Organic farming: a commercial farmer converts

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Peter Nicholson of Roselands farm near Richmond in KwaZulu-Natal believes organic farming can be used to sustainably feed the world. He shares his vision with Lloyd Phillips.

Peter Nicholson with his poultry supervisor, Shepherd Matsongosi, in one of the 10m x 4m outdoor enclosures broilers forage or relax in during daylight hours.
Photo: Lloyd Phillips

It was the birth of his first daughter, Julia, in 2011 that prompted Peter Nicholson (41) to re-evaluate the conventional farming practices that had long been used on his family’s 1 200ha farm, Roselands, near Richmond in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN).

Peter, who started farming in 2005, is the fifth generation to farm on Roselands, which has been in the Nicholson family since 1850 when the first Byrnes settlers arrived.

By 2012, Peter was fed up with regularly applying, what he describes as hazardous chemicals, to crops such as cabbage. He was concerned that harmful residues were finding their way to his family and consumers.

“I was really stimulated when I visited an old university friend, Angus McIntosh, near Stellenbosch and learnt from him the benefits of producing and consuming organic food products as opposed to conventionally grown foods.

I started reading as much as possible about the organic farming philosophy and its methods. My eyes were opened to the dangers conventional food production posed to human and environmental health,” Peter says.

Toxic chemicals he had been using included organophosphates, as well as “harsh chemical fertilisers such as KCl [potassium chloride]”.

In 2015, Peter met Gerald Conway, a businessman and farmer from KwaZulu-Natal’s Hilton area, who also wanted to learn more about implementing organic food production. Gerald and Peter became partners in a vision to gradually convert Roselands from conventional to organic farming practices.

Soil types and rainfall
About 80% of the farm’s arable soil consists of the Kranskop soil type. Peter describes it as black in colour, having a depth of about 1m, well-drained, and with 30% clay content. The farm’s remaining arable soil consists of the red-coloured Inanda soil type, which is about 0,5m deep, also well-drained, and with 30% clay content.

Peter explains that these are very resilient soils.

Roselands farm receives an average annual rainfall of about 1 300mm, although the 770mm received in 2015 made it the farm’s driest year since 1929 when rainfall records for the farm were first kept.

While the summers are generally temperate, day temperatures can reach 33°C. Roselands is frost-prone in winter, and night-time temperatures can drop to -5°C.

The farm consists of 400ha of commercial timber plantations that are leased to a private company, 7ha of Hayward kiwi fruit and 10ha of Gold kiwi fruit production, 70ha of vegetable production – primarily cabbages – 200ha of sourveld, and 400ha of sweetveld natural grazing, while the balance is indigenous mist-belt forest.

For decades prior to 2008, Peter’s father, Malcolm, had been using most of Roselands for commercial sugar cane production. However, sugar cane eventually became unprofitable because the nearest sugar mill was too far away making transport costs very expensive, and the farm experienced insufficient heat units to produce profitable sucrose levels in the cane.

“My dad is now semi-retired and when I took over in 2005, I saw merit in moving away from sugar cane and diversifying into cash crops, such as cabbage, spinach and lettuce, which would generate income faster,” Peter says.

“Our farm benefits from a microclimate that is well-suited to vegetable production in the summer months. This means I can take advantage of the dip in vegetable production that most of the rest of KZN experiences during summer. I plan to eventually give up commercial vegetable production to focus on organic farming as soon as cash-flow allows.”

Malcolm established the Hayward kiwi fruit orchard on Roselands in 1983 and it is now the only remaining kiwi fruit enterprise in KZN.

No dramatic conversion
When Peter and Gerald joined forces and resources in 2015 to start converting Roselands from conventional to organic farming practices, they quickly realised that much patience would be required. It would simply be financially too risky to rush into a dramatic conversion.

Much trial and error would also be needed to find the best ways in which to effectively manage pests and diseases, as well as supplying nutrients to the crops and animals that would eventually be grown organically on the farm.

The first step was optimising soil health and fertility. “Healthier soils help to produce crop plants that are naturally more resistant to pests and diseases, thereby cancelling out the need to apply harsh fertilisers and dangerous chemicals to the crops. We now send annual soil samples to Brookside Laboratories in the US.”

They then receive results and recommendations for macronutrients, as well as micronutrients, present and needed in the soil. “Micronutrients can be a limiting factor for good yields and sustainable crop production,” he explains.

Brookside now also has an overall soil health test that takes a holistic view of the soil. For example, while Peter may have applied all the lime that a standard soil analysis recommends, Brookside’s holistic soil health analysis may find that this lime is not in a plant-available form and that additional action is needed to remedy this.

Cover crops
To improve soil health and fertility, Peter plants cover crops in both winter and summer. He believes that soil should always have a form of organic cover, dead or alive, even when there are commercial crops growing through this cover.

