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The Desert Farm & Power Plants Program – Alice Springs Desert Park

2012 January 15
by anthea
Des Farm feature pic bush cucumbers

Sustainable innovation – to reduce food miles & support community bush plant gardens

The Desert Farm and Power Plants program

By Scott Pullyblank, Curator Botany, Alice Springs Desert Park – for RIG News #15 – October 2011

The Alice Springs Desert Park is a Botanic Garden with a difference; in fact, there are many differences from those one might normally associate with a Botanic Garden. Firstly we are wholly Australian arid zone with regard to plants and animals. The park is set out in habitats and sub habitats, strictly following what is found at actual reference sites around the southern Northern Territory.

The animal collection is displayed within these habitats, adhering to the habitat philosophy just as closely as the botanical collection.

Professional Guides offer a range of nature and culture based experiences to our visitors. The majority of the Guides are local Aboriginal people who interpret the cultural landscape with an authentic voice. Fixed interpretive panels, and an audio guide also, have powerful central Australian Aboriginal themes.

One of the park’s latest projects is Desert Farm and its offshoot Power Plants. This project enhances the Desert Park’s strong community focus and commitment to environmentally sustainable practices.

Using skills accumulated by our staff over fourteen years of arid land horticultural practice, a Desert Farm has been created. Desert Farm was initially created to:

  • reduce the Desert Park’s food miles and carbon footprint i.e. grow all of the food for the animal collection locally rather than buy food from other parts of Australia.
  • Provide opportunities for tourism and
  • Deliver more interesting and healthy food to the animals in our collection

While there is an increase in the amount of labour and time required to propagate, grow and harvest the plant material, there will be financial savings, as the need to purchase some foods decreases.  Desert Farm provides a unique opportunity to engage with tourists. Partnerships are vital to the success of this project. The Desert Park is working with: local and national voluntary organisations, local individual volunteers and is in the process of securing partnerships with local organisations to expand the potential of the Desert Farm Project.

Desert Farm provides opportunities for education, training, local involvement and cultural experiences for visitors. Most importantly it will produce a large proportion of the food that our animal collection requires. If we cannot grow it ourselves, we will find local sources or substitute it with something we can grow. What we grow in the farm is, and will be, in keeping with our philosophy of growing plants of local provenance to avoid the unwitting introduction of weed species.

In 2009 I attempted to calculate the Desert Park’s carbon footprint with regard to the purchase of food items to support our animal collection. However, there was difficulty measuring factors such as greenhouse emissions at the point of cultivation, emissions brought about through transport of the produce from the farm to the regional commercial centre. Another major addition to green house is the refrigeration of food. In the end there were so many unknowns that the accuracy of the calculations I made were just too questionable. We know that our purchase of food from interstate brings about greenhouse emissions and, put simply, we know that growing locally will save on emissions.

The next step was to research what we should grow. There was very little information about what animals eat. Most of the information with regard to bush foods was naturally about people.

I consulted with local Aboriginal people and made extensive use of the reference Bushfires and Bushtucker, Aboriginal Plant use in Central Australia by Peter Latz (1996). The internet has also been helpful. The author of Bushfires and Bushtucker (Latz, 1996), Peter Latz, can often be found working in the Herbarium of Central Australia which is on the Desert Park site and so Peter has been an advisor on this project.

Having decided what we could start to grow there were some logistical considerations such as how to:

  • grow the species effectively (they come from a wide range of ecosystems
  • harvest the produce
  • provide an ongoing supply of food from highly seasonable crops that often have a very short season of supply (an ongoing challenge)
  • effectively store produce over time.

It is to be noted that:

  • a number of these species have not been grown in cultivation before
  • seeds and cutting are not always available for propagation (though the recent wet conditions have assisted in these endeavours
  • none of the species selected have had any genetic manipulation at all which means:
    • seed producers have evolved to shed and disperse seed rather than retain it
    • produce ripens over an extended period of time making cropping difficult or it ripens suddenly and disperses suddenly
    • there is great variation in the actual product (not necessarily a disadvantage to us)
    • the ‘storage life’ of the produce can be very short
    • seeds and fruits are often quite small
    • In certain seasons or years very little of the product wanted is produced by the plants.

