Farmers defying dryland salinity crisis with salt-tolerant vegetables in Western Australia

Farmers defying dryland salinity crisis with salt-tolerant vegetables in Western Australia
  • PublishedOctober 6, 2023

In a New York-style deli in Western Australia unique, garlic-infused greens are being tossed in a pan, about to be paired with emu meat.

But the sodium-rich foliage isn’t from an ordinary garden. 

emu steak and cooked green veggies on a black plate
Salty greens paired with emu at a restaurant in Fremantle.(ABC Landline: Briana Fiore)

It’s grown in farming wasteland.

Halophytes are edible plants that grow in salty water.

They’re one of the only products that can survive the salinity crisis plaguing farms across the globe.

Now, one West Australian farm is growing the plants commercially and supplying them to some of the top restaurants in the country.

The owners believe there is room for the produce to be used as an alternative to green vegetables, and say it could be a way for other farmers to repurpose agricultural wasteland.

A man holds with green plant in his hands, on a farm.
David Thompson grows salt-tolerant plants in WA.(ABC Landline: Briana Fiore )

Salt a ‘silent killer’

David and Sue Thompson farm sheep and wheat on their property in Katanning, about 300 kilometres south east of Perth.

But their Wheatbelt farm has been struck by the dryland salinity crisis and is losing land to salt.

Land with puddles of water and half-dead looking, shrub-like plants.
The salt-affected land in Katanning.(ABC Landline: Briana Fiore)

Vegetation doesn’t typically grow in salt patches and the salinity has rendered some of their land useless.

According to the WA government, more than 2 million hectares of Australian farmland is affected by the issue, and half of that land is in WA.

“Salt kills everything in its path, it’s a really silent killer,” Mr Thompson said.

“It spreads and kills everything in its way whether it’s natural vegetation or introduced grasses or cropping.”

A man sitting in a farming shed.
David Thompson was losing land to salt.(ABC Landline: Briana Fiore)

He said was told to put a fence up and plant trees in the salt area, but that the issue was hard to escape.

Then, he started adapting his land.

“We were supplying restaurants with our dry-aged mutton and we had a chef who rang me and said, ‘Have you got any saltbush?’ So I went and picked some saltbush.”

It pairs well with seafood and dark red meats.
Before and after images

The Thompsons began growing salt-tolerant plants and expanded to a greenhouse for commercial production, with Moojepin Foods co-owner Lance Mcleod.

The plants in the greenhouse were watered with the salty ground water.

And the business hasn’t looked back.

Around the globe, food watered with salt water is now being touted as a possible solution to feeding the the world’s growing population. 

Exponential growth

Mr Mcleod said what started as a 500-gram order for saltbush turned into 200-kilogram orders each week.

man in factory
Lance Mcleod says the product has a lot of potential.(ABC Landline: Briana Fiore)

Some of the varieties the business grows include karkalla, samphire, sea purslane, warrigal greens and crystal iceplant.

Mr Mcleod called the venture “unique” and said he wanted to raise awareness about the environmental crisis.

“If we can capitalise on using the degraded land as a resource, educate people about the environmental effect and what we can grow … from this degraded land, I think that’ll be fantastic,” he said. 

Used by top chefs

The salty morsels are now being used by some of Australia’s top chefs.

Melissa Palinkas often serves them in her New York-style eatery in Fremantle, WA.

A woman in a black chef uniform staring on a stairway.
Melissa Palinkas is a chef who prioritises sustainability.(ABC Landline: Briana Fiore)

“One of the first things I started doing was pickling and using them as garnish … just like a pickled onion,” Ms Palinkas said.

“Now, we use them as greens, so we will stir fry them. We can add some ginger, garlic, oyster sauce, soy sauce, tossed in a wok and serve that as a green.”

She said it paired nicely with meat dishes and fish.

“Samphire is something that you can serve with fish, seafood, cooked in butter,” she said.

A variety of green plants in a tray
The salty plants are a hit with the customers.(ABC Landline: Briana Fiore)

And the customers love it.

“The real avid foodies will go for it … because they’re getting something different,” she said.

Ms Palinkas said chefs loved the challenge of cooking with new ingredients that were grown locally and supported sustainability.

“We’re always looking for the next best thing, we’re always looking for another ingredient to push ourselves and test ourselves with.”

‘Win-win’ for everyone

Mr and Ms Thompson also believe the side dish could be used in homes, not just restaurants.

They said they often cooked with the plants and would encourage others to give them a try.

woman with plants
Sue Thompson says the plants taste a bit like the ocean.(ABC Landline: Briana Fiore)

“I mean, the salinisation of the world is happening everywhere, but nowhere quicker than here, and it’s a difficult problem to fix,” Mr Thompson said.

“We live in the driest state on the driest inhabited continent on the planet and our biggest loss of land is due to too much moisture, and it just so happens that most of our water is salty.

“So, let’s work out how we can use that to grow products and if we can do that, it’s a win-win for the environment and the farmer and the consumer.”

Testing is underway to determine if the plants have health benefits that could help the business expand into pharmaceuticals.


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