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Jan and Duncan Thompson: Innovation makes SunSalt a sustainable business

Running a profitable and environmentally friendly business, like SunSalt, can take a lot of resources. So Jan and Duncan Thompson made the most of a $250,000 AusIndustry innovation grant to keep SunSalt exporting sustainably.

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When Duncan Thompson started working at an inland salt mine, he didn’t realise he was gathering knowledge to found SunSalt, and begin sustainably exporting salt with his wife, Jan Thompson.

When they realised how much salt was being imported and how much they had readily available in their own area, the team set about changing the nature of Australia’s salt usage. In 1986, Jan and Duncan formed Hattah Salt, named after the area they were extracting crude salt from in northwest Victoria. The business expanded and took on new mines, and in 1999 the company became SunSalt.

Their process doesn’t just take from the environment, it helps to solve problems. They pump saline water from the Murray Basin inland sea to solve a shortfall in domestic salt products, and this helps to solve erosion problems caused by the high salinity levels of the earth. But it’s not quite that simple. The Thompsons soon discovered that as well as being twice as salty as seawater, the water pumped out of the underground sea contained mineralised salt, high in magnesium sulphate, which wasn’t exactly welcome news. “It was very mineralised and it was devaluing the product,” Jan explains. “It was a continual struggle selling into the market.”

So they made industrial salts for stockfeed and to treat animal hides, but the Thompsons knew mineralised salt offered more. And they knew they needed more to survive the ups and downs of Australia’s agribusiness industry, and had to come up with other ways to utilise and add value to their product. To do this, though, they needed help. Enter, a $242,500 AusIndustry innovation grant.

Thanks to the grant (which SunSalt matched dollar for dollar) Jan and the team were able to work with CSIRO researchers to come up with a way of extracting the minerals from the saline water being pumped from underground aquifers into ‘evaporative’ surface ponds. When the liquid is pumped off and the salt is extracted the remaining liquid, called bittern, is full of magnesium sulphate. Working with the CSIRO, SunSalt built a portable extraction plant designed to recover magnesium sulphate (Epsom salts) to be sold for fertilisers and some bath salts. They also discovered that after cooling the product, the magnesium sulphate crystallised leaving magnesium chloride, which could be on-sold to help suppress dust on roads.

Then, through much trial and error, SunSalt created gourmet salt and its signature pink salt flakes, for domestic and international markets. With no expertise in Australia, this was a challenging task, Jan admits. But after much perseverance, the team was able to launch its quality salt products at the Australian Fine Food Exhibition in 2002.

Few mines around the world sell the pink flakes, which are coloured naturally from the brine and is a softer tasting salt, so it’s a market Jan is keen to consolidate. “The gourmet salt has far exceeded anything we had planned on, but that’s fantastic!”

Not only has the grant enabled them to extend the life of the product, it helped SunSalt come up with ways to eliminate all waste from the manufacturing process.

The work involved in the grant application—a comprehensive business plan outlining the intended project and background, and demonstrated capacity to match the funding—also enabled them to step back from the business and look at it critically, working out if improvement was needed and where there were areas of strength.

SunSalt currently operate at three underground salt mines within the Murray Darling Basin: Spectacle Salt Lake Hattah (northwest Victoria) and Mourquong Basin and Wakool in NSW. When asked about the effect the mines have on the environment, Jan’s answer is emphatic: “Absolutely none.” Same response as when asked about whether there’s a chance of the saline water running out: “Never.”

Sustainable Business

Active ImageJan’s life has been spent living in the country and she and her husband can see first-hand what damage has been done, either by human intervention or the work of Mother Nature. It didn’t take long, especially as their own business took off, to become more passionate about the problem of salinity in the earth and what it was going to mean for those living on and working the land in the area. “Through the nature of the business you become more aware of salinity and more passionate about it,” Jan enthuses. “We live in that [part of the] country and we love it, and we see the damage every day of our lives.”

The more passionate she becomes, the more keen Jan is to promote the use of inland salt, whether it’s from their company or other mines in the basin. “Sea salt was always seen as the premium product and inland salt was seen as the poor cousin. We market very strongly to show the high value of inland salt.”

She finds consumers are interested in understanding how SunSalt is helping the environment, as well as being interested in buying an Australian product. And this is something they ensure comes through in the marketing of their product. They present leaflets and display material to consumers so they are fully aware of the environmental impact. “People are very keen to find out more about it, to be educated about it.”

Jan says present figures indicate an area the size of a football field is being lost to salinity every hour, and their solution alone only goes so far to correct this. A recent salinity audit carried out on the Basin predicts the salt being carried to and through the rivers will double in the future. That’s why SunSalt claim every tonne of salt removed must in some small way assist the salinity problem.

“We pump 24 hours a day, which demonstrates the limitless supply of this saline water,” Jan explains, “and we’re saying this is a sustainable way to deal with the problem, by putting it to industrial use.” And it works, as the Thompsons take note of changes taking place on the land around some of the mines. The amount of valuable land being developed near mining sites, including vines being planted on now viable land, makes it all worthwhile, Jan says. Their efforts have been rewarded, with the Engineers Australia 2004 National Salinity Award.

Although SunSalt export stockfeed products and the gourmet salt (to markets including Canada, the US, Japan, the UK and Spain), Jan is adamant the domestic market comes first. “We’ve developed a very big domestic market.” And they don’t want this domestic market to suffer from oversupply to the international market, so export growth is steady and measured. “We enter an export market only when we feel we can adequately supply.

“We’re doing our strategies at the moment to see what’s the next plan.” And a big part of the next challenge is to produce enough to keep up with demand, here and overseas. Not a bad position to be in!