In Depth

Get paid for biodiversity

Marian Macdonald
By Marian Macdonald
August 8 2021 - 10:00pm
GREEN MONEY: Caring for the vegetation along the Namoi River is now reaping commercial dividends for farmer and agronomist Greg Rummery. Photo: Colin Elphick

Farmers are being paid to look after native vegetation or rehabilitate damaged land under a "rash" of schemes popping up across Australia.

One of them is agronomist and cropper Greg Rummery, who is paid to maintain the flanks of the Namoi River on his 1000-hectare property near Walgett in northern NSW.

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"That area of the landscape on my farm has a better use than an agricultural use and there's probably a better outcome here," he said.

"If I'm able to get some sort of remuneration for delivering that outcome, everybody wins."

Green cash

Mr Rummery has a 15-year agreement with the NSW Biodiversity Conservation Trust.

Meanwhile, the Queensland, Western Australian and, soon, Victorian, governments are rewarding landholders with restoration programs, while the first round of the federal government's first round of the Carbon + Biodiversity Pilot closed in late June.

Organisations like Greening Australia are also operating separate yet ambitious schemes.

"They're popping up all over the place like a rash," Australian National University's Professor Andrew Macintosh said.

The professor is the project lead for the Carbon + Biodiversity Pilot and said that, while it is too early to say just how many farm businesses will be successful, he was pleasantly surprised by the number of applications.

Not lock and leave

Prof Macintosh is keen to stress that the program won't repeat the mistakes of the Managed Investment Scheme that saw a million hectares of land locked up in plantations.

He said there were three main project types: eroded gullies or hillsides with marginal or negative returns, shelterbelts and paddocks so badly degraded it makes financial sense to turn them over to vegetation.

"Because we've really been targeting those three project types, and I can assure you that's almost exactly what we got back in the applications, we don't think there's basically any competition crowding out agricultural production," Prof Macintosh said.

While the NSW Biodiversity Conservation Trust also supports integrating farming and environmental work, it has a much broader scope and has signed up more than 250 landholders willing to conserve 97,800 hectares..

Some farmers are paid simply to do work like fencing, others like Mr Rummery receive annual payments, and the Trust even buys some properties rich in biodiversity.

The BCT then sells those properties to landholders with an in-perpetuity conservation agreement on a portion of the land.

So far, the BCT has bought and sold six properties where the new owners have entered conservation agreements covering 3,036ha and are preparing another seven properties with combined conservation areas of 2,261ha for sale.

Greening 300,000 hectares

Greening Australia also offers a wide-ranging set of landholder incentives and aims to restore a massive 300,000ha.

There's everything from free trees to stewardship agreements, Greening Australia chief operating officer Ian Rollins said.

"Stewardship payments can be paid for a certain period of time where vegetation isn't cleared or we have an agreement to keep stock out for a certain amount of time before they can be brought back in," he said.

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"Our stewardship models help compensate for that gap or change in land use."

The money was flowing from corporates like MasterCard, Apple, Nestle and Woodside Petroleum to offset their carbon emissions.

FAIR PAY: Agronomist and farmer Greg Rummery says it's only right that landowners be paid for environmental work that is in the public interest. Photo: Colin Elphick

Mr Rollins said the amount paid to landowners varied with land values and uses but Greening Australia looked for land that was not highly productive at first.

"The first step is actually taking a look at landholdings across the country which have a problem the landowner wants to fix," he said.

"That's where we're starting the conversation, but as the viability and productiveness of land increases, the incentives that the environmental markets pay obviously need to increase to compensate or create an opportunity for landowners to make more money from environmental activities."

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The right fix for every farm

The diversity of environmental restoration payment schemes will prove critical for farmer uptake, Prof Macintosh said.

"Ultimately, farmers need a suite of offerings because farmers aren't just cookie cutters; there's 88,000 farm businesses, and every farmer has different preferences for different things," he said.

Back at Walgett, Mr Rummery said it was right that the wider community made a meaningful contribution to farm biodiversity.

"They want private landholders to value the land and manage it for a range of public good outcomes, so there should be some sort of remuneration associated with that," he said.

"And that's exactly what the Biodiversity Conservation Trust does, so I commend them for it."

Marian Macdonald

Marian Macdonald

National rural property writer

Writing for farmers in the Stock & Land, The Land, Queensland Country Life, Stock Journal and FarmWeekly, farming in Gippsland.

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