Restoring a dream: the journey of a smallholder into regenerative farming – Part 1

ReStory narrator: Jaap Knot, Ladybrand

I am an agriculturist facilitating the implementation of Conservation Agriculture (CA). It is relatively easy to talk about farming and smallholders. Having worked for more than a decade with smallholders in Lesotho, I have at least some experience with that. But talking farming and doing farming is two completely different things. We farm on De Molen farm and are actually debating how up-scaling should look like or, controversially, whether it is desired by the many smallholders themselves after all? Can one farm a couple of hectares without tractor-driven implements? Smallholders on the other hand are the ones that can farm organically CA like the many God’s Way farmers in Lesotho and some in Ntabamhlope (close to Estcourt in South Africa). Nepo SA buys non-GM maize and soya grain from farmers who apply CA, mainly commercial so far. However, we hope that with increased production from smaller farms we can buy from smallholders. Nepo SA sells Pure pap, a 80/20 blend of maize and soya, which is processed and packaged by locals in two community-based projects (Ntabamhlope, Maseru). The idea is to restore both the soil and the people through healthier, affordable food and job opportunities.

This, however, is my story. I share it with the hope that it encourages someone to understand farming from almost a zero budget, with limited resources and manual effort. Also, I hope it triggers thoughts, ideas and suggestions, and produces a sustainable outcome: to produce healthy food, affordable for the majority of people, in ways that are socially doable, economically sensible and environmentally sound. I retrospect, I farm environmentally sound, including loads of manure, cover crops, and low external input, and after 5 years, sheep grazing and rearing of broilers. I doubt whether it is socially doable because it is too labour intensive. Because of this, we never get any followers. And after all, being a change agent with no followers is like soil degradation. I was able to co-finance our farming operations from a side-line income, but otherwise it did not make economic sense despite the Internet telling you that you can make loads of money on a small landholding.

Smallholder farming is the reality of many a fellow men. South Africa has apparently more than 2 million smallholders. Their land is not fenced like mine which brings about more social-cultural issues. In any case, an 8 ha farm is small in terms of commercial dry land Free State agriculture, but large when you farm it with a hoe. Today we rear a mixed-breed Ile de France/Merino sheep and broilers, and this season we planted all non-GM crops (quality protein maize, grain sorghum, sunflower, sugar beans and cover crops). We want to farm regenerative while being fully organic. My story reflects the question whether that is ideology or reality? I would walk this journey again, but doing it slightly differently…

De Molen farm

A friend and well-wisher bought us a farm 18 km outside the town of Ladybrand in the eastern Free State. Much cheaper than a house in town though… Makes you think. He wanted to help so that we were able to continue promoting transformation through sustainable agriculture. Restoration is a massive undertaking in our society. We moved onto the farm on 31 August 31 2014; a day on which it was snowing. The farm is an 8.3 ha fenced property that was a dairy farm a couple of decades ago.

As previously mentioned, I am an agriculturist facilitating the implementation of Conservation Agriculture. It is based on three principles: soil cover, sound crop rotations including legumes, and minimum disturbance of the soil. It doesn’t restrict either external inputs or whether a farmer plants a GM or a non-GM crop.

When we started in 2014, we had one Haraka punch planter and a knapsack sprayer. No tractor, implements, trailer or harvesting/threshing equipment. We started like many rural smallholder farmers in Lesotho: without soil sampling, just going forward. So we started in the 2014/15 season and planted non-GM soya for our small enterprise (Nepo SA) that was roasting soya.

We farm on red-yellow, structureless, freely drained (marginal) soils which we never had tested or analysed. It is generally locally known as tough and hard soils. The farm has three plots: a 1.2 ha (Callie field), an L-shaped field of 0.3 ha and a 4.5 ha plot (“big field”), the rest is grass and under home vegetables.

The 1.2 ha field was accidently burned in July 2014 while we were on holiday. Planting a bare field with the Haraka was relatively easy, but still it took me 2 days to plant 7 500 m2. While it germinated well, the couch grass came back and there was no end to weeding. The soya became a cover crop as we were unable to harvest it. The lesson learnt was to not go to non-GM crops too quickly, unless weeding strategies are in place. Despite good cover over the years (before the sheep came) weeds remained the big challenge.

