On an unusually chilly morning north of Brisbane Jacki Hinchey is surveying her small working farm to see where environmental improvements can be made.

The Ocean View farmer is one of dozens of producers who have signed up for a first-of-its-kind farmer mutual, to help reward producers financially for the environmental improvements they make.

“I’m going to put in a shelter belt that has more diverse species for wildlife and plant species that will provide shade and wind protection for the cattle.”

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The market gardener and beef producer only operates on 50 hectares, but said there’s enough land for her to improve biodiversity and soil quality.

“I want a tangible way to benchmark the improvements to this little block of land … so my customers … see the sticker on my meat and my salad that says I have improved this property,” she told AAP.

The first step after joining the mutual is for Ms Hinchey’s Blue Dog Farm to get a digital twin, to see what environmental improvements can be made.

Landscape agronomist Adam Houlden will help with soil samples and the mapping.

“You map out all the areas on the farm, the fences, the buildings, and the different paddocks, cropping areas and the like, to see what’s happening now and to plan what’s happening in the future.” 

Mr Houlden told AAP he will then seek out environmental returns for the farm, whether it be getting funding for sequestering carbon or paid for biodiversity improvements.

“Given Jacki is already using regenerative ag … she’s probably already doing enough to get paid by the government for carbon sequestration.”

The founder of the mutual Andrew Ward told AAP the idea was borne from farmers frustration with the carbon market and will put landowners in the driving seat.

“It’s to help farmers to help create and retain as much value from the environmental good work that they do,” he said.

“Individual farmers on their own don’t get the critical mass.” 

By setting up a farmer-owned group the mutual boss said landowners will keep their own data, which some are reluctant to share.

“They need to be rewarded for sharing their data with industry and supply chains, and governments and banks and all those people interested in the farmer’s data,” Mr Ward said.

“Nobody can be snooping like big brother on what data they have.” 

Mr Ward told AAP some farmers have become wary of the carbon market because of questions around integrity.

“We’ve seen alot of farmers receive bad deals from brokers and intermediaries, who by keeping farmers less informed about what’s going on are able to get bigger margins,’ he said.

Chief executive of the carbon market institute John Connor, which represents carbon brokers, said the establishment of a code of conduct last year has helped address trust issues in the industry, but he welcomed the new mutual.

“We want to make sure that Australia’s enormous potential to be capturing carbon on land provides benefits for landholders as well as for climate,” he said.

While Australia’s business council of co-operatives and mutuals told AAP it’s the first time a farmer’s group has formed to take advantage of environmental markets.

“By pooling the buying power of farmers and cutting out profit seeking intermediaries, farmer owned mutual models make it easier for farmers to participate in, and get a good deal from, environmental markets,” chief executive Melina Morrison said.

So far the mutual has only signed up a few dozen farmers but they are working through a waiting list of 400.

Mr Ward admitted there have been delays because of the myriad of state and federal legislation, as well as data and privacy issues. 

At Blue Dog Farm Jacki Hinchey told AAP she hopes to draw on the collective power of other farms.

“So that neighbours can all band together to measure the environmental assets of their land and benefit financially from the improvements they make,” she said.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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