Episode 9: Tapping into Circular Economies

Vic Drought Hub - Farmland 1
Transcript

Kirsten Diprose:

Innovation Ag is made on the lands of the Gunditjmara and Wurundjeri peoples. We acknowledge the traditional owners of country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to elders past, present, and emerging.

Neale Bennett:

What you got to look at is the whole holistic picture of not just the cost. It's the overall benefit that you're going to get.

Dr Sara Hely:

We're in a changed environment now. This volatility, climate volatility is a reality. When it comes to nitrogen, farmers are going to be quite risk-averse and that's why we're trying to look ahead for alternatives that are cheaper, easier to source and doesn't hurt as much if things don't go perfectly.

Kirsten Diprose:

Hello and welcome to Innovation Ag brought to you by the Victoria Drought and Innovation Hub. I'm Kirsten Diprose. Clever people have, for a long time, reused farm byproducts and waste, but arguably, never before has there been such an incentive to develop circular economies with the cost of fertiliser, fuel, and electricity all rising significantly over the past few years. I know here in Victoria, farmers will take years to recover from the recent flooding where they watch the money they spent on inputs to grow their crops literally get washed away right before harvest. I know because it happened on my farm too. The tallest canola we'd seen in years was pummelling by hail and freakish storms one month before harvest usually starts and what we experience doesn't even compare to the devastating flooding in central and northern parts of the state.

So if it's getting harder to rely on the climate, wouldn't it be great if we didn't have to spend so much money on the inputs? It would certainly make the bad years less bad. So in this episode, we look at three very different circular economy solutions where waste products are being reused, recycled, or reprocessed for fertiliser, bioenergy, and even water retention in the soil. We learn how you might start or get involved in a circular economy project on your farm or in your community. We also ask, how do you know it's actually having a net benefit? Let's meet Neale Bennett. He's an almond grower from Merbein just outside Mildura.

Neale Bennett:

I can never work it out. I think I'm either the third or fourth generation. My grandparents and great-grandparents came up from Melbourne back in 1910 and cleared the property or the home. The original homestead was across the road from where we are now. They were plasterers by trade, so they built houses out of the limestone that was in the dirt. They planted vines and while they were coming into production, they were doing some jobs around the settlement to earn some income. I come home onto the property after I finished year 12. I didn't want to go to uni. I would've been home sooner, but dad wouldn't let me. I started following him around when I was about three years old. I just liked farming. Originally, we had dried fruit. We grew sultanas and currants. Then back in 1992, we made a conscious decision to diversify. The returns of the dried fruit industry weren't really conducive to making a decent living.

Kirsten Diprose:

I might just cast your mind back to Episode One of this podcast where we heard about how the dried fruit industry was under a lot of pressure in the '90s. You might remember Ivan Shaw's story. He actually invented a solution to the problem that helped to mechanise the dried fruit industry. Well, before that happened, many farmers in the Sunraysia were already looking to get out and that's what Neale's family decided to do.

Neale Bennett:

My dad at that time was in Rotary and there was a ladies' night and mum went along and got talking to another member there and turns out he grew almonds. She came home and she said, "I think this is what you should be doing." So I went around and had a talk to him. I think it was in the August. We were lucky enough to get some trees and first of all, we interplanted them between the vines and that was our first patch and we just kept developing from there. The thing we were looking for was to try and cut down on manual labour. At that time, we were relying a lot on manual labour to pick the grapes and that was becoming hard. We didn't have the backpackers and the Pacific Islanders that are around currently, so labour was tough and we just needed something that we could do ourselves. So we started planting up and that was in 1992. We did it in stages. By about 2007, 2008, we'd completely replanted the whole 17 hectares.

Kirsten Diprose:

These days, Neale's focused on the challenges and opportunities of sustainability.

Neale Bennett:

The microscope is coming on the farming community as well as any manufacturing community. Personally, we take it seriously. We try to do as much as we can so that we don't waste product, overapply sprays, things like that, overuse fertilisers. From an industry point of view, that's the way we're taking it as well. The idea is we need to be sustainable not only for our own use but our longevity, a lot of the things we were doing already, because at the end of the day, unless we look after the land that we're on, the land's not going to look after us. A lot of the things we were doing, I guess it's about formalising them now and having them in the virtual equivalent of a quality assurance programme to make sure that we have got the checks and balances in place to remain viable in the years to come.

