Living off the land, thanks to diversification

Producing a variety of crops and livestock has enabled Tabby Robertshaw and her partner to realise their dream of homesteading. She spoke to Glenneis Kriel about the hard work they have put into the venture.

Living off the land, thanks to diversification
A few ducks are kept on the farm to help keep snails and slugs in check in the vegetable garden
Photo: Glenneis Kriel
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Tabby Robertshaw and her partner, Alex Chouler, are experienced homesteaders who have long sought complete self-sufficiency.

Today, they live and work on rented land near Stanford in the Western Cape, where they produce a variety of organic vegetables, fruit, salad greens and meat, and sell it under their Goodluck Homestead brand at local markets and restaurants and via WhatsApp groups. They also produce all the food they require for themselves, except for breakfast cereals.

The couple moved to the current farm, Vaalvlei, a year and a half ago after spending 10 years on their previous property, where they used to make enough money to live on. The move, however, has required major investments in infrastructure and soil improvement.

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To boost their income, they built guest accommodation in December last year, and Robertshaw believes this will make the farm financially viable. She also presents self-sufficiency workshops such as food gardening and food processing. Her most recent workshop focused on the production of fermented butter and kimchi.

“We’re setting up the farm to have more space for workshops,” she says.

Farming philosophy
Vaalvlei covers 50ha, with 0,5ha under vegetables and salad greens, and 3ha under Shiraz and Sauvignon Blanc vineyards. The rest of the land is used as pasture, or is destined for that purpose.

Their wine grapes are delivered to a local winemaker who repays the value in bottles of wine. “The wine is great, but we have to rethink the agreement, because we’re still in the process of applying for a liquor licence and can’t sell the wine just yet,” says Robertshaw.
She adds that the vineyard is the most expensive of their enterprises to maintain, with costs driven up by the need for special farming equipment such as a tractor and spray tank.

In addition, they are converting the vineyard from a traditional one managed with fertilisers and pesticides to an organic operation. This has necessitated expensive soil correction and large quantities of inputs to improve soil health.

“We had good harvests last season and this season is looking excellent. But there’s no sentimentality here! Everything we produce is given four years to see if it becomes a viable income stream. If it doesn’t make money by then, it’s scrapped,” says Robertshaw.

The exception is her vegetable garden, which includes a variety of heirlooms and interesting crossbreeds, as well as crops such as salad greens, herbs, berries, olives and passion fruit.

“The vegetable garden is more of a passion project. We produce everything we need at home, sell the surplus on the local markets, and give the ‘ugly’ and ‘damaged’ produce to our pigs. It’s not really a money-spinner. Then again, it probably is saving us a lot of money, considering the price you have to pay for vegetables and salads in the shops these days.”

She adds that it is necessary to have a vegetable garden in order to go ‘full cycle’ and become self-sustaining. The different plants are rotated and mixed in the planting beds to prevent a build-up of diseases, with plantings carefully planned to take advantage of neighbouring plants. Beans, for example, might be undersown with maize to enable the latter to take advantage of the nitrogen produced by the beans.

Their produce is organic, but not organically certified. Robertshaw says that it is not the cost of certification that is discouraging, but the amount of additional work, administration and record-keeping that goes with it.

“A small business like ours simply doesn’t have the time or capacity to take on all the additional admin associated with organic certification.

“We farm organically for ourselves, because it’s healthier and we want to leave the soil in a better condition for the next generation. Our market doesn’t have a problem with the fact that we’re not certified, as we’ve built a relationship with them over the years and they’ve come to trust us.”

Meat production
Meat is also on the menu, with goats, rabbits, pigs, chickens, and a few Dexter cattle being farmed on Vaalvlei. The goats, chicken and pigs consist of a mix of indigenous breeds, and Robertshaw, over time, has selected animals based on their hardiness. This she defines as the ability to thrive outdoors with as few inputs as possible.

The number of rabbits is maintained at around 50, depending on the demand for meat.

“I used to keep a specific breed, but I’ve since mixed them up to produce specific-coloured pelts, for which I’ve also secured a market,” she says.

There are two types of rabbit farming, explains Robertshaw. The first, battery farming, entails placing the rabbits in small cages on top of one another.

“This is unnatural and increases the stress levels of the animals, which in turn renders them more vulnerable to diseases, some of which can wipe them out overnight,” she says.

She prefers ‘colony rearing’, a production approach that mimics the way rabbits live in the wild. To this end, three does are kept in each pen, which measures 3m x 3m. The fencing is sunk about 1m deep to prevent the rabbits from escaping. Left to their own devices, the rabbits dig burrows, which enable them to stay warm in winter and cool in summer, and breed in comfort throughout the year.

Only one buck is used. It is kept with a group of does for two months before being rotated to another pen. Does produce three to four offspring in their first breeding season, and between six and 12 thereafter. They have a gestation period of a month and can fall pregnant mere days after kindling, enabling them to produce more than seven litters a year.

Robertshaw slows down reproduction, however, by keeping the buck separate when there are too many rabbits on the farm.

