THE Saline Bush Food Project has delivered exciting results with the release of a new report this week highlighting the potential to grow bush food on saline flats and improve soil quality in the process.
The project aimed to see if it was economically viable to use saline flats and salt-affected paddocks to grow saline bush foods for gourmet food markets and restaurants.
The field site is about 25 minutes' drive east of Katanning.
Saline Bush Food Project project manager Ella Maesepp was extremely optimistic about the benefit the soil results would have on salinity research and farms affected by salinity.
Salinity is a large problem across southern Australia, as land that was previously productive becomes unfarmable due to its high salt levels.
"That obviously has negative impacts on the environment, but also on food security as more and more land is being taken out of food production," Ms Maesepp said.
"If farmers are losing areas of their farms where they can produce, that makes an impact economically on the farm business and the overall community as well."
The project trialed three production method sites - an irrigated shadehouse, a plantation and a wild harvest site.
Soils scientists monitored the two in-ground systems (plantation and wild harvest) to determine if there was a positive environmental response as a result of the production systems.
On the wild harvest site, the team decided to scarify a section of the samphire plants, with the theory being that it might stimulate more growth.
"You know how when you prune a bush it comes back more vigorously?'' Ms Maesepp said.
"And that, of course, is why we believed it would be beneficial for two reasons - one is that we are harvesting fresh, young, succulent shoots, so if it's stimulating new growth that's what we are harvesting for the food market.
"But secondly, if we're stimulating growth, we are getting more activity in terms of biological activity, so there would be more going on in terms of nutrient uptake and soil organic matter."
However, the scarification didn't have the desired impact.
Initially, there was a good burst of growth and nutrient uptake, however this crashed quite quickly.
"What we think happened is the physical act of disturbance broke the crust on the surface and brought up a lot of nutrients from underneath and we got this flush of really exciting growth.
"It was only a result of that disturbance, as soon as that burst of nutrients was exhausted, the system collapsed again and it really hasn't recovered yet," she said.
The areas that were left un-scarified were reported as much more stable.
"The heavy intervention that you can do in a wheat paddock, you can't do down in the salt flats,'' she said.
"Going forward, managing those sites for commercial food production is going to be much more of a low intervention approach."
In comparison, the plantation site's soil carbon was restored to its original levels from before it was disturbed, then continued increasing.
"By the conclusion of the trial, the initial depletion of soil carbon within the plant rows of the plantation area had been generally regenerated and the electrical conductivity and sodium levels (measures of salinity) were reducing," said Terra Perma soil scientist Jolene Otway.
"Continuation of these key positive trajectories are anticipated due to the plantation's perennial plant growth, the harvest pruning (and parallel plant response root pruning) activities, increased fauna diversity due to increased habitat above and below ground and year-round soil coverage/protection increasing the system's resilience to the seasonal extremes."
Ms Maesepp and the project team welcomed the results.
"We were right about what was going on in the plantation, we were wrong about what we thought was the right thing to do on the salt flats," she said.
"But it gives a lot of baseline data that I think is going to be useful across other projects for monitoring and understanding salt effects on land as well."
The project also focused on the economic viability of using saline plants, such as samphire, as a gourmet food product.
"In Europe, for example, samphire has become really popular," Ms Maesepp said.
"It's been eaten for a long time and it's coming to the point that it used to be used just as a garnish, but it's now being used as a side-serve vegetable."
The project marketed to high end restaurants and was picked up by chefs in Perth, Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Adelaide.
"As it becomes more familiar, we will expect it to come into more mid-level restaurants and then from there you'll see it be used by foodies and home cooks," Ms Maesepp said.
The COVID-19 lockdowns affected demand for the saline bush food products, as restaurants didn't know if they would be open or not.
After each re-opening, Ms Maesepp said the four saline bush foods products, saltbush, samphire, saltice iceplant and karkalla, all had an increase in sales compared to the previous outbreak.
"The demand for it has grown, it's been robust enough to survive through all the shutdowns, so into the future what we are aiming to do is grow this industry, but in a managed incremental way," she said.
"If a new product can survive COVID-19, it can survive anything."
Arguably the most exciting thing about the project was that it gave farmers an economic incentive to improve soil health.
When saline lands degrade and become uncroppable, farmers sometimes don't do anything with that land and hence the soil continues to degrade.
By putting a value on saline land, these soils will be managed more positively which will have positive environmental flow-ons for salinity and biodiversity in soil health.
"I think that's a real win-win for farmers who are looking for things to do with degraded saline land, because you can get a commercial return and an environmental soil health return as well," Ms Maesepp said.
"Salt flats aren't something that gets a lot of attention because there is no commercial return on them.
"Although the shadehouse and plantation systems showed the best ability to produce consistent quantity and quantity, we have also been able to show you can produce gourmet food for the high-end restaurant market down on these salt flats, there might be increased interest in managing these salt flats for both commercial and environmental outcomes in the future."
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