Benefits include decreased water runoff and erosion, and improved soil moisture retention, enhanced carbon sequestration, and nutrient recycling.

Cover crops also help to interrupt the life-cycles of pests and diseases.

“At any given time, a cover crop should [consist of] a combination of species, namely a legume such as vetch, clover and lucerne; a brassica such as radishes and turnips; a cereal such as oats, barley, rye and triticale; a grass such as teff and ryegrasses; and a chenopod such as Swiss chard and kale,” he explains.

Peter currently rotates cash crops with cover crops. The cover crops are grazed by livestock or killed off with a crimper roller. The crimping action of this roller prevents the cover crop from growing and is a low-tech way of killing them off without the need for chemicals such as glyphosate. Winter cover crops simply stop growing before summer.

Another soil-friendly option that Peter and Gerald are experimenting with is no-till, which only lightly disturbs the soil surface, and protects valuable soil life and organic matter.

“I’m already noticing a major improvement in my soils’ earthworm populations,” Peter says. “The more earthworms in soil, the healthier the soil.”

Using methods to naturally improve soil health and fertility means that Peter and Gerald are reducing the need to use harsh chemical fertilisers to feed crops. Instead, they use only natural, less harsh and damaging plant nutrients, like potassium sulphate and rock phosphate. An added benefit of these natural plant nutrients is that they are slow-release, which ensures sustainable fertility.

“The animal element is also crucial for soil health and fertility. In nature there are already long-established and mutually beneficial interactions between animals and plants. I use my 200-head commercial beef herd to graze cash crop residues and cover crops. While these provide my animals with free fodder all year round, the animals’ dung and urine also provide the soil with natural and free nutrients,” he explains.

Peter and Gerald have even planted multi-species cover crops between the rows in the 10ha of Gold kiwi fruit that is under hail netting.

Broilers and layers
The farm’s 80 Ross broilers and 1 200 Hy-Line layers, as well as its beef weaners, graze the cover crops among the Gold kiwi fruit trees.

The broilers are divided into flocks that are housed overnight in a number of 3m x 3m mobile ‘chicken tractors’, to keep them safe from predators. Each chicken tractor is surrounded by an easily moveable 10m x 4m hail netting fence.

During the day the broilers roam their enclosures and eat any vegetation and insects – including insect pests – and enjoy the sunlight and fresh air.

“This [diet] is currently supplemented with conventional, but antibiotic- and hormone-free, broiler feed. But our plan is to eventually produce our own organic broiler feed using non-GM maize hybrids and kiefer grown on the farm,” Peter says.

Despite the non-intensive production conditions, the farm’s broilers are achieving 1,7kg to 2kg live-weights at 42 days old, which is only about one week behind in terms of weight gain than the live-weights achieved by intensive broiler farms.

Only three of the original 400 broilers in an age-group had died during the five weeks since they had been moved from a rearing facility to the kiwi fruit orchard. This equates to a 0,75% mortality rate. Most conventional broiler farming operations are satisfied with a 5% mortality rate, he says.

Roselands’ commercial layers spend their entire lives in the kiwi fruit orchard. They are divided into flocks of 300 birds each, and are housed overnight in four ‘egg mobiles’ that are moved every three to four days. Their outdoor enclosures are about 25m x 20m in size and they are also free to forage outdoors during the day.

Various nesting boxes in the egg mobile facilitate the laying of eggs. Peter says at peak production during winter, the layers achieve egg production of 80% per day, given that no lighting is used to artificially stimulate laying. In summer, the layers achieve a peak egg production rate of 92% per day.

“The layers also currently receive a conventional, but antibiotic- and hormone-free, ration. This is supplemented with rock phosphate, lime and diatomaceous earth. We also want to eventually start growing and manufacturing our own organic layer feed for our hens,” Peter says.

“This will be necessary to produce and market organically certified eggs because, at present, no organically certified layer feed is available in SA.” He adds that the dung from the broilers and layers is rich in nutrients and is a biologically active natural fertiliser for the kiwi fruit orchard.

Pig production

Peter and Gerald have also started a trial aimed at producing free-range Landrace x European Wild Boar pigs. The men want to incorporate their outdoor, but fenced, pig herd into a high-density strip grazing system for the farm’s crop residues and cover crops.

The pigs also have access to any waste or damaged vegetable crops, and could be used to eradicate alien vegetation on the farm.

“Our long-term goal is to produce a whole basket of organic products. We have no set time frame yet because we don’t want to put undue pressure on ourselves,” Peter says. “In Europe and the US, organic farming is growing at up to 30% annually. With the demand we are experiencing, I can see the same starting to happen here.”

Contact Peter Nicholson via email [email protected].