Getting inspired by international agriculture with Green Shoots AgriTour
Farm Manager David Jones of Morley Farms, Norfolk, shares his experience of a Green Shoots AgriTour
Is it time to put things into perspective?
It’s all too easy to be comfortable in your own life and work. That’s why it’s fascinating to really see what’s happening elsewhere in other peoples’ businesses, cultures and perspectives. In November 2014 I jetted off on a Green Shoots AgriTour – this time to South Africa.
Our aim was to visit farms, businesses and organisations demonstrating agricultural excellence. A group of 10 agriculturalists with a range of disciplines assembled at Cape Town airport climbed in a minibus and quickly became acquainted.
The Farm and Garden Trust (F&G Trust)
The F&G trust offers resources and support to people in poverty and hunger in townships to be able to grow their own crops to support themselves. With the help from the government, small pockets of land are made available on the edges of Khayelitsha township near Cape Town.
The soil is best described as sand that you could buy from a builder’s merchant. We visited a few gardens, the more established had added cattle manure, and compost to create a respectable sandy loam. A range of vegetables are growing including carrots, onions, spinach, runner beans, peas,cabbages etc.
Rob Small the founder of the trust explained that the groups of people are given land to use and a water supply by the government. The people had training opportunities and support from the trust, in part the supply of seeds and seedlings. The aim is to learn how to grow crops to feed their families which could be achieved on only 100m2. Then to go on by improving soil via manures, good rotations and excellent husbandry people are able to grow crops to sell the ever emerging middle classes.
A plot of only 500m2 could create work and income for 1 full time employee. The ethos of the trust is through Rob’s enthusiasm is of organic and bio-dynamic food production. Whilst I can see the organic element is just good husbandry, bio-dynamics may be a step too far. Rob explained that the manure from cows with horns and extensively grazed is better than that from high output intensively fed herds.
We genuinely observed people who had turned from unemployment to gardener, to farmer, marketeer through the trust’s work. However with free land rent, water and seeds it makes me think I need to have a conversation with my landlord and agronomist.
The Western Cape is the big wine growing region of South Africa. Avondale, near Paarl, has the ethos of ‘Terra Est Vita’ meaning ‘Soil is Life’. The estate is organic and follows bio-dynamic principals and practices producing grapes and wines to be sold worldwide. It was very clear as we arrived the quality and attention to detail of both the visitor experience but also the wine produced.
As for the bio-dynamic systems that are employed I became even more sceptical following the previous days visit. The basis is that your farm follows nature’s natural rhythms and cycles seems reasonable. However the practice of BD500 is where a cows horn is filled with manure, buried in the autumn and then dug up again in the spring, this helps the earth’s balance of nitrogen and calcium. This does seem questionable and be very difficult to prove scientifically. The concept of bio-dynamics was explained in that the moon and the earth’s rotation are responsible for the force of tide in the oceans. Anyone with a boat will know the power of the coastal seas have as water surges in and out reshaping the coastlines. If the moon can have such affect on the sea then it is only reasonable that the moon should have an effect on the soil, plants and animals throughout the year. As farmers should we not be trying to make best use of this natural phenomenon?
One organic technique that is practical and works but also fits in well with the visitor experience is that ducks are used to control snails. A team of about 100 Aylesbury ducks waddle through the vines eating snails. They have a keeper with them all day who chivvied them along to keep them focused and in the direction of fresh snails. In the evening the ducks are transported in a small trailer back to their resting quarters, they work 5 days a week but finish at lunch time on a Friday. www.avondalewine.co.za
Woolworths, Farming for the Future
Woolworths in South Africa is a supermarket business with a focus on sustainability which applies to both the communities and the environment it works. We met Kobus Pienaar, their technical manager for their Farming for the Futures programme.
We visited a new Woolworth’s flagship store in Summerset West. Rather than have food on shelves at a price the food was displayed with photos of the farms and farmers. The butcher’s counter had a 2 metre high picture built in the wall showing an exploded diagram of a cow explaining were all the cuts of meat come from. At the other end of the counter the same but of a fish explaining the difference between a fillet and a cutlet.
A sign board hanging over the fruit and veg said 90% grown locally in South Africa. Great. But it’s important to realise that South Africa is 5 times the size of UK and has a range of climates so somewhere most crops can be grown year round.
It is like saying that 90% of the fruit and veg in the Wymondham Waitrose is produced in Western Europe, which it probably is. Our perception of being local may be 20 miles. I can’t help think that on this occasion we are comparing chalk with cheese.
The farming for the future is an initiative developed by Woolworth’s that encourages its producers to develop sustainable businesses and relationships based on the following basic elements
- Same price as conventionally farmed fresh produce.
- Improve soil and water quality.
- Promote water saving.
- Encourage biodiversity.
- Better care for the environment.
- Partnership with suppliers.
I notice similarities with the LEAF principals and LEAF marque model however with a greater emphasis on human needs and creating a sense of community in the broadest sense. It is not the case of deciding if a supplier is suitable to produce for Woolworths. Instead there is a system of continuous monitoring and improvement using an annual audit to identify areas of strengths and weakness. See www.woolworthsholdings.co.za and look for Good Business Journey Report 2014
Even within our group of 10 there are differences of ideas opinions as we discovered as we discussed each evening our new found knowledge of the day. Others had thought of things that that I had just not considered.
On our last day our final visit to the Elgin Valley we went quad bike trekking. Our guide Brian Pickering, an ex dairy farmer from Wiltshire, explained about the landscape history as we looked down and across the Elgin valley. Our view was largely apple and pear farms, pack houses and a partly removed pine plantation.
Pine trees have been cultivated in the northern hemisphere since ancient times but only been widely planted on the southern hemisphere in the last 200 years. Although cultivated pine timber contributes to the country’s GDP, employment and handy if you want to build a house. Pines are now considered an alien species to South Africa along with eucalyptus.
‘Alien’ was a term we heard a lot during our visit and means a non-native plant and one that can be very invasive. In the case of pine trees when planted on natural shrub or grassland their water consumption can be massive, affecting natural water flow. In a fynbos catchment in the Western Cape it has been reported that stream water flow had been reduced by 55%. In areas and times of high rainfall the problem is less important however in low rainfall situations streams have permanently dried up. This causes problems for not only agriculture but also the environment as a whole, from wildlife to the sanitation of human populations further down the catchments.
As we roared up the hillside spitting dust and flies out our teeth my thoughts were “how did Joe Towers get the bigger quad bike?” and “why did he create so much dust?’. Rosemary Bubb however was having completely different thoughts. As we stopped for a drink she said “I just want to stop and pick flowers”.
David Jones is sharing what he learned from his travels in South Africa with visitors to Morley Farms