Rabobank is the world's leading food and agri-business bank. Its mission is to improve the prosperity of farmers and rural communities everywhere.
Food production is one of the biggest contributors to climate change worldwide and is responsible for approximately 35% of all carbon emissions. Building more sustainable agriculture systems is key to achieving carbon neutrality.
The Australian red meat industry's response to climate challenges posed by increased food production is an ambitious target of net zero by 2030. To achieve this, upskilling farmers in carbon farming processes, so they can reduce emissions and implement regenerative practices is essential.
Rabobank has a proud history of supporting farmers to develop sustainability-driven food systems that increase farm revenues and align with the agriculture sector's climate change targets.
In 2021, Rabobank learnt of the University of Melbourne's plans to pilot in-person and online workshops designed to equip agriculture professionals from across the sector with new techniques in carbon farming.
As an established innovator of climate-smart initiatives, the company was keen to partner with the University, an industry leader in agricultural research. Rabobank put forward all its Australian regional managers for the program, so they were better equipped to support its clients (farmers and agriculture businesses) to upskill in carbon farming techniques.
Developed and supported by the Melbourne School of Professional and Continuing Education (MSPACE), and delivered by leading experts, including esteemed Professor of Sustainable Agriculture, Richard Eckhard, the initial intakes were a huge success.
Rabobank realised that its clients, as well as regional managers, would also benefit from the University's expertise in the carbon-neutral space, and encouraged many of its leading farmers to participate as the workshops were rolled out across Australia.
In 2022, Rabobank scaled up its interest in the Carbon Neutral Agriculture program by partnering with the University on 10 more intakes for its agriculture clients and has plans for a further 60 before April 2023.
However, learners in the program do not need a tertiary qualification in science, typically come from diverse backgrounds, and include farmers, agriculture managers, and Rabobank staff.
The workshop's inclusive set-up enables participants to benefit from the latest technologies and research in carbon farming, but teaching mixed-ability groups can prove challenging.
Professor Eckhard, who played a pivotal role in the program's development, knew that for all participants to gain a deeper understanding of carbon farming it was essential to create an immersive course that levelled the playing field and blended the science with practical training all participants could follow and apply to their farm businesses.
"It's a general science communication problem," said Professor Eckard. "How do you get your message across without diluting it so much that you miss the lowest common denominator? Yet, at the same time, communicate important concepts, so learners understand the detail. That's a typical challenge we face."
So, how did Professor Eckhard and the MSPACE project team at the University of Melbourne deliver a workshop for Rabobank staff and clients that met the needs of all participants?
To achieve this, the program needed to be engaging, authentic, and provide plenty of room for practical learning.
Key to working with farmers to reduce dangerous emissions is empowering them with the skills and capabilities to conduct carbon accounting across their own organisations.
On day two of Carbon Neutral Agriculture, learners use actual farm case studies in conjunction with a University of Melbourne diagnostic tool and work in teams to complete a carbon audit that calculates emissions across a range of farm activities.
Professor Eckhard believes it is the interactive nature of the course that sets it apart.
"It's very much a team-building exercise. They're guided in how to use the diagnostic tool before completing their carbon audit, working out their emissions, and deciding what they need to do to reduce them before presenting their findings to the group."
"You create an interactive, competitive environment because every team wants to make sure they have the lowest audit."
Supported by MSPACE animations that offer a strong visual representation of how carbon cycles work, this practical approach is valuable to agriculture professionals who are open to learning more about carbon neutrality.
Crawford Taylor, Head of Sustainable Development at Rabobank was impressed by the program's delivery:
"There were many ‘aha!’ moments for [Rabobank] clients and staff alike. They were all equally curious as to how to begin this journey, and the workshop provided the latest thinking on where practices, technology and research are heading."
The workshop provided an opportunity to lay the foundation and building blocks for farmers and staff to understand the pathways towards a low emission, or potentially carbon neutral, farm business. Crawford Taylor Head of Sustainability Development, Rabobank
There is no doubt the Carbon Neutral Agriculture program has helped to demystify carbon farming for many agriculture professionals.
Sophie Greenacre, a dairy farmer from Cressy in Tasmania attended the workshop and said it was reassuring to receive a snapshot of carbon farming “from a scientific and business case perspective, rather than the noise of what’s put out by the media or politicians”.
Likewise, Alexandra Ramsay, a cotton producer from Warren in central west New South Wales said “the opportunity to go through their figures and scenarios with dedicated specialists, and other farmers all learning together was extremely valuable in helping understand the basics.”
Alexandra’s son Tom also attended the workshop, and as a next-generation farmer believes it's imperative to gain an understanding of what the ever-evolving carbon future may look like.
“Since completing an economics degree at the University of Sydney, I’ve done a lot of learning in the carbon space,” said Tom. “But rarely has it been prepared specifically for Australian farmers, nor delivered directly to them in such an interactive knowledge-sharing space.”
Rabobank now plans to put 2000 of its clients through the carbon neutral program with the University of Melbourne, and Professor Eckhard has been impressed by the response he has received from Rabobank staff and clients.
" It's an extremely impressive cohort. There is a genuine willingness from attendees to lower emissions, with plenty of probing questions and problem-solving. "
The program's success has attracted the interest of blue-chip clients across the agriculture industry, with the University of Melbourne now running carbon-neutral agriculture workshops for more clients across Australia, as well as opening the program up for individual bookings too.