Precision Regeneration Station

This infrastructure will be the foundation of a research program that aims to match the global energy, water, and land challenge with a leaf, root, and seed solution. We propose a Precision Regeneration Station to be located at the ANU’s Spring Valley Farm near Mt Stromlo. This advanced research infrastructure will be installed on an experimental farm to address the twin 21 century challenges of food and environmental security. The equipment will enable precision observation of agriculture, ecological and geological studies at high spatial, temporal and spectral resolution. Multivariate responses to experimental water, nutrient, soil treatments will be observed across various crops, pasture and tree systems. The long term, big data research products can then be modeled and/or learned to predict regenerative land use practices to grow food on degraded land and build soil fertility via carbon sequestration. The infrastructure will provide essential baseline data on local soil and climate variability to right size earth works, irrigation, fertilizer and water storage.

We will need 1M of these 1km^2 farms to produce 1Gt grain, 100M animals, 100B trees and draw down 10GtCO2 over the decade.

Ultimately each Precision Regeneration experimental station will deliver high resolution remote sensing of image, climate and soil data, with demand response irrigation and nutrient management across as many as 100,000 trees, 40,000 perennial pasture plots, and 40,000 annual crop plots (worth $10 each per annum in research fees). The initial investment will enable initial development of 5 of 50 potential 2Ha crop/pasture/forest blocks. Users will be able to schedule blocks and plots for annual or perennial experiments that select species/genotypes and management treatments for above and below ground growth, development and yield studies.

The Precision Regeneration Station will record the experimental landscape (hourly for years) to learn the biophysical, space, time and spectral response of management treatments, so that predictions of regenerative agroecological practices can be made across the larger pastoral region.

Food and environmental security are the twin challenges of the 21st century. Solving them requires another green revolution combining regenerative agro-ecological land management with improved seed genetics. By joining revolutions in remote sensing, precision agronomy and genomic breeding, transformational change into digital agriculture can ensure that resilient food and ecosystem services are produced across the globe. A recent study by the Australian Farm Institute estimated that precision agriculture approaches have the potential to increase Australian GDP by over $25 billion AUD over 2014/15 levels.

Our current agricultural system is consuming fertile land. Failing to regenerate this land is creating a food and environmental security crisis. Reducing the environmental footprint and/or increasing yield of existing agriculture is not sufficient and will only delay the pending crisis. Similarly, mitigating emissions through biofuels or bioenergy will only slow climate change and increases competition with existing crop and forest land. Together, plant biomass and yield gain, along with soil carbon regeneration has been shown to be a necessary pathway toward securing a safe environment and nutritious food supply (4p1000.org). By utilising the capacity of the land sector to regenerate soils, we can accelerate food production while creating  habitat, and sequestering carbon dioxide to change the trajectory of future global warming.

Aside from a few exemplar field stations on prime land, many field research sites are underdeveloped and do not differ dramatically from the neglected pasture and range land occupying much of Australia. This is an opportunity, as technology has developed to the stage now where a relatively small investment in sensor networks can stream precision data to advanced modeling tools that can predict crop yield and biomass accumulation at a site under different management intensities. The specific model output can justify the extent of investment in earth and water works to set up agro-ecological infrastructure (irrigation, dams, roads, fertilizer, etc) with reduced risk to return on investment. Model output can guide regeneration of degraded lands where yield is currently too uncertain to justify investment.

Regenerative agriculture practices aim to build soil in a multi-year positive feedback loop where plants provide increased fertility to the soil which allows them to grow better in the subsequent years. The benefits include increased food and biodiversity habitat that are far superior to the existing degraded rangeland. Ecological infrastructure (water & soil improvement) is the limiting factor to regenerate land. Direct planting alone into unimproved landscapes too often fails. This proposal will demonstrate the potential for enhancing the natural process of soil improvement with integrated cropping systems through precision management including irrigation, fertilization, biochar and enhanced rock weathering. The enhanced yields would provide returns on the infrastructure investment in <10 years (7% per annum).

