considered a “terrible weed” now a “wonderful asset” on their mission to increase soil carbon. The Next Generation Carbon farming projects may help slow the “hollowing out” of small regional town populations as farms get bigger, bringing the next generation back to or onto farms, Ms MacTiernan believes. She said more and more farms were diversifying as children branched out to explore more industries, including beekeeping, free range eggs, distilleries and flower plantations, which encouraged intergenerational farm businesses. Carbon farming could add even more diversity to the State’s broadacre farming enterprises, she said. “This diversity, building diversity on the farm, the new business opportunities that can come from this will start reversing some of the hollowing out that happened when farms just got huge and into massive monoculture,” Ms MacTiernan said. “It will make life in the regions really good and give opportunities, so that people can get well-paid jobs here and not have to go FIFO.” It is a sentiment echoed by Mr Logue, who is particularly passionate about the social benefits the Weelhamby project will deliver to the Mid West. By drawing on professionals from various sectors — including ecology, agronomy and business — for the projects, he said it would bring new ways of thinking and more knowledge to regional communities. “We need diversity in the community and diversity in the landscape,” he said. “Whether it’s our kids that come back or other kids that come in, it’s the knowledge ... and that’s the strength. “We need the change of thinking that young people bring in. “If successful, it should provide a family-friendly way of carbon farming. “If you’re growing a lot of trees, there’s no farm left and all of your jobs are in the cities selling carbon, but with this sort of farming, at least 75 per cent of jobs are here, so you can bring your kids. “It’s just a bit of a shame that for everybody in our group, our kids are all grown up. “But you’ve got to start somewhere —this is a perfect opportunity for the carbon conscious of the broader community.” Indigenous Opportunities Traditional owners will play a pivotal role in a number of carbon farming projects across the State, providing cultural, employment and business opportunities for Indigenous communities. Yamatji Southern chief executive Jamie Strickland, who visited Weelhamby on Thursday, said it was fantastic to see engagement with traditional owners as these projects got under way. Ms MacTiernan said it was an important aspect of the projects being funded. “There’s been an extraordinary Yamatji history,” she said. “One of the things I think is so good, is that we’re seeing the farming community that are really interested in this idea of how we restore the land, are also ... understanding how important it is to involve traditional owners — I think it’s a great part of the story.” Gaining Momentum Ms MacTiernan is hoping to get as many carbon farming projects off the ground “as quickly as possible” and encourage more farmers to give it a go. Mr Logue said part of the project would be calculating the financial benefits for growers, which was information he believed would help get more over the line. “Many farmers do environmental stuff — planting trees, controlling water — there’s plenty of that going on and has been all of my lifetime, but we haven’t looked at the other side of it,” he said. “If there’s more money in growing carbon than growing wheat, well, you’re going to grow carbon.” Mr Ritchie said they were bringing their “do it yourself” carbon farming model to the project and believed the low-cost model could increase uptake of projects into the future. “If provided the right tools, support, guidebooks, software — we believe farmers should be able to run their own carbon projects ... at a much lower cost than engaging third-party service providers,” he said. “They retain the lion’s share of the carbon and basically remain in control of the carbon and own the project. It’s a low-cost, scaleable model that’s better for farmers.” Mr Bailey said it took three years to “really turn a system around” and farmers needed to start shifting their thinking away from monoculture now and learn more about carbon so they were well placed to begin projects of their own in years to come.