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Tweed Heads cane farmer 2014 National Carbon Cocky Farmer

TOP FARMER AWARD: Robert Quirk has won the National Carbon Cocky award after 20 years of work towards sustainable practices.
TOP FARMER AWARD: Robert Quirk has won the National Carbon Cocky award after 20 years of work towards sustainable practices. Nolan Verheij-Full

RESEARCHERS warned it was impossible but Robert Quirk proved carbon farming can work on cane crops.

The third-generation cane farmer from Duranbah, near Tweed Heads, won the National Carbon Cocky (Farmer) of the Year award this month.

The award recognised his efforts in seeking a sustainable future for his industry.

After 20 years of work on carbon farming, Mr Quirk said he was "pretty happy about the whole thing".

We know once we do this, we can use less chemicals, less herbicides and pesticides.

He said the award, which was presented at the National Carbon Farming Conference and Expo in Canberra, was a huge honour.

"We've managed to effectively increase carbon levels in our soils, increase productivity, reduce emissions, decrease fertiliser use and improve water quality and soil health," he said.

The Quirk family has owned the cane farming country on the north coast since 1905.

For two decades they have been working towards a more sustainable future.

"We've had nine PhD studies done on the farm," Mr Quirk said.

His goal has been to increase carbon levels in his soils - keeping it from being released into the atmosphere.

"Soil carbon is the key," Mr Quirk said.

"We know once we do this, we can use less chemicals, less herbicides and pesticides."

It's a concept supported by the Australian Government.

Mr Quirk said in many parts of the world, farmers had low carbon levels but carbon farming was now picking up on a global scale.

"If people in other countries are doing this and we're in competition with them for sugar... we need to be able to produce sugar at the same price," he said.

But he added carbon farming wasn't a quick-fix, although ultimately it could significantly reduce production costs.

"It's a long-term strategy of 10-20 years," Mr Quirk said. "It is important as cane farmers, we take control of our environmental footprint. It is a big part of ensuring our industry remains sustainable."

Methods Mr Quirk has trialled as his part of his carbon farming goals, include growing soybeans and harvesting without residual burning.

What is it?

 Carbon farming aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by holding carbon within vegetation and soils.

 This can lead to more cost-effective farming.

 Carbon farming can range from one simple change in practice, to a complex farming plan.

 Visit www.carbonfarm ersofaustralia.com.au.

More benefits of carbon farming

 Reduced carbon emissions

 Reduced erosion and soil loss

 Increased soil fertility

 Buffering against drought and improving water efficiency.

 The Federal Government's Carbon Farming Initiative has allocated farmers and land managers carbon credits for storing carbon or reducing greenhouse gas emissions on their land.

Topics:  agriculture cane farming carbon farming