Different harvest to start near Koorda

By Leah Tindale
December 2 2021 - 8:00am
Ros MacFarlane, Koorda, with one of her flourishing sandalwood trees.

IN the Wheatbelt, harvest of a different crop, sandalwood nuts, will soon get underway.

The small sandalwood plantation, only a stone's throw from Koorda, belongs to passionate farmer Ros MacFarlane.

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Her late husband Bob Huxley started the plantation in the 1990s as a way to rejuvenate the wind eroded and marginal land in the area.

Originally the couple had a livestock and cropping farm of 2500 hectares but the farm was sold earlier this year, with only 120ha of sandalwood plantation remaining.

Ms MacFarlane estimates she has an average of 250 trees per hectare, which produced between 2.5 to three tonnes of sandalwood nuts last year.

At those yields the nuts collected are not at commercially viable levels, but as a labour of love Ms MacFarlane hopes it will be in the future.

Traditionally sandalwood has been planted in more southern regions, but due to the plant's drought tolerant and hardy properties, it is thriving in the marginal Wheatbelt soil.

Mr Huxley drove the decision to plant the native after being away from the farm and upon returning in the late 1990s noticing how degraded the country was looking.

"He wanted to start planting some trees and get some bush back, so he could heal the land a bit," Ms MacFarlane said.

"In the course of that journey he found out how sandalwood will grow in Wodjil sandy soils.

"So in the areas that were less productive for annual cropping and to deal with wind erosion, he planted sandalwood and host trees such as wattle and acacia trees."

All sandalwood trees are parasitic, obtaining their nutrients and extra water from the root system of their host plants.

Over the years Mr Huxley discovered additional benefits to planting the trees.

"He always thought it was really important to have a bit of green around, especially in a bad year," Ms MacFarlane said.

These drought tolerant plants help to boost morale, both visually and during the process of planting.

As an environmentalist Mr Huxley also noticed the increase of animal diversity that the native trees would lure.

"He used to get people to come help him plant trees, he always said it did them good," she said.

"For him it wasn't just purely about growing sandalwood, it was about putting things back into the farming system.

"Although a long cycle, sandalwood is a drought tolerant crop that the farmer can hopefully make money from in the future, either through timber or nuts."

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These crops are not for the short-sighted with sandalwood plantations taking up to 20 years to yield a good level of oil from the timber, with some areas seeing adequate levels at 15 years.

During this time there is still money to be made from the nuts as well covering the feed gap for livestock.

As with saltbush, grazing from sandalwood and wattle trees can greatly benefit the gut health of livestock, according to Ms MacFarlane, although that is not widely proven.

The multi-purpose plantations can also fall into carbon capturing schemes.

"If you are putting sandalwood in now, for whatever purposes there are different agreements you can go under, so it's very worthwhile," Ms MacFarlane said.

Most of the trees planted on her farm are about 10 to 12-years-old and she will harvest them from this month.

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The simple process involves collecting the nuts that have fallen to the ground with a rolling device that looks like a round metal cage.

Although machinery can pick the trees, Ms Huxley prefers to use the nut rollers to minimise disturbing the ecosystem.

The Koorda farmers are not the only ones who have seen value in sandalwood plantations.

The Australian Sandalwood Network has been instrumental in helping farmers all over WA plant the tree.

Through government grants and technical support, Ms MacFarlane said the network was integral in the process.

While Ms MacFarlane's farm is not yet producing commercial nut levels, she said other plantations were.

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The Western Australian Sandalwood Plantation (WASP), is the largest broadacre sandalwood plantation in the State with 15,000ha and more than 19 million trees.

With the first plantation being planted in 2001, the plantation was starting to see great return from this long-term investment.

WASP harvests 10 to 20 tonnes a week full time, 12 months of a year, with many of its trees harvested at 18-years-old.

Because of its scale WASP has stayed away from the nut market, finding the lack of value attributed to the nut did not make it worth while.

"Because we are commercial we look at oil content based on 10t of wood," said WASP director Ron Mulder.

"It's more about what we get out of a whole plantation and particular wood grades than looking at one tree at a time.

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"We are very bullish and confident going forward in what we will harvest with oil yields."

Mr Mulder's biggest battle has been with the misinformation that suggested plantations would not be ready for 25 to 30 years, "whereas we always knew they would be ready before that".

"We are very happy with the oil yields we have been getting and, in fact, the 18-year-old wood doesn't yield much less that the 80-year-old wild wood growing in the Goldfields."

Mr Mulder said with a processing facility in Canning Vale and a factory in Kalgoorlie that extracts the oil, it goes to show that money could be made from this unusual plantation, if there was scale.

As interest in sandalwood grows, the ChemCentre launched a new research project into the native that is funded by the Fight Food Waste Co-operative Research Centre.

It is hoped that this research will broaden the end market for sandalwood producers, finding additional customers in the cosmetic and food ingredient space, beyond the oil and wood market.

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Ultimately the research hopes to raise the price and value of the nut, which currently sits at a maximum of $6 per kilogram for de-husked nuts.

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