Passionate organic farmer gets through the hard times

Eric Swarts grew up on a farm in the Western Cape. He studied agriculture and today he’s a farmer, which has always been his dream. But from experience, he has learnt that pursuing your dreams can be very difficult.
Issue date : 01 May 2009

Read more

- Advertisement -

Eric Swarts grew up on a farm in the Western Cape. He studied agriculture and today he’s a farmer, which has always been his dream. But from experience, he has learnt that pursuing your dreams can be very difficult.

Eric produces organic vegetables on land belonging to the Spier Wine Estate outside Stellenbosch. “I got involved in 1999, when Spier initiated the Go Organic business initiative,” he explains. “We were five emerging farmers who had a 25% stake in a 16ha organic vegetable business,” he explains. “Spier supplied the land and the use of a tractor, a bakkie and most other inputs such as seed and compost. But the sandy soil was barren and organic inputs were expensive. We produced very little and after three years of throwing money at the project, Spier pulled the plug on us. But I’d learnt enough in those three years to be convinced that organic production was the way of the future. I was also not prepared to work for a boss again, having tasted the freedom of doing my own thing for those three years,” Eric says.

Going it on his own
He used what money he had and tried to go it on his own on Spier’s land. “In 2002 the organic market was still unexplored, but I believed it would grow substantially. It was an opportunity for me to survive amongst the large and long-established commercial vegetable producers, as I was producing a niche product that didn’t compete with them,” he says. So Eric was confident – he had the use of the land and the Sustainability Institute at the Lynedoch EcoVillage outside Stellenbosch was helping him with inputs like seed.

- Advertisement -

The institute focuses on studies in ecology and community and also partners the University of Stellenbosch in several programmes, including sustainability and community development. “But I made my first big mistake right at the beginning by trying to go too big,” Eric admits. “I invested my money in organic inputs and tried to farm on a commercial scale using small-scale organic farming techniques. I had 6ha of organic vegetables and employed 10 people. I used expensive organically certified inputs and after one year, I was down to 1ha,” Eric says. “I didn’t own the land, so getting credit was almost impossible and I wasn’t prepared to put up my house as collateral for such a risky business.” Looking back, he realises he didn’t have the necessary business skills then to farm sustainably.

Then the Sustainability Institute made it possible for Eric to go to India to see how small-scale farmers there produce vegetables in a sustainable way. “There I discovered expensive inputs were my problem and I’d have to rethink my whole approach towards farming.” Back home, Eric started from scratch. He experimented with crops that would do well with minimal extra inputs like beans and peas which are nitrogen fixers, whereas spinach and cauliflower have a high nitrogen demand. Rotating the one with the other decreases the total nitrogen demand. In addition, he planted crops which grow fast like lettuce because they’re cheaper to produce. “I also focused my attention on inputs already at my disposal on the farm instead of buying them,” Eric says.

These included syringa berry and using weeds as a green manure to cut back on buying compost. “When you stop fighting weeds you also save on labour and weeds can tell you which crops to grow,” he says. “Broad-leaf weeds tell me broad-leaf crops will grow well, while grass normally means there’s compacted soil which needs loosening up.” Eric also developed an insect repellent from syringa berry extract. “Where these trees grow on land, the insects avoid them,” he explains.
The Sustainability Institute recently made a team of Nguni oxen available to Eric which are plough-trained. They are part of an animal traction study to determine whether this kind of ploughing could be more efficient than a tractor in certain circumstances. “With oxen you only plough between 100mm and 200mm deep,” explains Eric. “So the anaerobic deeper soil layers aren’t disturbed. The ploughing only aerates and loosens up the top layer where vegetables root.” Eric will also use a disk to counter soil compaction.

In India, he’d encountered Sanjeevak, a compost made from cow dung, urine and molasses, fermented for two weeks before being applied to the soil. “I now have a plough and the ingredients to make Sanjeevak,” he says. He’s established an experimental field of different vegetables, the basis of a study on the effects of compost and Sanjeevak in an organic production system.

Prohibitive factors of organic farming
Eric used to buy certified chicken manure, only to discover it came from a producer who used antibiotics in its feeding programme. “I use guano, but I may only use a product that’s been harvested by an operator who doesn’t disturb the birds’ nesting and breeding habits, which makes it more expensive.” Meanwhile local organic certification would cost R8 000/year for Eric’s operation and he feels this excludes small farmers from becoming organic producers. “So currently I’m a passionate organic farmer, but without the certification. I’ll re-apply once my bottom line justifies it, as I believe having an industry watchdog is good,” Eric says.

Boost for Eric’s bottom line
Eric’s recently started participating in a Community Sponsored Agriculture (CSA) programme, coordinated by the Slow Food movement in Cape Town. “People pay upfront for a season’s vegetables, delivered and distributed through the Ethical Co-Op. This means I get money to buy inputs, but also that consumers share in the risk of producing the crop. I get three times more for my produce than a supermarket would pay, but clients also only pay half of what it costs in the shops,” Eric says.
He admits he’s nervous about possible crop failure, as he feels morally indebted to his CSA clients. “But I calculated exactly how many clients I’d be able to supply. This cycle has 54 customers and I’d like to be able to expand to 250.” He has spaced his combinations of vegetables to include slow and fast growers. There are also combinations of companion plants to enhance each other’s chance of success. “Carrots and tomatoes look after one another in a natural environment,” Eric says.
Contact Eric Swarts on 072 312 7195.     |fw