Seeds of hope
A Bencubbin family have turned to sandalwood in a bid to turn unproductive soils into an alternative source of income
The temptation to continue cropping an unprofitable part of his Bencubbin farm was one of the motivating factors behind Lynton Beagley’s decision to plant sandalwood.
Stands of the native tree already existed over parts of the property, proving the species could flourish in an area often considered marginal.
But the idea of starting a small plot has now grown to become part of a larger trial, investigating how farmers can lower the cost of establishing sandalwood plantations.
“When we finish seeding, the next crop we put in will be 20 hectares of sandalwood hosts, ” Lynton said.
“The trees will be put in on wodjil soils that haven’t produced good crops for years, in an area that has become a problem because it is so windswept.
“We need to remove the temptation to try and crop it one more time, and by planting sandalwood, we have the potential to one day deliver an income from it.”
Sandalwood is grown for its high value aromatic heartwood over a 20-year rotation, but there is also potential to harvest its oil rich nuts from as early as five years, as new products are developed.
“For us, growing sandalwood delivers an off-farm income that remains on-farm, ” Lynton said.
“While we wouldn’t rely on this crop in the short term, in the medium to long term it’s a way to diversify. We became interested in growing sandalwood after visiting Bob Huxley’s farm at Gabbin, east of Koorda.”
Bob Huxley is the vice-president of the Australian Sandalwood Network, and is also involved in the sandalwood trial.
“Sandalwood need at least three to five host plants, mainly acacia, to get water and nutrients, and this site will trial a combination of planting host seeds and seedlings, ” Bob said.
“While it’s not a new method, not many people have tried direct seeding in less than 300mm rainfall zones, and by doing it this way, the cost of putting in 20 different host species is significantly reduced.
“If you’re establishing about one hectare with 1200 host stems, total site establishing such as ripping, spraying, seedlings and contract planting would cost about $1200 per hectare. That’s over a two-year establishment period, including sowing the sandalwood seeds in year two.”
Bob said if direct seeding was introduced, it would be possible to cut the number of stems per hectare in half. “About 500 -stems per hectare plus seed mix will cost about $750 per hectare, so you get twice as much bang for your buck, ” he said.
The site has significant meaning for natural resource management group Wheatbelt NRM, which is funding the trial.
Project manager Georgie Troup said it meant Wheatbelt NRM would be able to plant twice as many hectares for each dollar spent.
“Direct seeding makes the process of plantation establishment a lot cheaper, possibly even halving it, ” Georgie said.
“It also means you get a more diverse mix of species in your plantation, which is good, because some host species grow rapidly but die in about eight years, while others are longer living.
“By giving the sandalwood a mix, they have a greater chance of survival. The native trees send a web of roots out to more than one host plant, so they rely on different trees as the seasons change and the hosts grow old.”
Georgie said sandalwood was originally planted on jam trees, which were vigorous growers but short-lived, with a life span of just 10 years.
“This then threatened the life of the sandalwood planting and forced the use of other species to help prolong the plantation, ” she said.
Georgie said two sites west of Bencubbin had been selected for the trial.
“We want to use acidic, yellow sand classified as wodjil soils, where sandalwood thrives, ” she said.
As well as the Beagley’s farm, the Fitzpatrick family will also take part.
“At each site, 7500 mixed acacia seedlings will be planted along with local acacia seed, using a tree planter, ” Georgie said.
The sandalwood is then planted one year later.
Bob said the process of planting seeds and tree seedlings didn’t require new machinery.
“It was developed by University of WA Associate Professor Geoff Woodall and trialled in the drier parts of the Wheatbelt, ” Bob said.
“We just use a Chatfield’s tree planter, which has been slightly modified with a direct seeding attachment. When the trees are planted, a seed box attached to the planter meters out the seed and a couple of press wheels put it into the ground.
“We use similar technology to our cropping machinery for depth control and seed placement.”
Georgie said the results from the trials would be used to encourage other landholders in 300mm or less rainfall zones to plant sandalwood.
“By using this method, it’s more cost-effective and that, in turn, will help give the industry momentum with increased plantings, ” she said.
“Because the seasons have been so tight, farmers have not had the cash reserves to spend on natural resource management activities like planting trees.
“This method helps to cut those costs.”
Georgie said the trial was part of Wheatbelt NRM’s Soil Conservation Incentive Program, funded through the Caring for our Country Program.
The trees will be put in on wodjil soils that haven’t produced good crops for years, in an area that has become a problem.Lynton Beagley
Direct seeding makes the process of plantation establishment a lot cheaper, possibly even halving it.
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