Like I said, I'm third or fourth generation. I've got two daughters. I'd like to see them not necessarily come home on the property because they're going down different careers, but I'd like to see the property be sustainable for the future that they can get some money off it.

Kirsten Diprose:

It was when Neale was at an almond plantation site tour in Sacramento, California that he became inspired to investigate a new approach called Whole Orchard Recycling. Just an FYI, traditionally, trees are burnt once they've been removed from an orchard.

Neale Bennett:

We pulled up at one site and we were looking at the trees and we heard this enormous noise just across the other side of the rise. So we walked up the rise and looked down and there was about three massive 40-tonne excavators pulling out trees and feeding them into like a big tub that just ground them up into sawdust, basically, into chips. What we came to learn was that that's what the Californians are doing now with their pollution and everything like that. There's only so many clear days that they're allowed to burn so they needed to develop some way of pulling out and replanting orchards that is viable and get rid of the product. They used to have biomass generators where they take the trees off to power plants and use them to generate power, but that's coming under scrutiny because of not only the emissions but also the returns that they're getting for the power is pretty low compared to what they can get for selling solar back into the system.

When we got to the conference, there was an actual session on this orchard recycling and the benefits that they were now finding by accident. That got me interested because I knew that eventually, my orchard, the oldest patch was going to be closing on 25 to 30 years old and I'd have to face that sooner or later. The couple of lectures that they spoke on said they'd found an increased benefit in water holding capacity, soil aggregation, organic matter, soil nitrogen. Carbon was going up by about 58% and they're actually getting an increase in the yield of plant as well as being able to reduce some of the input, some of the natural fertilisers. So that got me thinking that we need to do something like that in Australia because that is the way to go. You've got all this carbon and nutrient in wood, why should we burn it?

Kirsten Diprose:

So that's what Neale did, and he's now part of a trial where he's working alongside scientists who want to understand the impacts of chipping trees and then incorporating them into the orchard soil before planting new trees.

Neale Bennett:

I should point out that I'm not the first to have done it in Australia. There have been some other growers who have done small trials where it's just a couple of rows here and there and they've seen the benefits, but the thing was no actual scientific evidence has been recorded to prove in Australia the benefits of doing it. So that was the aim of the project. We looked around to see if I could get some funding for it and I couldn't. I put in for a couple of grants and I got rejected. Then I was talking to the Almond Board CEO, Ross Skinner, and he said, "Well, let us put it in as a project and do it as an industry." I said, "Well, that's fine." We put it in to Horticulture Innovations and they said, "This is fantastic. We want to be a part of this."

We had the funds. We had to then set up the way to do it. I looked around. I found a local guy who actually grinds up tyres and things like that at local municipal tips and he travels around Australia, so we're able to use his machinery. That's what we did June last year in 2022. What they do, they virtually grind it up into bark chips, spread that out onto where the trees were, and then work that back into the soil and let it decompose over the coming years. What they've found is you need to keep your nitrogen levels up to help it break down quicker and things like that. So there's a lot to it, but that's basically what we're doing to try and prove those benefits under Australian conditions.

Kirsten Diprose:

So you mentioned how it's been scientifically tested and it looks like it's doing some really good things. As a farmer, as the landowner, what are the benefits that you're seeing or are you seeing them yet?

Neale Bennett:

I've seen the trees jump away pretty good. They've done several replicants. The Primary Industries of South Australia is monitoring the project. They're monitoring soil moisture, growth in the trees, actually carbon emissions from the ground. They're monitoring all that side. From a point of view from a layman without any major scientific background, you can see there's a difference in each row. They did some with a lot of bark chips. They did some with probably 50% bark chips, 50% soil, and then some with no bark chips and you can see a difference. It's a bit like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. You're looking for what's right.

Kirsten Diprose:

Yeah. I like that analogy. Where does this trial end up? How does it wrap up and then what do you hope will happen after it?

Neale Bennett:

My hope is that we can prove that it works as effectively in Australia as it does in California. California has got a lot of good soil over there. It's a different type of soil. We have a lot of marginal soil over here and it varies from a light clay loam to virtually a Mallee soil that doesn't have much body to it. But if we can get that organic matter back into that soil and change those characteristics, well, I think it opens up a whole new side of farming for us and gives us another tool in the armoury that we don't have to rely on so much of the artificial man-made fertilisers. As growers, we get one shot in probably 25 to 30 years to start with a blank canvas. With this in mind, if we can get the benefit out of what we've been investing in for those last 25, 30 years, it's an extra benefit that we can get and make life for us as farmers a lot better.

