Rory Milbank has been involved in vegetable production in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands for 29 years. He produced mainly carrots, sweetcorn and brassicas and more recently, potatoes, cucurbits and lettuce. Most recently he’s been managing a farm in Baynesfield outside Pietermaritzburg.
Some 15 years ago, when hard chemicals weren’t delivering the desired results, Rory began the transition to biological farming. “I have seen dramatic results,” he says. “Biological farming is really about working hand-in-hand with nature. For many years, I sought the secret to producing top-quality crops sustainably. “I learnt that it all starts with the soil. It needs to be built up into a healthy, vibrant and energy-rich medium that’s well-balanced nutritionally and biologically – containing diverse populations of bacteria, fungi and invertebrates.”
The first step in the transition to biological farming is to know your soil, he explains. “Do a comprehensive soil audit so that a foundation can be laid by correcting and building a sound nutritional balance specific to the needs of the crops to be produced in rotation.” During the late 80s and early 90s, Rory worked with Dr Roget Beaufils who brought the Diagnosis and Recommendation Integrated System (DRIS) of soil balancing to South Africa from Vietnam where it originated.
“After Dr Beaufils passed away in 2000, I was at a loss but carried on to the best of my ability. Over the past few years I’ve become familiar with the teachings of Dr William Albrecht and discovered the norms developed by Drs Beaufils and Albrecht share a common thread. I now use the laboratory Dr Albrecht worked with for soil auditing purposes.”
Rory sends his soil samples to Brookside Laboratories in the US. The soil audit calculates the levels of 17 elements as well as the pH, organic matter content and total exchange capacity. “Brookside gives consistent, reliably accurate and unbiased results,” he explains. Turnaround time is normally 48 hours and airmail postage takes about two weeks. Results are e-mailed immediately upon completion.
A standard soil audit costs US (R176) and about R15/50g sample for postage. With the audit results in hand, Rory calculates the requirements to balance his soil. “This has to be done in stages depending on your budget and the corrections required to suit the needs of the crops. It takes at least three years to balance soil. Fertilisation for crop establishment is calculated separately.”
A living soil
The next important step is to build the organic matter as this will feed the microorganisms and allow them to repopulate and regain natural balance. This is traditionally done by applying compost, but for Rory, green manure is the least expensive option. He mainly uses fodder sorghum and oats as green manure crops and explains that these need to be carefully selected. They must be grown out to the desired stage to achieve the optimum balance between sugars for feeding bacteria and cellulose for sustaining fungi and organic carbon which represents the energy stored in the soil.
“These crops are worked directly into the soil at the desired stage. Nature will do the rest. If you have a living soil, decomposition will take place rapidly and there won’t be a problem with nitrogen tie-up.” Each 1% of organic matter in the soil produces about 20kg/ha of nitrogen per annum. The optimum organic matter level should be about 5%. Organic matter also contains nitrate, boron, molybdenum and sulphur, amongst others, to prevent leaching under adverse conditions. Moisture retention is greatly enhanced by the presence of organic matter.
Once the soil starts to live, macro- and micro-elements become available to the plants. “The fixed phosphate starts to be released and soil audit figures climb markedly as it’s digested into available forms,” Rory says. The benefits of healthy, well-balanced soil are visible during adverse growing conditions. “During the past few months of excessive rain, waterlogged maize, which would’ve normally turned yellow, stayed green and a normal crop of green mealies was harvested. No spraying for leaf diseases was necessary. Butternuts which were lying in water also survived and didn’t rot. We attribute this to the correct calcium level – it’s critical for building strong cell walls and developing good keeping quality.”
Tried and tested
Rory introduced biological farming three years ago on the vegetable farm he manages in Baynesfield. He originally used Dr Beaufils’ system and later incorporated the Albrecht method. With these practices, nematodes are no longer a problem on carrots, club root has disappeared from brassicas and insect infestations no longer occur in an uncontrolled way. “We don’t need to use poison for insect control, apart from selected biological products. But we still use certain herbicides strategically. Insect pests need to be present, albeit in low numbers, to sustain the beneficial insects.”
Rory says nature has an uncanny ability to restore balance if given the chance. “Once you stop killing the insects, populations of pollinators like bees and predatory insects such as ladybirds, wasps and spiders soon return and parasitise aphids, white fly, thrips and fruit fly to name a few. It’s exciting to observe the different insects involved in natural population control.” Yield and quality at Baynesfield has improved vastly.
“Butternut, in particular, has shown an exceptionally good response simply because we’re not killing the pollinators and we have better virus control,” Rory points out. “Our marketable carrot yield is up with fewer imperfections and greatly improved quality. Lettuce is another crop where we’ve really succeeded.” While there are no silver bullets, Rory has no doubt that biological farming works. “By building healthy soil, you can produce healthy, nutritionally balanced, rich food which, in time, will ensure healthier people.”