Rural conservation agriculture success story

High-Value Crop (HVC) production could potentially make the Eastern Cape’s OR Tambo district municipality self-reliant in terms of food, according to Joseph Sello Kau, an agricultural economist at the ARC.

The farm of Elliot and Nozamile Belem near Port St Johns. Beneficiaries of the ARC High-Value Crop production programme, the Belems have diversified their farming operation and now grow fruit in addition to farming maize and livestock.
Photo: Courtesy of Jonathan Rees of Proof Communication

Empowering rural communities with the skills to grow fruit, vegetables and herbs using conservation agriculture (CA) methods can deliver positive economic returns.

This is according to a recent PhD study by Joseph Sello Kau, on the return on investment in the ARC high-value crop production programme Is Baya in the poverty-stricken OR Tambo District Municipality.

Kau, an agricultural economist at the ARC, found that CA principles made it possible for a farmer to cultivate a mix of crops on a piece of land only 0,25ha to 2,5ha in size. His research covered 90 households, of which 45 participated in the initial study, examining the demographics and farming profile of the area. A total of 45 villages in the OR Tambo District Municipality were visited, and two households in each village were interviewed.

Traditional methods
“[Originally] the farming methods were traditional, with a single commodity cultivated on the same piece of land season after season. These farmers knew nothing about CA and only 27% had formal training in agricultural production,” Kau explains.

The ARC has been involved in the area for more than a decade and this has resulted in many positive outcomes. Most of the farmers in the Is Baya programme have adopted CA, and crop production has increased dramatically, both in intensity and diversity.

The 90 households surveyed in 2012 had a total of 10 750 trees between them, with an average of 119 trees per household, up from about 68 trees per household for the initial 45 farmers. Bananas made up 52% of the plantings, followed by oranges (21%), guavas (6%), and mangoes (5,5%).

“What helped tremendously was teaching the farmers about intercropping, such as planting beans in fruit orchards, and the value of insects in pollination,” says Kau. “Before the ARC intervention, the few farmers who had money used chemicals to destroy pests, [albeit] indiscriminately. Others, due to poverty and lack of knowledge, had no pest control strategy in place whatsoever.”

Nothumkile Mthambeki, based in Cwebeni Village in the Port St Johns Local Municipality, grows vegetables, industrial crops and deciduous and subtropical fruit using intercropping practices. She controls weeds by hoeing and using it as compost. Dishwashing liquid and mineral oil, rather than chemicals, are used for pest control.

Benefits of beekeeping
The provincial department of agriculture and the Pick n Pay Foundation presented a beekeeping course for farmers in the area and hives are now placed in the orchards to assist with pollination. Farmers can also harvest the honey, and in Nothumkile’s case, she earns approximately R30 000 a year from this enterprise.

Another farmer who benefited from the programme is Noleen Lottering of Ntlavukazi Village in the Inguza Hill Local Municipality. She says a major benefit of CA is that the integrity of the products is maintained and can thus be sold as organic produce.

Great emphasis is placed on protecting helpful insects. For example, Nelisa Mathandabuzo of Lutshaya Village
smears grease onto an old cloth and places it at the base of citrus trees, thereby killing only the ants attacking her trees.

According to Kau, the internal rate of return for the 90-farm programme, based on farm income and food value, was 20% for the period from 1999 to 2012, and included establishment costs such as land, fencing, land clearing, digging holes, and tractor and equipment hire.

Is Baya programme
Despite good rainfall and fertile soil, the OR Tambo District Municipality is one of the poorest rural districts in the country.
Rolling hills limit arable land and discourage commercial agriculture, with the result that forestry dominates commercial activity.

Although there is potential for commercial-scale irrigation projects, agriculture consists mostly of subsistence farming on communal land. This also presents management challenges. While transport, mining and construction have shown growth, manufacturing is stagnating and therefore government and community services are the largest employers.

Under the ARC’s Is Baya programme, farmers are steered towards sustainable production and agriculture as a livelihood. New citrus cultivars better suited to local conditions have been introduced. Small-scale farmers are taught to cultivate coffee (a newly- introduced crop) mangoes, lichees and macadamia nuts, as well as the best banana harvesting and ripening techniques.

In this high-value crop programme, the Xhosa word isibaya (kraal) signifies an emphasis on developing households instead of individuals. Most of the project gardens are located in the backyards of homesteads so that family members can all participate in cultivating crops.

Phone Rosemary du Preez on 073 252 7675 or email her at [email protected]