There's a couple of things we have to look at. It'll be cheaper to actually pull them out and burn them compared to put them through a grinder and spread it and do everything like that. But what you've got to look at is the whole holistic picture of not just the cost. It's the overall benefit that you're going to get. If you can pick it up to when that's got to be part of the cost-benefit analysis, not just, well, what's it going to cost me from my pocket, but what's it going to cost me if I don't do this?

Kirsten Diprose:

Do you process the chips on site or do they have to go somewhere else and then come back?

Neale Bennett:

No. He bought two of his machines in. That was all done in site. He would pull it up and then he would work within about a 50-metre radius and grab the trees with a big set of grabs on the end of the excavator, drop them in the machine, make a pile there and then move on. So when it came time to spreading, the product was already in the paddock. The contractor who I got just pulled his machine up beside it, got his front end loaded up his cart and moved on, so nothing moved off farm.

Kirsten Diprose:

I think that's really interesting because a lot of the challenges with circular economies is because farmers often have these byproducts and then it needs to be converted by someone or something or there needs to be a process derived and then there's a new market for it potentially, and then there's issues over who benefits from that in terms of the costs and the return. But if you're keeping it on site, it solves some of those issues from a financial point of view.

Neale Bennett:

Yeah, I think you're right, Kirsten. Again, it comes back to the two factors. You're trying to do the right thing by soils and build the soils up, but then you're trying to cut down your emissions by not burning. If you shifted it off-site and it had to be processed in another way to get to a stage where you can use it for another product, well, then that adds another layer of complexity to that emissions, if that makes sense, whereas at least by keeping it on farm, it's one, two, maybe three less steps that you actually have to worry about in closing or plugging those holes up. You remain in that closed loop and more control over the process, if that makes sense.

Kirsten Diprose:

While there are obvious benefits for keeping the processing and the use of farm byproducts on site, it's not going to be possible in every case. So where can you send your waste products if you're not using them yourself? Daryl Scherger is a bioenergy consultant and secretary for the Victorian Bioenergy Network. While we just heard from Neale that using crop residues for power isn't often favoured as a sustainable energy alternative, Daryl argues it should be.

Daryl Scherger:

For starters, it's a huge energy resource. IPCC says it's a renewable energy and it's a residue that farmers are producing already. We use that for energy. That's extra income for farmers and it's a renewable energy for the community.

Kirsten Diprose:

And that's exactly what Daryl has been working on, using crop residues to heat two local hospitals near Ballarat, the Beaufort and Skipton Hospitals.

Daryl Scherger:

Beaufort Hospital was keen to get off LPG, it was expensive, and use bioenergy. So I got involved in installing wood chip-fueled boiler at the Beaufort Hospital. That happened in 2014 and has been running well ever since. On the basis of that, they decided they'd want to do the same at Skipton. We looked around Skipton and the obvious local resource around Skipton is a cereal straw, wheat straw. It's a cereal-growing area. There's large quantities of straw available. So I started looking at options for heating the Skipton hospital with locally grown straw.

Kirsten Diprose:

Can you tell me how it all works? How do you actually harness the bioenergy from wood chips or wheat straw?

Daryl Scherger:

Basically, the fuel, the biomass, either wood chips or straw is burnt in a boiler system, creates the heat, heats the water and that water is then circulated around the building, in this case the hospitals to heat the hospitals. So it's a very simple, very old technology and works really well. The boilers are very efficient.

Kirsten Diprose:

Skipton Hospital is a great story of community innovation. It was actually a group of local farmers around Skipton who got together to come up with an innovative way of using their leftover straw by turning it into pellets. Then the whole community pitched in to buy the boiler.

Daryl Scherger:

They currently still burn the straw or burn virtually all of it annually in their stubble burns and that was a waste. It's a risk and they wanted to do something else with it, so they started looking at options to use the straw. I caught up with them and at the same time, they invested in a study to look at various ways to pellet straw and it turned out that a European manufacturer, KROHNE, had developed an infield pelleting system. So they were able to get that machine to do a demo around the Skipton area to produce pellets. That was where the fuel came from. The boiler, the hospital and the local shire advertised for someone to put the boiler in at Skipton. That process started in 2018 and thanks to COVID, it finally got in place in June 2021. So that's when the boiler first started with the support of the local farmers and the hospital and the local shire who were able to get the funding from the Victorian government to actually instal the boiler. Total cost of the boiler was around $350,000.

