Putting a price 
on conservation

Published: May 2018  | By: Oscar Pearse

If the people of NSW really value biodiversity, it’s time they pick up the cheque, says North West farmer Oscar Pearse.

The voice of reason for native vegetation: Oscar Pearse, sixth generation farmer from Moree, NSW

EIGHT years ago, when my wife Susannah and I took over the family’s cropping operations in Moree, we realised we had a major disadvantage: not only was it taking me twice as long to spray the paddocks as some neighbours, I was doing it twice as often.

We analysed header yield monitors and benchmarking, and found the main thing costing time and money was our high number of isolated paddock trees.

We came onto a farm with a strong legacy – since 1872 good management of the land has meant management for profit, as well as preservation of the landscape.

We are renowned for protecting soils, pasture and key natural areas. My parents raised me to look after nature as much as looking after the business.

My mother knows every cluster of trees; which ones are echidna habitats and which are home to “bears”.

But this preservation comes at a cost, and is often at odds with the pressures of farming in an era where we are paid less for our produce, yet pay more in wages. In this quarter alone, we spent over $30,000 on riparian zone weed and pest management.

In the cultivated areas, three employees were picking up fallen branches on a front-end loader this week.

The wear on gear is astounding, from a small branch cracking a $20 nozzle, through to a night-time header/tree collision costing $60,000.

When you add in greater chemical use and weed resistance from half-sprayed weeds, each paddock tree costs us $300 to $1,200 a year. And most of them are dying or sick. We looked into removing them under the old Native Vegetation Act, but the offset conditions were ridiculously onerous.

“If you can’t work within the rules and you can’t break them, you’ve got to change them.”

That’s why I became involved with NSW Farmers’ Conservation and Resource Management Committee and the Native Vegetation Working Group.

For over 20 years, the NSW government’s approach to native resource management has been about tightening regulations. All stick and no carrot. No recognition of the positive land management and ecosystem services that we – like many farmers – provide to the community. Not to mention the socialised carbon sequestration we provide.

For governments it’s simple and cheap, but it hurts farmers and even worse, we know it doesn’t work because the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage reports show biodiversity has continued to decline. We must shift to incentive-based systems that work.

The Biodiversity Act that came into effect last August is based on the same regulatory-only principles. But for us, it does mean more flexibility.

For instance the code for isolated paddock trees is nowhere near what we wanted, but with the one per 50 hectare rule, over 2,000 hectares, I’ve been able to clear 33 isolated trees.

We have hundreds more isolated trees to come out, but the offsets required are now achievable, by planting twice as many as we remove.

When it’s done, we’ll start using larger sprayers and planters, reducing time and labour costs by 50%, and camera sprayers that will save about 80% on fallow spray costs through lower chemical use.

The Act’s Biodiversity Conservation Trust is a step forward because it monetises conservation. But while this first step is good, we’re talking about relatively short-term returns for long-term asset stranding.

When the contract is up, the landholder won’t ever be able to develop the land and that will drop property values.

We need programs where the period of participation matches the period of remuneration.

If my ancestors have created some wonderful biodiversity asset over 145 years and the government says it needs to be retained forever, I should be able to say, “the community wants to preserve it, the community 
continues to help pay for its management”.

As I do more and my biodiversity asset gets better, I should be paid more for it.

Many farmers in the UK (though they whinge about the paperwork) take up the European Union’s voluntary environmental programs because, in some cases, the money is fantastic.

How should it work? Ideally my bank manager should, as we review income streams, say: “How are you looking with environmental program revenue?”

But banks rarely have anything good to say about biodiversity, because, on the ledgers, it’s a liability.

Until we create price-driven policies and payment systems that make conservation a viable choice, commercially, farmers only have incentive to clear as much as they can.

I once had an agribusiness lecturer who said to me “if you say something is priceless, you’re saying it has a value of zero”.

That’s what governments have said to landholders for two decades. It may sound mercenary, but if you genuinely care about the environmental management of an area as I do, you give it a commercial value to match its emotive one.

*These are Oscar’s personal views. If you would like to be ‘On my soapbox’ in a future issue of The Farmer, email us or write to: The Farmer, Suite 26-32 Pirrama Rd, Pyrmont, NSW, 2009. 
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