A BATTLE is raging beneath the bobbing heads of Ian Linklater's wheat crop in the red, loamy soils of Gol Gol (Australia).
In this break-your-heart farming land near the Murray River, north of Mildura, the enemies are drought, nutrient depletion, salt and rising farming costs.
The battle's unlikely heroes are Mr Linklater and his 400-horsepower, oxygen-sucking, diesel-guzzling, carbon-spewing tractor.
International debate rages over the cost and plausibility of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power stations by pumping carbon underground.
But Mr Linklater is literally ploughing ahead, injecting his tractor's fossil fuel exhaust fumes directly into the ground, where they enhance the biochemical interaction between plants and soil microbes. And it seems his home-grown version of carbon sequestration, introduced in 2007, is getting results, with this year's crop, aided by better rainfall, his best since 2001. "It might not seem that emissions from one tractor could do a lot, but per hectare it emits 1100 kilos of carbon," Mr Linklater says.
Adapting methods developed by Canadian farmer Gary Lewis, of BioAgtive Technologies, Mr Linklater spent $20,000 customising equipment that cools the tractor's fumes to 30 degrees then expels them into the soil as gas fertiliser when he sows his crop.
His trials, which are being replicated in Canada, Britain and South Africa, are gaining global attention and are now the focus of scientific research. ''When I heard about it, I listened and the science of it seemed to make sense, but with fertiliser costs at about $1200 to $1500 a tonne, the economics of it got me into gear,'' Mr Linklater says.
At today's prices it would have cost him $500,000 in phosphorous and nitrogen fertilisers to prepare 3900 hectares for planting. But in the two years since he and his sons began trialling the new technique, no fertiliser has been applied. The saving is enough to wipe a healthy chunk off the debt that he, like many drought-stricken farmers, has racked up through years of meagre rain and below-break-even wheat prices.
Carmel Egan, www.TheAge.com.au