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The New Water Alchemists: Regenerative Agriculture

Australia is the world’s driest inhabited continent, and a nation cursed by headline-grabbing weather extremes. In 2013, Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology famously added dark purple to its weather maps to denote over-the-top heat waves, the no-longer-rare days when air temperatures breach 122 degrees Fahrenheit (50 degrees Celsius). Australia’s history since European settlement has been riddled with droughts and floods so dire they’re etched in the books as significant natural disasters. The millennium drought, known colloquially as the “Big Dry,” persisted for 15 years until finally doused by epic rains and floods that lasted from late 2010 into early 2011.

As for wildfires, the most devastating since 1851 have names, including Black Christmas and Black Tuesday. Most recently and most deadly were the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 in the southeastern state of Victoria, which killed 173 people. The sheer extent of Australia that goes up in smoke is mind-boggling. An estimated 60,000 bushfires, many of them extensive, flame through Australia each year. (Between one-third and one-half of these are attributed to arson.) According to several tallies, between 130 and 220 million hectares (or 321 to 543 million acres) are burnt each year by either wildfires or intentional controlled burns. That’s a patch of earth somewhat bigger than the nation of Liberia. The carbon emitted from these conflagrations dwarfs the amount spewed by fossil fuels.

In the Kimberley, a remote area in the Northwestern quadrant of this continent, Chris Henggeler manages Kachana Station, a chunk of rugged terrain that spans nearly 300 square miles. With a long, craggy coastline, the Kimberley is about as thinly populated a region as you can find. Try to imagine the outback of the outback: dramatic canyons and gorges awash in hues of ochre; eighteen-foot-long crocodiles lazing on the river banks; eye-catching birds like the red-tailed black cockatoo; sparkling waterfalls like “the Horries” (for horizontal), which flow sideways (only in Oz). It is hot here year-round.

When Henggeler first visited the property in 1985 with his brother and a business partner, he found a worn-out landscape that hadn’t been managed for decades. Land surfaces were riven by gully erosion, waterways so full of silt they scarcely flowed. Wide areas were swept clear by recent fires, leaving brown and dusty soil. It didn’t take long for Henggeler to decide: let’s invest.

Though Henggeler now raises plenty of cattle on his enterprise, called Kachana Pastoral Company, he doesn’t sell livestock. His “product,” rather, is restored land or, as Henggeler puts it, “enhanced natural capital.” He considers his approach “environmental capitalism,” which entails recognizing and making use of the income opportunity inherent in 12 hours of free solar energy. “All this is beamed at us. We just need to harness it,” he says. “I think of this as solar real estate. And I look at myself as a capitalist.” The central element to creating wealth at Kachana, he says, is better management of the water that falls from the sky.

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