On March 9, we hosted a bus trip to Hallora (about 1.5 hours south east of Melbourne) to learn hands-on about soil and the carbon economy.
As the bus hurtled down the highway, Allan Yeomans and I gave a brief history of our own work, telling how an artist and an agricultural innovator came to be working together on this project. We were joined by Damien Lawson (an advisor to Adam Bandt of the Greens) who has done a lot of research on global warming and environmental policy. Damien gave a user-friendly summary of the current federal policy situation around climate change mitigation.
In 1990, Allan was invited to the Esalen Congress on Sustainable Agriculture, where he presented this paper entitled “The Agricultural Solution to the Greenhouse Effect”. This is the genesis of his work on the Yeomans Carbon Still and the associated methodology for measuring soil carbon sequestration. You can download the paper as a pdf document here.
Listing some of the things I don’t yet understand about soil and the carbon economy:
What happens to carbon when plants photosynthesize? I mean, I (sort of) get it, that they “breathe in” CO2, but then what? I’ve been imagining that they break the CO2 into oxygen (O2) and carbon (C) (how exactly?)- the oxygen goes back into the atmosphere and the carbon goes – where? Into the soil, into the plant’s leaves and roots? How does this work?
I get it that “organic matter” is 58% carbon. We use this factor when we extrapolate the carbon mass in a soil sample from the mass of organic matter. (But why 58%?) And is all organic matter the same? I mean, is a piece of jarrah wood the same in carbon content as a blade of grass or humus in the soil?
How does the proposed carbon economy work? Here’s a ham-fisted version of how I imagine it: polluters pay money for tonnage of carbon dioxide emissions. That money is put in some sort of trust account, and paid to people who can demonstrate that they are pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. OK, fine. But doesn’t that mean that the emissions of the rich are just written off, getting them off the hook? Doesn’t that mean they can carry on with business as usual?
What are some of the possible “revenge effects” of the carbon economy? I dunno, I’m thinking about Kevin Rudd’s ceiling insulation scheme which was meant to kickstart the Aussie economy during the global financial crisis but ended up incentivising a whole lot of shonky operators to set up get-rich-quick businesses installing insulation (and people died as a result).
Ecosystem services as a commodity. What are the pros and cons of putting a price on services to the ecosystem?
I took Allan Yeomans to visit Niels’ farm, about 1.5 hours south east of Melbourne. Niels raises cattle and grows many different species creating a “salad bowl” of living plants for his cows – including peas, oats, rye corn, chicory, plaintain, tillage radish, vetch, and clover.
Like Allan Yeomans, Niels is an inventor. In the picture you can see his machine, the “Soilkee Renovator” which aerates the land, buries organic matter and drills seeds directly into the soil. Matthew Warnken of AgriProve is working with Niels to submit an application for soil carbon credits – enabling Niels to be paid for a significant increase in the carbon content of his soil. I still don’t understand how the economics of this works – but I’m hoping to learn more about it during the course of the project.
While we were on the farm, Niels’ family gathered a soil sample for us. We’ll be testing it live on Wednesday 13 February 2019 between 10am-3pm at Monash University Museum of Art, using the Yeomans Carbon Still.
I first visited Allan Yeomans in 2016, when I was just beginning work on the sugarcane project in Mackay. Driving north from Wollongong with Lizzie and Albie, we stopped at the Gold Coast and pulled in to the carpark of the Yeomans Plow Company. Very quickly Allan drew me into an engrossing technical and ideological conversation about global warming, government policy, and the great tradition of Aussie inventiveness that his family is so famous for.
He talked me through the prototype of his Yeomans Carbon Still – which I had read about online, but never seen in the flesh. Eventually Lizzie had to drag me away as the afternoon was getting on and we needed to find a campsite for the night. But in that couple of hours with Allan, the idea for this project was born. In a nutshell: take a working model of the Carbon Still and install it in the museum as a public demonstration of how farmers can measure their soil carbon.
I’ve come from Wollongong to visit Allan Yeomans, the inventor of the Yeomans Carbon Still.
It seems fitting that Allan’s workshop is located here at the Gold Coast, where hundreds of skyscrapers cluster along the beach, perched barely above sea level. What will happen to this place in the near future, when sea levels rise up and flood the streets, and cyclones erode the foundations of the buildings? Will it become an unlivable ghost town?
Across the world, low-lying cities like the Gold Coast are ever more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and Allan Yeomans hopes that his invention can help tackle this global problem.