Kirsten Diprose:

How many farmers were involved in that?

Daryl Scherger:

There are nine farmers at the moment in Streatham Straw Alliance and between them, they produce around about 50,000 tonnes of straw annually. The boiler at Skipton, we calculate, would use about 200 tonnes, so there's a huge amount of resource available.

Kirsten Diprose:

But this story is not over. Like many innovation journeys, not everything has gone to plan.

Daryl Scherger:

That's the first of this type of boiler system in Australia and even fairly new in Europe where it was developed so it was very much all prototypes. The first batch of pellets we got produced, we loaded into the boiler and for the first six months, the boiler worked very well and it proved that it works. Straw pellets can be used to heat buildings such as a hospital. The boiler performed very well for the first six months. We then ran into trouble because we ran out of the original batch of pellets and the next batch of pellets, unfortunately, was produced by a different operator and it was a mix-up and the pellets weren't of the same standard as the original lot. So they caused problems with the boiler and there were difficulties in getting more pellets, so we ran into a snag with fuel supply.

Kirsten Diprose:

Who knew there was so much in the shape of a straw pellet? Meanwhile, there's a local hospital in one of the coldest parts of Victoria that still needs heating, so Daryl and the farmers had to come up with something. The answer? Olive pits.

Daryl Scherger:

Which is a residue from producing olive oil and they're currently burning that. When they press to extract the oil, the bits left over after they've extracted the oil from the olive seed, the bit that's leftover is the pit. They can't extract any more oil out of it, so that becomes a waste and that can be used for energy and that's exactly what they're doing at the moment at Skipton Hospital.

Kirsten Diprose:

Wow, that's great. Now, I know that there aren't many olive trees around Skipton though.

Daryl Scherger:

No. They're coming from an olive oil producer at Boundary Bend. That's Northern Victoria. They have to cut those down. Everyone would much rather we were using the locally produced straw, but until we can get on top of these straw pellets and get a consistent uniform pellet, it's just not practical at the moment. It's one of these things. The way it ran initially, it's obviously the potential is there to use straw pellets as a heating source. It's just we need to get on top of the actual pellet production. It's all new and with any new technology, there are teething problems. I'm still confident if the demand was there, those would be overcome. Now I guess that raises the problem with bioenergy. It's what I call a chicken and egg problem. There are so few facilities being installed that we don't have either the installers and we certainly don't have a organised fuel supply process to supply them.

Using Skipton as example, the machine to produce those pellets infield are three quarters of a million dollars and no one's going to invest three quarters of a million dollars into something to produce 200 tonne a year. It needs that dual process. It's something that really needs, I guess, government support to overcome that initial hurdle of not enough people installing bioenergy to justify the supply chain being developed to supply the facilities because there's not enough facilities, there aren't people that are producing either manufacturing equipment or there's not enough installers. So it's a chicken and egg problem. It's going to take some time to get over.

Kirsten Diprose:

Is Skipton Hospital a sort of Australian first?

Daryl Scherger:

Absolutely. It's never been done anywhere else in Australia and very little done anywhere else in the world. Certainly straw pellets are new. They're new in Europe and they're certainly very new in Australia. It helps the regional economies. It's a renewable resource, reduces our carbon emissions. It's got so many pluses. I guess issue that sometimes gets raised, yes, it does produce CO2, burning biomass, but as far as the straw goes, the CO2 that's released by its burning was absorbed by the crop last year and will be reabsorbed by next year's crop. So the carbon is recycled rather than adding to atmospheric CO2 levels. So that's why it's renewable energy because it comes from a renewable resource.

Kirsten Diprose:

That's the thing about a lot of our waste products. Most of us know we could reuse or recycle, but we don't. Some of these circular economy solutions are brand new technologies, but some of them aren't. So why aren't we doing this more often? Well, in agriculture, like most sectors, we operate in linear economies rather than in circular ones. For instance, most farms buy inputs like fertilisers or pesticides to produce outputs such as grains or livestock. So all the resources flow in the one direction and anything else is generally considered waste. On a global scale, about 90 billion tonnes of primary resources are extracted and used each year, but only 10% of that is being recycled. Now with the impacts of climate change, shifting the global focus to sustainability, the circular economic model is gaining more traction. Meet Dr. Sara Hely. She's the director of research at Riverine Plains, the northeast node of the Victoria Drought and Innovation Hub. Her interest in agriculture has come via her passion for sustainability.