Research in regenerative agriculture requires an experimental station with many annual and/or perennial plots. It must be equipped with precision water and nutrient control, have the ability to process and/or apply inputs such as rock dust and biochar, and have advanced phenotyping capability to monitor daily plant growth and development above and below ground. The proposed Precision Regeneration Station at the ANU’s Spring Valley Farm location will showcase breakthrough Phenomics research and be a template for upgrading similar experimental stations around the nation and the world. As research data becomes available from this and sister stations, accurate forecasts of economic benefits and costs of regenerative agriculture will lower risk and accelerate wider deployment (100M-1B hectares * ~10t yield/h/y * ~$100/t  =~ $100B-$1T/y ).

This science of regenerative agriculture is nascent. Several local solutions do exist as models, but they have not been generalized and optimized ecologically or economically, to be applied at scale. Spring Valley Farm will be one of many networked sites, to determine and scale general solutions, using big data and advanced modeling. The site will also be serve as an AgriTech incubator, providing a digitally connected field site for companies collaborating with ANU and ANU researchers to prototype sensors and software and innovate with next generation scientists. ANU already oversees a network of research stations as living laboratories. Together, these facilities link world class research, teaching and public outreach, with government and non governmental organizations. Examples include the National Arboretum and Mulligan’s Flats which have research forests or wildlife sanctuaries to conserve biodiversity and engage the community. The Spring Valley Farm project will become another example where a growing city population can meet a progressive farming community aiming to scale innovative approaches to regenerative agriculture. Further, the advanced equipment on site will allow cutting edge interdisciplinary research, across the Agriculture, Environment and Earth Science and will catalyze partnerships with the ACT Government to help exceed its target of net-zero emissions by 2045. It will have international impact by linking the ANU to the international Drawdown group (drawdown.org), with whom we have begun collaborations.

Specifically, the Precision Regeneration Station will use high resolution cameras and drone flights to capture data and estimate above and below ground biomass and yield throughout the year in response to genetics, water and soil treatments. This will address a key missing piece of data for ecosystem modeling. The camera based estimates provide the necessary spatial detail to parametrize temporally dynamic modeling tools. In addition, rainfall gauges and irrigation controls, coupled with soil moisture sensing at multiple depths, will monitor actual water availability across soil profile mixtures of sand, silt and clay. This further set of key water variables will dramatically improve the predictive accuracy of crop, pasture, and tree production under different management treatments. The improved predictive data can then be used to set bounds on the landscape design with appropriate level of earthworks investment for crops, pasture and forest. Then, experimental validation will determine the actual yields at different water and nutrient input rates. The ground-truthed model will provide regional confidence to farmers and bankers that agro- ecological infrastructure can provide return on investment. Further, the knowledge gained from building this Precision Regeneration Station will enable other sites to be built more economically across the region, nation, and world to share yield and input cost data along with best practices. A network of ultimately 100s of sites can provide the ground truth to global modeling of agro-ecological output and associated costs. This will deliver global solutions to regenerate the soils under our crop, pasture and forest ecosystems which provide us with food and environmental security.

The soil at Spring Valley Farm is relatively poor, meaning it is broadly reflective of Australian soils. As such, it offers a good opportunity to determine the best approaches for rapid soil development across Australia’s depleted agricultural lands. The field station will use crop/pasture alley farming techniques among synthetic Eucalyptus woodland blocks by applying deep ripping, grading, and use of contours. Treatments to the experimental plots include genetic variation, multiple plantings, irrigation and nutrient/fertilizer management. The experimental data will ultimately model yield, water use and soil carbon storage to project the capacity for regenerative agriculture under different infrastructure investment scenarios with benefits to food production and woodland habitat.

 

Budgeted Items

landscape architect concept plan
hydrological study
Earth Works
Baseline soil survey
Trees
Irrigation 10km
Drainage 10km
biochar maker mobile visit
rockdust 50t
minirhizotron array of 100
towers, power data, cameras, software, weather soil sensors, install
Drone multispectral & AgVision weation station
20 Drone Flights and data
Landscape Phenomics software to produce data image and weather station products for visualization, planning and research (eg modeling, etc)
20m tower + install + safety
Gigavision camera, Power and wifi backhaul to ANU with Install