The Haraka (which in Swahili means fast) planter requires quite ideal conditions. When the soil is hard the “bekkie” does not penetrate deep enough and, in addition, leaves the plant hole somehow open, letting it dry out quickly. Rain after planting usually guarantees planting success, but that I learned that this is a risky assumption.

Since the 2014/15 season, various crops have been planted, including soya (non-GM), winter cover crops, fallow, oats, volunteer oats, sugar beans, maize, and sunflower. The Haraka is able to plant all these crops and fortunately we expanded to four Haraka planters. The soya-, sugar beans and cowpeas are all fine to plant at 30cm intervals (fixed punch of planter) and multiple seeds are punched per hole. This is, however, not ideal for maize, resulting in thinning out and bending thousands of times to remove the extra maize plants.

It takes approximately 4-6 hours to plant this 1.2 ha field, depending on row width which we manage by using research flags that are pegged in the track of the last Haraka. While our kids help when they are asked, they will not pursue a career in this type of farming.

The oats that was planted resulted in a fine winter cover crop. My wife and I sprayed this field with with knapsack sprayers, using a long piece of string to make straight spray lines. Oats (and stooling rye/grazing vetch/black oats and radish) plantings are best when done in February/March. One season after soya, our cover crop (mainly black oats) failed which was casted in at April. Consequently, knowing that weeds are an issue for non-GM crops, we planted black oats as a spring cover crop. Neither the oats nor the maize came to its full potential that season, due to low spring rainfall.

We had success on small scale with Farming God’s Way. Potholes/planting stations were dug and compost was put in the holes as well as cover crops during the preceding winter. This is easy and can be done fully organically, but can this method be transferred to large fields maintaining the high standards?

We hoped that digging holes with added compost would alleviate the hard pan as seen above, as we did not know of another way to solve this dilemma. We dug 3 000 holes and put compost in during October 2018. Just before moisture ran out we ripped and made holes in the ripping lines with – a team of 7 guys worked for 2 days ending up with over 20 000 holes. Each hole got lime, compost or manure. Once the holes were done and filled with the manure, we closed them by sweeping 2 tractor tyres (behind a Hilux in low range 4×4) across the field avoiding another long day’s work. Planting was done after the rains with our 4 Haraka planters.

It was relatively easy to plant all the fields with the 4 Haraka punch planters, but killing the weeds was done by spraying glyphosate, which in retrospect is not such a good thing. (We walked at least 11 km, up and down this field, with glyphosate dripping on our backs.) Fortunately, I am using a small boomsprayer now.

However, there is still the question on how to eliminate the herbicides. We only spot sprayed pesticide during the last 6 years, but planting non-GM, non-Bt maize is challenging. Once again, the magnitude of work sometimes meant that we did not do certain things. For example, putting ash or lime in the funnel of the maize is a method of controlling stalk borers, but getting enough ash and then walking 11-15 km through a field to put it in the plant, is not an attractive option. Similar challenges exist for top dress LAN as the Haraka planter doesn’t have a fertilizer hopper. I did, however, use the same Haraka to topdress next to the maize. And it needed a thorough cleaning thereafter as the fertilizer causes the planter to rust.

While the planting and chemical weed control after (but at) planting, were sorted, there was still a problem with weed control on non-GM beans/soya as well as with harvesting it. It is too time consuming and lots of losses occur due to handling. Basically, we remove a 1.5-2 t/ha of plant material to the “thresing floor” – I have done it once and not again. We also got an NT ox planter that works very well for us. It has a fixed width of 76cm, and works excellent for maize and cover crops. Some years we punch (with the Haraka) in a cowpea intercrop or double row winter cover crop (e.g. rye/grazing vetch mix).

We carted 15 t/ha of cow and horse manure in 2 of the 6 years. While the field is full of couch grass and nutsedge, the fact that we had grown winter oats as a cover crop gives us an advantage in the following planting season. Our soil cover is gone in no time though and this produces high weed pressure after 4-6 weeks into crop growth. Thats why we prefer planting maize now as it competes best with the weeds.

A willing neighbouring farmer helped us with a manure/compost ripper and planting the “big field” with GM soya. This worked well and because he planted non-GM soya for us, it was the best economic return we had in 6 years. He also helped with harvesting and we got 1.7 t/ha, which was good for our soils, while the same variety harvested 3 t/ha under same rainfall conditions 10km away.

