Organic windfall for bankrupt soil

‘Get your soil carbon level right, and you’re halfway there.’ This is commercial organic farmer Bertus Otto’s message for producers considering a switch to organic production. Susan Botes visited him on his Limpopo farm.
Issue date 14 December 2007

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The torrential rains of February and March 2000 drowned many fields north of the Soutpansberg in Limpopo Province. At the time, Bertus Otto noted that the crops in his conventionally fertilised lands were yellow and sickly – “really bankrupt”, even though he’d cultivated his lands for 33 years, ploughing, subsoiling, fertilising and practising good crop rotation. In stark contrast, the natural veld adjacent to his farm, Secrabje, was in full bloom. “So my neighbour, Nature, was a far better farmer than I was,” he admits. Well-thought-out organic idealism Bertus realised that for over three decades he’d been doing something wrong. Now, for the past seven years, Secrabje has been one of SA’s few totally organic commercial farms. Bertus believes the first crucial question every farmer considering the switch to organic production needs to ask is: why do want to farm organically? Is it a conscience, financial or ideological issue? H is main reasons for switching to organic were his passion for nature and the need for a sustainable market. “never liked the idea of farming with chemicals,” he recalls. “Today you’ll spray a crop, tomorrow you’ll find many friends – birds and even bats – lying dead all over the fields. It would be like entering a family graveyard.” Since going organic he’s noticed a significant increase in wildlife on the farm.

“Nature is coming back. We’ve also embarked on a programme to identify bats, and to breed some species.” Study your market place and secure it O nce Bertus decided to go organic, he discussed the way forward with his sons. “We wanted to make ourselves irreplaceable,” he recalls. Their first step, and the first thing farmers need to do before going organic, Bertus stresses, was finding a buyer for their produce. If they hadn’t, they might have wound up without one, especially while their farm was in the process of conversion. The Ottos approached a few potential clients. None were interested, until they heard the word “organic”. Then they wanted to know how much space they had to allocate. But Bertus warns farmers not to believe organic farming opens up an “easy” new world. A lot of hard work lies ahead. There are also a few organic products, such as bananas, that no longer get a price premium as they’re so common on the market. On the other hand, products such as pumpkin, butternut and sweet potato are in high demand by baby food manufacturers. “When you listen to the inner circle talk at one of our largest food stores, you hear they want a third of their company’s products to be organic by 2012,” says Bertus. Going organic is a great way to make yourself irreplaceable in the market, he stresses.

“You only have to look at whether there’s a market for your product. But the first thing all supermarkets want to know is whether your production is sustainable – whether you can deliver daily.” Forget everything you know Although it probably wouldn’t be tasty, Bertus is prepared to eat all the nutrients and inputs used on his farm, and is still looking for a chemical farmer that can say the same. “I don’t have the guts, but otherwise I’d even be prepared to eat the compost,” he jokes. He had to discard everything he’d ever learned about chemical farming. “All plant nutrients come from nature. Who do you think you are to take them back to nature?” challenges Bertus. He believes all processes needed for good soil happen naturally. But human help is sometimes needed, for example, to help return plant waste to impoverished soil, stimulating the natural processes that increase productivity. “Have you ever seen a fertiliser truck in the Knysna forest?” he asks. “How did that world become so fertile without it? And more importantly – how does it remain intact? Branches break, fall down and decompose to litter, then to compost, which is “mined” by microorganisms, bacteria and fungi. The digested compost is the perfect food for plants.

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But these microorganisms die when synthetic chemicals such as herbicides and pesticides are applied.” Bertus believes this starts a cycle which disrupts nature. “Do you realise chemical farming isn’t sustainable?” he asks. “You need to ask yourself why so many chemicals are being withdrawn from the market. They’re a risk to humans and the environment. Nature doesn’t tolerate bad genes. It all boils down to the proverbial survival of the fittest.” Carbon, carbon, carbon “Get your soil’s organic carbon level right and you’re halfway there,” says Bertus. Unfortunately this is easier said than done. Secrabje’s soil had been practically depleted of organic carbon from 1967 to 2000, while Bertus was farming chemically. “The soil’s carbon content needs to be around 3%,” he explains. “The higher the production you want from your soil, the higher it needs to be.” Especially in the hotter parts of the country, crop residues should be worked as deeply into the soil as possible. “When the organic carbon levels are correct, re-evaluate irrigation. Water will be used more efficiently for plant production, and you might need to apply less of it.” Today Bertus no longer takes soil samples unless they’re required for EurepGAP or other certification.

Every now and again he’ll take leaf samples, and tries to do this in temperatures around 25ºC. Finding compost near you Organic farmers constantly need compost. Bertus recommends identifying suitable compost sources nearby, or the process won’t be sustainable, as transporting bulky raw material can be very expensive. “Look around your area and see what’s readily available,” he advises. “Urban areas always have a surplus of plant biomass. Animal waste and green manure are excellent, as they accelerate the process.” He’s identified 80 sources of compostable material in the vicinity of his farm. As it contains no residue, packhouse waste is a very valuable compost component. As for compost processing, Bertus opts again for the natural solution. “You can’t manage compost as well as the land can,” he says. “Work it into the ground and let it ferment there.” Contact Bertus Otto on (015) 575 9912 or 082 449 2434, or e-mail [email protected]. |fw