New gig takes me to Western Australia and salt country

Part of my prize for winning the Bob Hawke Landcare Award is an honorary position on the Australian Landcare Council.  

I will be the first to admit winning Australia’s newest and most prestigious award for sustainable agriculture does not make me an expert on sustainable agriculture everywhere and paradise is a long way from the salt plains of WA for example and has very different issues and needs.

So when I found out this board gets out of the boardroom and visits every state and goes on farm ( commercial and lifestyle ) and talks to people and has two way conversations I knew this was for me  

My first board meeting was in Katanning the home of host  board member Ella Maesepp 

Ella is one of those people I labelled instantly as a “doer” First and foremost Ella is a broadacre farmer. She is the District Landcare Officer with the Katanning Land Conservation District Committee as well as the winner of the Environment Category of the 2004 Western Australia Youth Awards. 

What a champion she is. We took a small bus from Perth to Katanning with a number of stops along the way and Ella managed to arrange “great coffee” at just right moment everywhere we went. #legend    

In this part of the world salinity is a huge and heartbreaking problem.   

The first stop was Wagin the home of the Big Ram


This ram certainly has some assets that make him stand out don’t you think?


Here is some background

We learnt about this region’s endangered species the Red Tailed Phascogale. We have a similar marsupial in Paradise that likes to eat my little chickens. So cute but very pesky   

The Red Tailed Phascogale

As you can see from this map this little guy was once quite prolific

The decline of the Red Tailed Phascogale 

We also got a first hand report on the community driven Wagin Food & Fibre Hub an excellent  example of the risk that comes with a pilot project, and the struggle for funders to balance innovation against that level of risk. ,

Our first farm stop was “Tamar” the property of Adrian and Jill Richardson. Jill also happens to work with Ella in the Landcare Office

Adrian Richardson sharing his story

Adrian Richardson sharing his story

Located 20kms northwest of Katanning, Tamar runs approximately 3000 Merinos and crops mainly oats, barley and wheat.IMG_7297

This property has got to be seen to be believed. Amazing. They work with the guru that is Ron Watkins.  

Ron Watkins runs “Payneham” farm, 15km north of Franklin in south western WA. Ron has looked beyond the traditional farming practices of the area, toward sustainable and integrated farming systems that work within the local ecosystem. He isolated several factors to address but gave priority to turning a salinity problem into an asset.

Ron set out to fully utilise the natural shape of his terrain and harvest surface and sub-surface water flow, aiming to store a large volume of water to combat waterlogging, salinity and erosion. He installed drains along the contours of the property, planted up to 1,000 trees per kilometre protected by electric fencing and fenced off all remnant bushland. Ron also had the foresight to include his neighbours in his projects early on, enabling a complete sub-catchment plan to be implemented. His initiatives have been such a success that he has around 60 farmers nationally seeking his advice on landcare best practice strategies.*

This is what using Ron Watkins farming principles looks like at Tamar


Tamar Farm showed the benefit of whole-farm planning, and implementing according to the plan. IMG_7313

Then it was on to Ella’s farm – Dunbar Farm


Ella and her husband David Potter. Firstly we were treated to a tour of Ella’s house which  was designed by Solar Dwelling and owner built between 2010 and 2012. The external walls are straw bale and with two stone mass thermal walls. All stone, timber and  straw have been sourced from the property  

Ella's house

A feature is the room with a view

Room with the view

accessed via this spiral staircase

Spiral staircase

From the distance the problems are well hidden by good farming practices.

DElla's property

Up close we saw the devastation caused by salinity and the use of saltbush to help manage the problem Saltbush.

At Dunbar Farm perennial pastures, mainly Lucerne and saltbush have been introduced to the system since 2005 with improvements in salinity and productivity. Tall what grass and puccinellia have since been added with 4 paddocks currently under a perennial phase, and 6 areas of saltbush have been established and fenced out from the paddocks since 2005

Ella's property2   

Next up was Craigmore Farms the property of Ian Knapp.

Craigmore Farms

an has also made extensive use of saltbush with excellent results as shown below. Craigmore had a large, flat expanse of bare, eroding, salt affected land.



Following on from the success of saltbush planting of their neighbours ( Ella and David) next door at Dunbar a massive saltbush establishment program was undertaken in 2010 with 20,000 seedling alone planted in that year. Drainage lines were fenced off and planted with tress the following year.



The result has been a significant stabilisation of the soil, visible increase in grasses, and a massive splash of green across a once bare area as pictured above. Impressive isn’t it   

Adrian Richardson and Ian Knapp however have completely different views on trees, as a result of their different landcare approaches and financial capacity. As Ella commented when there are such different views locally, how do you communicate a shared view to the wider community? Methinks this is a fairly standard issue in all regions. Nine out of ten farmers learn from other farmers and as long as you have farmers like the Potters, the Knapps and the Richardsons prepared to open their doors and share their successes and failures progress will be made

All the farmers highlighted that it is relatively easy to get funding for trees & seedlings, but support for salt-tolerant species is hard to get.

This is because

a) salt tolerant are not the plants that grew there originally, but have to adapt because the soil & groundwater conditions have changed

b) there is often a production benefit to salt-tolerant species e.g. saltbush for grazing.

The majority of the content for above is part of a report by Ella on the field trip and there are at least two more blog posts in this report that I will leave for later. Both are an excellent opportunity for guest blogs posts from the key stakeholders who I know would do a very entertaining job

Ella made the following insightful observations on Drought-proofing

  • There is a marked contrast between the outcomes that the Drought Reform Pilot was aiming for and actual on-the-ground drought proofing. The Pilot was more concerned with economic / business planning and identifying viable alternatives for when the drought happens, than actually establishing whole-farm systems to prevent on-farm water shortages in the first place.
  • ‘Drought-proofing’ is a diverse term, and the language surrounding it needs to be better defined. It could be interpreted to mean ‘storing water’, or ‘providing sufficient water to crops & livestock’, or ‘building resilience into a farm business’ or many other things!
  • Full drought-proofing of a farm (improving water capture, store and use) costs big money! (and from me  in most cases the kitty just ain’t big enough when the community wants quality food and fibre at rock bottom prices) 


  • Salinity still exists and is still a major issue that landholders are struggling with in WA!
  • Opportunities could be facilitated to share learnings regarding salinity adaptation and management across Australia eg WA, SA, Vic, NSW.
  • Solutions to problems are diverse and it is important that government / funders / policy makers are prescriptive.
  • Assessment panels etc need to be aware that their decisions affect people (not just projects) and therefore need make sure there is clear information as to why decisions are made, so volunteers et al understand and feel valued.

Well said Ella

* Extract from