Growing salt-tolerant plants will fix land damaged due to European farming methods, WA farmer says


Tucked away in a tree plantation south-east of Perth, a saltwater greenhouse that may be one of a kind is growing salty plants for innovative restaurants. 

“I don’t know anyone in Australia who’s done it,” Katanning farmer and owner of Moojepin Foods, David Thompson said of the saltwater hydroponic system.

He installed the system in 2020 — four years after starting the business — to grow new species of salt-tolerant plants for food.

Mr Thompson started collecting saltbush, which grows naturally on his salt-damaged farm.

Salt is a plague in low-lying regional areas, rising up from the groundwater after more than a century of land clearing for farming.

But for these plants, the water is not salty enough.

“We’re about 20 per cent seawater. We’d rather be 50 per cent,” Mr Thompson said.

“I think it would give the plants more flavour.”

Salty salad adds kick to food

The greenhouse grows a variety of native and overseas species of salt-tolerant plants for restaurants around the country.

The plants give a salty kick to seafood, tacos, salads and meat dishes.

Fremantle’s Young George restaurant serves pumpkin in a sourdough batter with saltbush dukkah.(Supplied)

“Saltbush is extremely versatile,” Young George restaurant chef and owner Melissa Palinkas said.

In addition to the greenhouse, Mr Thompson farms hardier saltbush species on his salt-damaged farmland.

Some of the species are known to the Indigenous people in the region and considered cultural property.

Salt bush in a salad on a table with many plates on display.
The salty plants were showcased this year at an international trade mission in WA.(ABC Great Southern: Angus Mackintosh)

Mr Thompson said he found the edible species by tasting the plants on his farm.

“Salinity is a problem that’s arisen due to European farming methods, and we have to find a solution to fixing the land,” he said.

Crisis due to agricultural land clearing

Dryland salinity is spreading every year across regional Australia, killing crops and native bush as more salt rises from the ground.

In WA alone, the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) estimated that $519 million of farming production was lost to salt damage annually, with more than 2 million hectares of land still under threat.

A farmland with dying plants covered with salt under a blue sky.
Dr George says researchers have spent decades experimenting with saltbush as a way to combat rising salinity.(Supplied: DPIRD)

DPIRD principal research scientist Richard George said the problem was brought about by agricultural land clearing.

Dr George said researchers had spent decades experimenting with saltbush as a way to combat rising salinity.

In 2015, DPIRD and the CSIRO identified an edible species suitable for livestock grazing and remediating saline land, with millions of seedlings now planted around Australia each year.

“That response is capable of being adopted probably across 30 per cent to half of the Wheatbelt salinity.”

A man wearing a cap and a red shirt kneels next to a saltbush in a field under a blue sky.
Mr Thompson says he found the edible species by tasting the plants on his farm.(ABC Great Southern: Angus Mackintosh)

Dr George supported Mr Thompson’s plan to cultivate more saltbush for human consumption.

“I think this may be a way forward. We’ve just got to do it slowly,” Mr Thompson said.