Living with the salty scourge of ‘The White Death’

Ella MaeseppCountryman
Katanning Landcare project manager Ella Maesepp.
Camera IconKatanning Landcare project manager Ella Maesepp. Credit: Tom Shanahan/Countryman

I remember as a young student when salinity was known as “The White Death”, a creeping menace of immense threat to our environment, waterways, agriculture and towns.

The language around it was of fear and overwhelm.

But over the past few decades, in my work with Landcare and as part of a broadacre farming family, I’ve seen that attitude change somewhat, for the better.

Through numerous public programs, research by institutions and farmer groups, and, of course, good old-fashioned farmer ingenuity, we’ve developed quite a toolkit for living with the “salty scourge”.

Saline pastures and saltbush for livestock feed have revolutionised the way farmers use salt flats.

Deep drainage, pumping, raised beds, revegetation with salt-tolerant species, crops with higher salt tolerance are all innovations that are now in use.

Salinity is still a massive issue.

It still needs resourcing and research and action. It’s still taking out productive agricultural land and valuable ecosystems.

But it also brings with it new opportunities.

I’ve been fortunate to spend the past four years working on a project in Katanning, funded through the National Landcare Program Smart Farming Partnerships program, epitomising the saying when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

Or or in this case, when life gives you salt — grow saline bush foods.

Taking a walk on the salt flats with Moojepin Foods grain and sheep farmer David Thompson will invariably have you eating plants that you ordinarily would have overlooked or stepped on.

Moojepin growers Sue and David Thomson in the greenhouse, where they are growing slender ice.
Camera IconMoojepin growers Sue and David Thomson in the greenhouse, where they are growing slender ice.

It will also change the way you think about what’s growing down on these waterlogged, sometimes smelly and generally unattractive flats.

Out of this curiosity and a chance conversation in 2017, Mr Thompson started exploring what plants on his own salt country were edible and, with a bit of creativity, could be enticed on to the plates of the most discerning diners.

And with it came a partnership, cemented through Federal Government funding in 2018, bringing together Katanning Landcare, Moojepin, gourmet food marketer Wagoga, Chatfields Engineering, Charlotte Creek horticulturalist and social enterprise Katanning Environmental to create a full paddock to plate supply chain of saline bush foods.

This project has made the next leap — as an agricultural sector we’d already succeeded in saline plants for livestock to eat but this was now about bringing it to direct human consumption. It’s exciting stuff.

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Or as in this case, when life gives you salt — grow saline bush foods.

Ella Maesepp

It’s done a lot of work with chefs, restaurants and the gourmet food scene to promote these “new” foods and the ways they can be enjoyed.

Work on harvesting, packing, transporting and marketing have closed the gap between the paddock and the restaurant.

Soil scientists have been monitoring the trial systems to see if the invigorated growth and active management of saline areas through saline foods production has a positive environmental benefit.

And the results so far have been fantastic.

Even with the rollercoaster ride that COVID-19 unleashed on the hospitality and restaurant sector, demand for the products has grown.

Back in January 2019, our saltbush product sales were just 9kg of samphire and 12kg of red karakalla for the month.

Fast-forward to June 2021 and those monthly figures were 127kg of saltbush, 132kg of samphire and 98kg of red karakalla.

And this is just at a very controlled small scale, while the system is still being properly developed, tweaked and refined.

Ice-plant growing in a shadehouse on the property.
Camera IconIce-plant growing in a shadehouse on the property.

When you consider that the products market for between $30 and $75 a kilo wholesale, the potential economic benefit to Australian farmers and communities is visible.

It gives options for farmers who have “lost” land to salinity, employment opportunities in regional communities, and “new” Australian flavours for the end consumer.

Next year, the project closes and left behind will be a fully commercial supply chain — one we hope will continue to grow.

The project is developing a manual and training course to upskill others to enter the supply chain — which will be tightly managed and grown incrementally in line with growth in demand and chain capacity.

It’s of no benefit to anyone to flood the market, supply inferior product or promise a volume that can’t be met.

Careful and intelligent management will create opportunities for more players over the long term, giving environmental benefits to oft-neglected saline land, diversification options to farmers and rural communities, and changing the way we think about saltland agricultural production.

And it shows what can happen when people with vision can pair with skilled team members, and get support to “give it a crack”.

That is, after all, the way we do things in rural Australia.

Ella Maesepp is the landcare officer at Katanning Landcare.

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