“I also think the does might need a break before they reproduce again, but I don’t know what they think about that!” she says.

Does are culled once their production starts to decline, usually when they are four to five years old. There is strong demand for them on the meat market, according to Robertshaw, as they have more fat than the rabbits she sells at six to eight months of age.

The rabbits live off garden waste such as weeds, cabbages, broccoli and banana leaves, sugar cane and carrot tops.

“They don’t cost us anything except for the initial pen infrastructure,” says Robertshaw.
Comfrey leaves are added periodically to the rabbits’ feed as it is a “good medicine for everyone”, but the best way of ensuring the rabbits’ health is to provide a varied diet, she says.

Robertshaw notes that government issued a warning towards the end of last year about the outbreak of rabbit haemorrhagic disease, which was causing high rabbit and hare mortalities in the Northern and Western Cape. She feels, however, that her rabbits are out of danger, as they are produced inside pens that limit their exposure to disease-carrying agents such as wild rabbits and people who might have been in contact with sick rabbits.

Forty goats, consisting of purebred and mixed Boer goats, indigenous veld goats and speckled (skilder) goats, are run on Vaalvlei.

“The indigenous breeds are resistant to parasites and don’t have any bloating issues when they’re on a varied diet. We do have to vaccinate them, though, against botulism and cheesy gland [Caseous lymphadenitis],” says Robertshaw.

The goats live off the veld and are given a lick to ensure they receive essential minerals and salts.

“They’re quite easy to farm, with each ewe producing twins last breeding season. The only problem is that they don’t respect fences. Ours haven’t been too troublesome, but we’ve had to go and fetch them at the neighbour a couple of times.”

The goats are raised primarily for meat, but are also milked by hand, with three goats milked per lactation. “Boer goats don’t have a lot of milk, but it’s very rich, with the same amount of butterfat as that of Jersey cows,” says Robertshaw.

Like the rabbits and goats, the pigs on the farm are reared outside. Robertshaw recalls that they started out by putting a Sandveld Red sow to an Iberian Wild Boar cross, and today puts some of the offspring (five mixed sows) to a different boar.

The piglets are sold to other farms or finished for the meat market, with Robertshaw also adding value to the meat by making charcuterie.

An added advantage of the pigs is that they help to clear areas planned for pasture, and fertilise the soil with their manure and urine.

Robertshaw explains that the pigs are not yet wholly ‘free range’, as their feed is still supplemented with commercial premixed rations and spent grain sourced from a local brewery. Her aim, however, is to establish pastures for the pigs, subdividing them into small grazing areas to enable rotational grazing. This will allow for recovery of the pasture and help prevent a build-up of parasites.

The chickens on Vaalvlei, which are of mixed variety, are moved across the farm in mobile housing, and serve a number of purposes. They help to lower the populations of fruit fly and other pests, and also improve soil health and fertility.

“These are farm chickens in the true sense of the word,” says Robertshaw. “They don’t get fed, and it’s a bonus when we get eggs from them!”

There are also a few ducks on the farm that are useful for keeping slug and snail populations in check in the fruit and vegetable garden.

Robertshaw says they tried to farm turkeys, but ultimately gave up this enterprise. The birds, she explains, breed well once they are adults, but the hens make poor mothers.

“Turkeys make huge nests that are difficult to find, and some chicks die because they struggle to get out of the nest. The few chicks that are left often die from diseases like pneumonia or fall over and can’t get up, and then die in the sun.”

To overcome these problems, Robertshaw hatched a number of turkey chicks artificially. All went well until the chicks were allowed to go outside: every chick ended up being caught by a predator.

“We hardly have any such problems with the others animals on the farm, so turkeys obviously taste better than the rest,” she says wryly.

Soil health
Like most farmers, the couple recognise the importance of healthy, fertile soil, so were taken aback by the state of the soil at Vaalvlei when they first arrived. Robertshaw recalls that it resembled white sea sand. To address the problem, they applied Restore, a mixture of biochar and chicken manure, in the pastures, vineyards and vegetable gardens.

“Biochar helps to improve soil structure and improves the availability of carbon and other nutrients. And the chicken manure slowly releases macro- and micronutrients,” she explains.

She also makes on-farm compost from the manure of the animals and waste from the vegetable garden. Rabbit manure, she adds, has higher nutrient levels than poultry manure, and can be used as is in the vegetable garden without scorching the plants.

A number of compost heaps on the farm are not turned or inoculated, as the manure contains enough living organisms. The larger compost heaps, however, are turned regularly and sprayed with trichoderma to accelerate decomposition.

Compost is applied to the vegetable beds at the start of the season and then topped up with Restore when the beds are changed.

“This approach has greatly improved our soil. It’s now teeming with life,” says Robertshaw
While enjoying their lifestyle and pleased at what they have achieved, she admits that homesteading is far from easy.

“We worked overseas for seven years to help us finance this dream, and have to work until late each night to make it happen. Running a farm is not like a regular job, where you can switch off after 5pm. You have to be constantly alert and ready to act when the animals need you or things break.”

Email Tabby Robertshaw at [email protected].