. . . I guess you could say we were looking for adventure.
On Friday I visited the Merredin Dryland Research Institute with my colleagues Kevin Foster and Daniel Kidd. To get there we had to drive several hours down the Great Eastern Highway. This hot ribbon of asphalt stretches 370 miles, linking the city of Perth with a number of small but important western wheat belt communities before terminating in the gold mine towns of Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie. We traveled just about half its length in order to reach the town of Merredin, where the Institute is located.
Along the length of the Great Eastern Highway runs the Goldfields Pipeline. Completed in 1903, the pipeline delivers water from the Perth region to the bone dry goldfields of Western Australia, as well as to the wheat belt communities near the pipeline. It was an engineering marvel when it was constructed and continues to be a conspicuous reminder of this region’s tenuous relationship with water.
Back in the day, steam-powered pump stations helped push water along its journey through the pipeline. The one below is located in the small town of Cunderdin and is now operated as a museum.
After a few more hours on the road we finally reached our destination. The Merredin Dryland Research Institute is one of Australia’s premier agricultural research facilities. This time of the year, however, the only plants growing are the few weeds that have managed to escape control. This particular weed is called puncture vine. It is well named, as its seeds are produced in spiny nutlets that are really painful to step on. You can find this species in the US, as well. In fact, as a kid growing up in New Mexico, we called these “goat heads.” This is an excellent example of a plant taking advantage of an empty niche; the puncture vine has nothing to compete with at this time of the year. However, the real reason I took this photo is because there is a “roo poo” next to the plant. Sadly, this might be the closest I get to seeing a kangaroo in the wild!
And what agricultural research facility would be complete without movable rain shelters? These particular shelters run on tracks, allowing the researchers to minimize the amount of rainfall that reaches the experimental plots below. The shelters are useful for simulating low-rainfall conditions. Of course, they only work if you get some rain. My hosts assure me that it does actually rain here sometimes.
Here’s a picture I suspect my colleague Dr. Serita Frey at the University of New Hampshire will appreciate. Australia’s soils are old and weathered. In this part of the country they are also often sandy and acidic (and often saline, too, for a number of reasons). Here’s what the soil profile looks like near an experimental paddock where researchers are measuring the effects of adding lime to the soil to increase soil pH.
And here’s the nearby paddock with the lime treatments, baking under the brilliant Western Australia sun. Daniel plans to sow several different kinds of forage legumes here next season in order to demonstrate their differing abilities to tolerate high aluminum levels in the soil. Aluminum tends to be more available in acidic soils and less available in soils that have been limed.
After a few hours exploring the research Institute (while Daniel collected some soil samples from the paddock above), it was time to get back to Perth and whatever else came our way, cuz we are . . .
Born to be wild . . .
Or at least agricultural scientists.
Many thanks to Kevin and Daniel for letting me tag along.