A NATIVE grass could soon become a food, as a central Victorian research project into its commercial prospects begins.
It's one of the first large scale studies into agricultural applications of an Australian native plant.
Kangaroo grass once spread from what is now Melbourne to the South Australian border. But much of it has disappeared.
The project's aim is to study the plant in an agricultural context as a grain crop - like canola, oats or barley - to find out how it reacts to modern farming processes.
The project will be led by the Dja Dja Wurrung Clans Corporation's commercial arm, in partnership with La Trobe University.
Chief executive Rodney Carter said it was empowering to bring the Dja Dja Wurrung people's culture and leadership to the project.
Mr Carter said putting grasses back in country where they belonged, in a roundabout way, was like putting Dja Dja Wurrung souls back in country.
He said it would be amazing to see a mosaic of kangaroo grass throughout central Victoria's farmland.
Mr Carter said this would heal country by improving soil health, retaining moisture, adapting to climate change and protecting Australian invertebrates.
He said the grain could potentially increase viability for commercial operations and improve soil health.
The project's long term aims include developing a food crop.
Having farmed, managed properties and cash cropped, Mr Carter said he had always wondered, "Why can't we do this with native plants?".
"If we get this right, and I reckon we will, and we can, it'll be amazing for agriculture," Mr Carter said.
If we get this right, and I reckon we will, and we can, it'll be amazing for agriculture.Rodney Carter
The research project will take four years across two sites at Baringhup and Smeaton, employing a student through La Trobe University.
Mr Carter said it had been in part informed by the work of Australian historian Bill Gammage, whose work investigated Aboriginal land management prior to European settlement.
This work really invoked imagination about the stories of Aboriginal people as farmers, Mr Carter said.
"He was looking at all these paintings and seeing meadows, farmland, that sort of stuff, open woodland," Mr Carter said.
"He said, 'Australia's not like that now, what the goodness happened?'
"Those things were not lost on me. I said, 'We can do this ourselves as a people'."
Project Manager Latarnie McDonald said the study's main aim was to get the highest seed production possible.
Researchers will try different treatments over the grain, such as traditional burning, changes in density, and conventional agricultural harvesting.
Ms McDonald said the grass was a win for both farmers and the environment, as it allowed native animals to flourish.
She said Australia had lost many valuable native plant species since Europeans came.
"This is really important, not only for the environment, but for Indigenous people, and Dja Dja Wurrung people, because it's helping to heal the country," she said.
"It's helping it return to a more native system where it can heal itself."
Ms McDonald said results useful for farmers were likely four or five years away.
She said the project was like starting with wheat, when it was just a grass.
Ms McDonald said she expected a market for both landscape restoration and the early stages of food development.
"People are starting to be interested and looking at how the indigenous grains can be used, because a lot has been lost and forgotten," she said.
"It's a real exploration or adventure really. We may end up using the grain for a whole range of things we never even thought of."
La Trobe student supervisor Associate Professor John Morgan said the project was a starting point to grow food much more in tune with the Australian landscape.
Associate Professor Morgan said merging the desires of the Dja Dja Wurrung, healing landscape and putting native species front and centre made the program important.
As a long lived, deep rooted, perennial, he said, the grass would also capture carbon and draw down water tables.
Associate Professor Morgan said kangaroo grass was Australia's most common plant species, which used to form the understory from Melbourne to the South Australian border.
But he said it had disappeared from the much of the landscape due to agriculture.
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