Despite these challenges, we are well on the way with this project.

Initially there was some concern expressed with regard to the nutritional content of the food items. It has taken some investigation to unearth this information however now we have some data. Most of the information comes from researchers looking into the food value of traditional bush tucker with human consumption in mind so sources researching human diets have revealed far more than have animal diet research sources. It is interesting to note that the diets of species less often kept in captivity have not always had the benefit of scientific research. Data on nutritional values and volumes consumed in wild diets is often sparse.

A major challenge is, and has been, people. None of the staff on the Zoology section had any experience in the use of produce with these characteristics and the collection of food from a ‘farm’ was a totally new experience. Few of the Botany staff had any experience in growing plants for production in a farm situation. Team work and communication have been important.

We have experienced success in growing root vegetables and for most of winter produced all of the park’s requirements. Expansions to garden beds will see us return to this self sufficient state in the near future. Likewise leafy greens are now within our scope. Various species of chenopod have proven successful with Old Man Saltbush (Atriplex nummularia) proving to be very productive, palatable to the animals and easy to grow. Locally grown sources of leafy greens from commercial growers are also available to us.

One area of production remains a challenge and that is the production of seed. Native grasses can be difficult to collect seed from and the process can be very time consuming. We have partially overcome this by collecting semi ripe and green seed. This is done by cutting the whole seed stalks and placing them into aviaries – a practice commonly carried out by backyard bird breeders.

Another way we are working on overcoming the seed problem is by substitution. Most birds will not eat acacia seed after the testa has hardened (some members of the parrot family being the exceptions). More species will eat the seed when it is green. Seed is difficult to collect in this green state as timing is all important. ‘Hard’ acacia seed has two major advantages: it is easier to collect as timing is not quite as critical and it can be stored for a very long time – years in fact. We have been experimenting with some success using ‘sprouted’ acacia seed in the bird mixes. Consequently around 200 acacias of mixed species, selected for seed production and ease of seed collection, have been propagated and are being planted into the Desert Farm (Oct 2011). Sprouted seed is being added to the bird mixes and can substitute for seed and greens.

Records are extremely important. Keepers record the amounts of food they feed out and which animals are eating the food items. As project manger I record what is available both for the keepers to use and as part of our long term records so that we can increase, and retain, knowledge.

I also do weekly observations and report to the keepers what I find is available or what will be available soon. I confer regularly with Zoology staff re animal diets and Botany staff with regard to further development of Desert Farm. All produce is weighed and the measures recorded. These records are crucial to future planning and knowledge retention.

We started Desert Farm in 2008. To date the seasons have been so variable that there is little correlation between one year and the next. A plague of grasshoppers left us with very little in the summer of 2009/10 though we did find that grasshoppers do not like Bush Cucumbers (Cucumis melo). We produced around 8kg of Bush Cucumbers a week between November and the end of March from two trellises about 25m long (see photo). In the next summer (10/11) humidity reduced this crop to almost zero through fungal infections. So far this year is looking like really good for most of our produce including Bush Cucumbers (Cucumis melo). These elements of life plague every farmer – no pun intended.

Power Plants

Since commencing work on the Farm, we have been approached by a number of remote communities keen to develop their own gardens. The program we have consequently developed is called Power Plants.

Power Plants is specifically designed for people in remote communities.

The major goals and outcomes of the program are:

  • a landscaped garden of around a 1 000sq metres with automated irrigation
  • a garden in which the community decides what will be grown and the purposes of the garden. Reasons behind the selection of plants could be cultural, medicinal, nutritional, or aesthetic.
  • a garden containing plants local to their area
  • training towards a Certificate II in Conservation and Land Management.