Dr Sara Hely:

I grew up in the country in a small town in the Hunter Valley where forestry was actually the main job provider and employer. I moved from that small country town in the Hunter Valley to Canberra in high school. I suppose the reason why I ended up working in ag was probably not planned because I was really passionate about environment and sustainability. Having seen the impact of the forestry industry on the natural environment up there, I was more inclined to go in that direction. But after doing my PhD studying the effects of climate change and working for the Commonwealth, I started to see the actual impact of climate change being more on food security and being able to produce food sustainably became more of a focus for me. I gravitated more towards agriculture towards the end of my PhD.

Kirsten Diprose:

I feel like people either love this question or hate this question, but what was your PhD about and can you briefly summarise it?

Dr Sara Hely:

I almost won the award for the longest PhD title, so that is quite a challenge. But I did study the effects of elevated CO2, which is a greenhouse gas on native grasslands, but also wheat. The reason why, and that's kind of how I ended up gravitating towards agriculture, so the reason why I studied wheat is because it had been quite thoroughly studied because it's such an important crop in terms of food security. Globally, wheat drives nutrition in a lot of countries. Whether climate change would benefit the wheat industry or the cropping industry was of high interest to scientists at the time, so they knew a lot about how wheat would respond to carbon dioxide. What we didn't know was how carbon dioxide would impact on native grasses. It was just a complete black box, but so important from an ecosystem point of view and something that I was really passionate about.

I just love native grasslands. They're just so beautiful and so knowing how climate change was going to impact that was really important to me. But fortuitously, I also got some really great insight into how climate change might impact cropping systems as well.

Kirsten Diprose:

What insight do you have into that? It's something that you would discuss all the time in your role, but what are you thinking about or what are people in your region thinking about as climate change worsens essentially?

Dr Sara Hely:

Yeah. Well, I suppose there was a view when I started my PhD that higher CO2, higher greenhouse gases, in particular, carbon dioxide might actually benefit the cropping industry. As I was progressing through my PhD, took me six years, things were starting to shift because we were knowing more about complex systems like cropping systems are quite unique and complex and farmers know this. As our knowledge was evolving, we're realising that maybe elevated carbon dioxide, which is a natural fertiliser to plants, were not going to benefit, get a free kick or a free ride like the research had been saying. In fact, there were many interactions that could complicate that. On occasion in the right conditions, there still could be a benefit of higher carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, but not always. I guess that was really interesting, but quite challenging as a PhD student to present when you got a full body of research ahead of you saying, "No. Climate change may actually benefit the cropping industry," and then you come in and say, "Maybe not," but there was other researchers finding the same.

Kirsten Diprose:

Sara says one of the biggest benefits of her academic study personally was that it allowed her to understand just how complex agriculture is. So after working in climate change policy and research and development for various corporations, Sara wanted a more-boots-on-the-ground role.

Dr Sara Hely:

I was resetting after children and thought, well, I do want to be closer to farmers. I do want to be closer to the action and the opportunity to work with Catherine Marriott, Riv Plains, in this exciting growth area for that organisation came up. Although it meant a little bit of a step back, not-for-profits don't have big cash accounts, so I had to accept that, but the benefit was working with someone who was really changing the face of agriculture and getting back to the heart of where I wanted to be. Yeah, I'm really happy that I made that decision and certainly does not feel like a step back, but actually a step-up.

Kirsten Diprose:

One of the projects Riverine Plains is part of with the Vic Hub is investigating the use of organic manure in increasing crop yield. After all, nitrogen fertiliser is the most important input for cropping, well, after water, right?

Dr Sara Hely:

For sure. It's also expensive. It's the most expensive input. In theory, water is mostly free depending on the type of cropping environment, but if you're in irrigation or an irrigated area, it's not free. Second, well, first, most expensive input into crop or even a mixed farming system that has pastures.

Kirsten Diprose:

So what's the challenge facing fertiliser now for farmers and just for society and Australia as we move to be more sustainable?

