Salinity back on agenda

Jo FulwoodThe West Australian

Australian farmers are no longer at war with salinity, but must learn to incorporate this farming challenge into their management systems, according to landcare industry commentators.

A theatrical debate on this issue, hosted by Wheatbelt NRM at its annual general meeting last week, examined whether or not saline land could really be productive.

Wheatbelt NRM chief executive Natarsha Woods said the key message from the debate was the move away from the notion that farmers were at war with salinity.

She said while funding for salinity projects had dried up in recent years, the issue was back on the Federal funding agenda and local projects related to salinity would again be considered.

"Previously, when we did have funding for salinity, it was all about a war on salinity. We were looking to beat it and reverse it," she said.

"But now, the whole ethos has changed, and we are now thinking differently about this land.

"We need to work out how to make saline land productive in terms of agricultural output, or productive in terms of being part of bio diversity corridors.

"We are losing the notion that saline land has no value, that it should be written off, and it's a scar.

"This is a part of our landscape and there is a purpose to every piece of land that we have, and it can contribute in some way to our farming systems."

Ms Woods said this was not necessarily a radical concept, but it was critical for all sectors in the NRM chain to understand the value of saline land. She said the debate was an attempt to put salinity, and the possibility of productivity on saline land, back on the public agenda.

Guest speaker and principal research scientist at the Department of Agriculture and Food Richard George said the key to maximising any return on investment into saline land was a smart early assessment of the capabilities of each piece of land.

He said traditionally 40 per cent of all saline land was relatively easy to turn into productive land, with a further 30 per cent considered difficult to find any solution for.

But he said it was the remaining 30 per cent of saline land that scientists were keen to focus on.

"Technology is trying to grow that first 40 per cent to 70 per cent," he said.

Dr George said a salt land assessment tool was now available for farmers to assist them make smart decisions before investing heavily in saline areas on their farms.

He said it was critical for farmers to ensure every dollar invested produced a return on that investment.

"The trial and error approach to tackling salinity has cost farmers a lot of time and money," he said

"We want to give farmers the greatest capacity to chose which saline country will give them the greatest return on their financial investment."

But Dr George said the problem of salinity was not going away in WA's Wheatbelt.

"Our assessment suggests there has been very little, if any reduction in the extent of salinity from the last decade of lower rainfall. In fact, most of our assessment shows it has increased," he said.

Ms Woods said Wheatbelt NRM also celebrated 20 years.

"Twenty years is a long time in the life of an organisation like ours which has its root in community, but has had government support," she said.

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