The propagation material, from which the plants will be grown, will be collected from within the community’s ‘country’ and propagated at the Desert Park by the trainees with Desert Park staff training and assisting them. The Desert Park, with its Registered Training Organisation partner, Batchelor Institute, will train people so that they can create and maintain a garden, then mentor people so they have support into the future. All training will be accredited towards a Certificate II in Conservation and Land Management.

The Desert Park recommends that each project is linked to an existing community organisation to increase the likelihood of long term success. The gardens have the potential to be cultural hubs within these localities as they will be a wonderful place to relax in, share stories and harvest culturally important plant material. The Alice Springs Desert Park is taking a slice of itself into remote communities.

The Desert Park has a smaller version of the farm which has been growing since 2000 – a Bush Medicine/Bush Tucker Garden. The garden, and the produce from it, is used in our Aboriginal cultural presentations. It is also a good example for people to see what might be possible in their own communities if they decide to team with the Alice Springs Desert and create a Power Plants garden.

Desert Farm has also offered opportunities for tourism and community involvement. Community involvement is one of the Desert Park’s central charters.

Desert Farm model for volunteers gives participants a choice; to work with our staff or, if they prefer, to work independently after an orientation and OH&S induction. A daily activities board, sign in book and printed procedures enable people to achieve this.

Ecotourism activities where participants are able to assist with the daily operations of Desert Farm such as cropping and planting are in place. As a reward and ‘magic moment’ people will then have will be the opportunity to feed some of the animals with the produce they have cropped. Our Guides have also developed activities where participants collect and sample bush tucker – an authentic outback experience.

Future Desert Farm planning and planting includes the provision of bushtucker samples to every visitor and provision of bushtucker to the Desert Park catering franchise. Estimated yields also include the potential of partnerships with other tourist operators or caterers to provide bushtucker experiences. The Desert Park believes that tourist experiences, in particular ecotourism, still have some way to go in terms of their development and ability to satisfy the demands of tourist market segments.

Desert Farm is still a work in progress and like all projects will evolve over time. In some ways, we still feel that we are in the exploratory phase and yet we have planted over 12 hectares with mixed crops, developed tourist experiences and opportunities for voluntary involvement and begun to replace purchased foods with produce from our own farm.

When we set our goals we knew these were heady aspirations and yet our footprint on planet earth is reducing.

Acknowledgements: This article appeared in the newsletter of BGANZ ‘The Botanic Garden’, Issue 31, November 2011’ and was kindly provided for RIG News #15 by Scott Pullyblank, Curator Botany, Alice Springs Desert Park. Scott is a member of RIG Network’s Advisory Group.


Australian Government Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism: Tourism Snapshots and Fact Sheets 2009.

Gabella, S., and Abraham, A. B., 2008. Food Miles in Australia: A preliminary study of Melbourne, Victoria

Gabella, S., and Cranley, L., 2008. Food Miles in Australia: A comparison of emissions from road and rail transport

Salem, L., Thompson, E., Elvin, H., (no date of publication). Bush Tucker in Kidney Failure and Diabetes. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press

Latz, P., 1996. Bushfires and Bushtucker: Aboriginal plant use in Central Australia. Alice Springs: IAD Press

Australian Government Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism : Tourism Snapshots and Fact Sheets. 2009

Note: A detailed map of the Desert Farm is included in ‘The Botanic Garden’ article. Further images, including a diagram of the PowerPlants program, are included in RIG News #15 – October 2011, as published and distributed. This can be downloaded from this website from the Useful Resources section.

Pictured below: Native Millet, Bush Cucumber, Bush Bananas – flowers, fruit and roots which are all edible.

3 Responses Post a comment
  1. February 14, 2014

    What species are the bush cucumber and bush banana? Both look quite different from the regular cucumber species.

  2. January 25, 2017

    We are in the process of planting out NOURISH – The Bush Tucker Project at The Living Classroom in Bingara NSW.

    We have designed six PODS to showcase varieties of Bush Tucker according to landscape. We are now seeking seed or plants for our DRYLAND POD where we are replicating a sandy dune system.

    Can you help us with the supply of bush tucker plants suitable for this environment? If so please provide a list with prices and delivery details,


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