Dr Sara Hely:

Yeah. I'm glad you asked that question because it is one of the motivators for us looking at a project like this. We feel as a farming systems group, it's our role and responsibility to be looking ahead at what's on the horizon or thinking about things that are coming that farmers might not have the capacity to be thinking about or the financial ability to being innovative on their farms or trying stuff out. The reason why this project around nitrogen and about manures as a fertiliser came about is that there is a global trend of wanting to go to more organic forms of nitrogen as opposed to synthetic. Last year was a great insight where the prices of fertiliser were insanely high. It was almost unbearable for farmers to invest in that and it's always like a gambling game. We do know a bit about the season. No one predicted the end in the northeast that we got last year where it was widespread flooding, massive disease outbreaks, and in some cases, the crop was just underwater when it needed to be harvested.

So that is a big gamble for a farmer with a really positive looking rainfall outlook. They put on a lot of nitrogen. It was highly expensive and then we saw a collapse. So that had a massive impact on our farmers. That generally doesn't happen. If you have a good seasonal outlook like that, you can invest pretty safely in nitrogen and capitalise with a really good harvest. But we're in a changed environment now and this volatility, climate volatility is a reality. When it comes to nitrogen, farmers are going to be quite risk-averse and rightfully so and that's why we're trying to look ahead for alternatives that are cheaper, easier to source and doesn't hurt as much if things don't go perfectly.

Kirsten Diprose:

What's this particular project investigating?

Dr Sara Hely:

Two things. In the northeast, we're really well-placed amongst a bunch of intensive animal industries, which do produce byproducts like manures and they are rich in nutrients like nitrogen as well as other things. Obviously, just using manure as a substitute for synthetic nitrogen is of interest. The second aspect to this project is FAR Australia, who is our collaborator on this and absolutely led the charge in identifying this as a project. They'd found that something was going on when they added manures that actually allowed the crops to absorb more nitrogen than they would if they just used straight synthetic fertilisers. So maybe there's a biological thing that it triggers in plants that allows greater absorption and which a normal season or a good season leads to an increase in yield and keeping those protein levels high in say, a cropping system, which is really important for quality.

So yeah, we are looking at whether we can use manures to substitute synthetic nitrogen or synthetic fertilisers, but also, is it doing something cool in terms of biology that increases absorption rate? So generally speaking, when the trial area that we're using is sourcing it from the farms around there, so the transport costs are quite low. Those byproducts are put in the back of the truck, then it's spread in the trial area at various different rates.

Kirsten Diprose:

Do you know of any farmers who are able to use manure from their own farm, perhaps if they're a mixed farm effectively to then apply it to crops and have their own circular economy happening?

Dr Sara Hely:

I'm sure it's happening. I don't know how widespread it is. I think there's a piece there where Riv Plains could actually improve the knowledge of farmers around how to safely use manures in their own enterprises. There is some regulatory factors that need to be considered. That's not my area of expertise, but I do think there's a role for Riv Plains in helping farmers understand how to retain byproducts safely and use them safely in their enterprises.

Kirsten Diprose:

I guess that naturally leads on to the support that the industry needs when you do a research trial, but then there are all these other factors that are needed to actually enable change. What are your reflections on that?

Dr Sara Hely:

There's a lot we could do as a farming systems group that is daunting. We are not always well-resourced. Riv Plains used to be an organisation of five staff or less three years ago. We're now 10 or 11. That does allow us to be out there scanning for where the gaps in knowledge are for farmers and then translating them to projects. Riv Plains definitely is very passionate about food security and sustainability and the environment, and that's something Catherine Marriott and I are really proud of bringing to the organisation quite seriously. Even though our farmers are absolutely there with us, it's often down the list of priorities of where they want information and they want to know about the latest varieties. Maybe after they've worked out what the latest varieties are and the latest equipment and maybe fertiliser options are there, but how do they do things more sustainably maybe further down the list.

We do see our role to help identify those knowledge gaps around sustainability, looking at circular economies, which in our view, builds resilience and therefore preparedness for drought and extreme weather events. This is all part of the package, but we do have to spread ourselves across a number of priority areas for farmers. This project in itself is a good start for us.

Kirsten Diprose:

Where do you see circular economies in general, and there are many types of them, going in in five or 10 years? It seems at the moment, it's happening here and there on farms, but it's not really at that widespread level. Do you think it will be in five years or will it be 10 years?

