From a meagre investment and what was meant to be a 12-month jaunt in western Queensland, Karen Siepen has forged a burgeoning career in one of the oldest of industries.

Story By Amanda Burdon

There have been many times when diminutive 50-year-old former insurance manager Karen Siepen has questioned the sanity of her decision to swap coastal Townsville for the baking plains of Charleville. The locals certainly didn’t rate her chances when they heard she was entering the age-old business of making charcoal, and jokingly they ran a book at the pub.
Seven years on, the experience has unquestionably tested her mettle but Karen has defied the odds – and the pub pundits – and remains at the helm of Renewable Carbon Resources Australia (RCRA). The regional enterprise employs up to seven people and supplies distributors nationwide with products that are attracting international attention.
“I didn’t know Charleville or how to make charcoal when I got here,” Karen says. “We started with $1000 and very little infrastructure, and we have slowly built the business from scratch. It goes to show that determination and human endeavour can get results.”
Karen is one of just a handful of Australian colliers and the only woman practising techniques that date back centuries. While traditional charcoal products used for heating and cooking are still the mainstay of the RCRA business, she is at the vanguard of new applications for the carbon-rich material – applications that she believes will not only reduce greenhouse-gas emissions on farms but also significantly improve yields.
As well as promoting its benefits for landscaping, Karen believes that charcoal has the potential to dramatically improve agricultural soils on a large scale. “We call our product CarbonChar and it is life-giving in the way it improves the cellular structure of the plants grown around it,” Karen says. “In trials with fruit and vegetable growers in Queensland it has been shown to add carbon instantly to the soil, which increases crop yield and produces food with a significantly higher vitality, flavour and shelf life. The charcoal has a honeycomb-like structure and is a conduit for microbes, water and fertiliser. Its potential for remediating poor soils is incredible and all the while the charcoal is sequestering carbon dioxide that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #85

Outback Magazine: Oct/Nov 2012