Dr Sara Hely:

Yeah. I guess there's different views of what a circular economy is. You could consider a farm as a circular economy example. Like I said, there's some complexities around that in terms of safety and what really is possible like crop residues. Farmers regularly rotate the crop residues into the next season. Some have to burn their residues and some may even transport it off like in hay. That does disrupt that circular economy side of things. The other circular economies can be where waste to produce or byproducts are produced off-site and can they be brought into a farming system. There's all sorts of challenges around costs of transportation, treatment of that byproduct to bring it onto farm because transport is a huge cost.

The lighter it is, the simpler it is to bring in, but to dry it or to process it is another cost. It's not as simple as we might think and it sometimes is as simple as you might think. We've just got to assess what is out there and what fits the regional requirements for farmers or regional communities in terms of circular economies, and some are going to work really nicely and some are not. That, I think, is a farming systems group role to direct information to farmers that's appropriate for their enterprises.

Kirsten Diprose:

That's precisely the point that Neale Bennett, almond grower from Merbein is at in his trial. On a dollar for dollar basis, it costs more to chip his old trees and spread it than it does to just burn them, but if he can save on inputs, then it'll definitely be worth it.

Neale Bennett:

Well, that's the thing we're trying to prove, if we can reduce our inputs. Water was unbundled from the land a few years ago, whereas before, if you sold the land, the water went with it. Now it's been turned into a commodity. We have to try and get our best return for that commodity when we purchase it. So if we can reduce our water use, then that's got to be good for everybody, not only our pocket, but better for the environment all around.

Kirsten Diprose:

So are circular economies the innovation answer for farmers and agriculture? Here's Neale again.

Neale Bennett:

I think as a country, we are focusing on it. As farmers, we're very conscious of it, the drumMUSTER you have where you can return your empty chemical drums to be recycled to byproducts being used. Back in the drought, there was this sheep getting fed with the waste from orange juicing product. There's things like that that we've done for a long time. Again, we haven't really focused on it. We've just done it out of necessity. I've been farming almonds for 20 odd, nearly 30 years and we've had these level of prices before, but what we haven't had is high fuel prices, high inputs with chemicals, high prices of fertilisers. Power has increased. The labour rates have increased. It's a combination of a lot of things. So they're challenges that we are facing, we're all facing on the land regardless of what we grow.

I've got two 20-year-old daughters and I know their views are different to mine at times, but the focus is on not so much what products we use, there's a little bit of that, but it's more on what we do with the waste, which is a fair question. We can't just keep dumping it into the landfill because we're going to run out of hole sooner or later.

Kirsten Diprose:

And that's it, this episode of Innovation Ag. Thank you to our guests, Neale Bennett, almond grower at Merbein, Daryl Scherger, Victorian bioenergy consultant, and Dr. Sara Hely, research director at Riverine Plains. And thank you for listening. Our next episode is the final in this current series and it's all about measuring success. How do you measure an innovation or change in practise to know it's worked, especially if we're measuring it across an entire community? You can find the episode transcript on our website, vicdroughthub.org.au. Thank you for listening. This episode is written and hosted by me, Kirsten Diprose, produced by Rachael Thompson, and we have editorial input from scientists, academics, and farming groups involved in the Victoria Drought and Innovation Hub. This podcast is funded by the Australian government's Future Drought Fund. Catch you next time.

 

Innovation Ag_Podcast - Ep 9 Tapping into Circular Economies

Can you heat a hospital with wheat stubble? Or use chipped almond trees to improve your soil? These are some examples of circular economic trials that are underway in Australia at the moment.

 

Arguably, never before has there been such an incentive to develop circular economies, with the costs of fertiliser, fuel and electricity all rising significantly over the past few years.

 

But one of the big challenges in agriculture, is that we operate in linear economies, rather than in circular ones (i.e. most farmers buy inputs to produce outputs).

 

Even still, new circular economies are emerging across multiple sectors, in part to address the problem of the high cost of inputs and also to address environmental and sustainability concerns.

 

So, in this episode, we look at three very different circular economic solutions - where waste products are being re-used, recycled, or reprocessed for fertiliser, bio energy... and even water retention in soil. We look at circular economies from a local farm scale to regional initiatives (including heating a small Central Victorian hospital, with plant material waste).

 

GUESTS:

Neale Bennett – Almond grower in Merbein, Victoria (and participant in an Australian ‘Whole of Orchard Recycling’ study)

Daryl Scherger – Victorian Bioenergy Network

Dr Sara Hely – Director of Research at Riverine Plains (the Vic Hub’s NE Node)