Currently I don’t plant cash crops in the “big field” anymore, only summer/winter cover crops together with high density strip grazing. Limitations with water infrastructure and the lack of a worker are our only reasons for not doing ultra high density strip grazing. We first had a few sheep under gate grazing, but when numbers increased we switched to electric fencing. But whether you move 3, 50 or 500 sheep, you need to be there to do it. Labour effectiveness increrases with higher numbers; a challenge for smallholder farming.

The broilers are on “super feed” and we also tried to address that. Nobody was able or willing to give me a good feed mix for free range chickens (yet). The free range chickens (conventional chicks that we allow to run around) are taking 3-4 weeks longer than their conventionally fed counterparts and they tend to be a bit smaller, despite being on quality protein maize.

We want to do the right thing and we want to do it right, but time and again I wonder if it is worth it. Why not just use GMO crops, why not till, why all the hard work? Many times, I have felt a bit ashamed of doing manual labour and cruising through the fields with my basic implements and hoe. It took a while to get my head around it. But I believe that smallholders can produce the healthiest food. If we can increase the effectiveness of the labour and have a higher output, the cycle is complete. I was able to spray the 3 ha of RR soya with ease, and the same with the GM maize. The GMO-chemical road with high basal fertilizer rates is the easiest option, but I refuse to live and farm “ordinary”; doing business as usual. Although I like to cut down on external inputs, I left the pesticide out as I am doing right now, thereafter the fertilizer. I was too optimistic to plant all the maize during the last 6 years without any fertilizer. That it something I would carefully reconsider and rather wean off of the fertilizer over a 5-6 year period; but I will apply a basal fertilizer rate of 50-60 kg N/ha with no fertilizer for the rest of the crops. Currently, it is applied as 20-30 kg N/ha as a top dress. One can not expect high maize yields yet on N fixed from legumes, cover crops and manure only. I am looking at natural herbicides in future, or when we have a small tractor we will procure a high-residue cultivator (like at Rodale institute), which eliminates the herbicides completely. Alternatively, I’ll consider the Knapik hood sprayer.

I have also learned that if weed control is not good when one is going larger scale, it affects yields negatively and robs the crop from vital nutrients. Simply said, you can’t do everything at the same time and hiring people for weeding doesn’t seem cost productive either.

In retrospect, one needs to start by testing your soil for nutrient (im)balances with feedback on soil biology, chemical and physical properties, and recommendations.

The conventional input system is not geared to get a half-truck of lime onto my smallholding as it is only done with 36t interlinks. Hence, I focus on compost (from our own chicken litter, the neighbouring farm has horse manure and from kraals in a 25 km radius that provide plenty of cow manure). Although I don’t need tractor implements per se, it would make sense when farming more hectares. If there were a few (5-10) plot farmers we could share some implements under a Mashav model. Many smallholder farmers believe that one cannot farm beyond home plots without a tractor, but one actually can. The tractor and implements will allow me to plant another 20-50 ha and make more compost, and the tractor manure ripper is definitely something I would prefer. The tractor needs to have a front loader for mixing compost as well as a cover crop roller. The Fitarelli planter is easy, simple and, for me, Africa-proof enough, but the Haraka is sturdy as well. Both planters can handle lots of cover crop material when planting.

I found that neighbouring farmers are not always able to help especially with declining windows of opportunity (preparing the land and planting) due to late rainfall and increased acreage per farm. Any farm (mine or large scale) should be able to use the few optimal windows of opportunity during the season. But this often left me feeling frustrated. When the soil is wet, a tractor can do the job so much faster; but neighbouring farms are using their their tractors. Hauling manure is so much easier when there is a frontloader (TLB) with a trailer or 20-ton (or larger) truck. While commercial farmers have it, one will make sour friends when “borrowing” or using their equipment when the pressure is on. That means I rely on manual digging and loading a double-axle trailer.

Even taking the herbicide to the field is a lot of work. I mix the glyphosate in 20l drums and use between 10-14 per ha. I know what “ farmerwalk” is, carrying these 2 x 20l drums from the tap to the field.

Grazing is a way of making money while some manure is deposited. All cover crop strategies worked for me (summer cover crop mix, winter cover crop mix, inter crop legume and relay cropping). There was only one season after soya that the cover crops did not work after being casted (too late). While the intercrop cowpeas surpresses weeds in a good year, it is not satisfactory in other years. I prefer drilling cover crops as opposed to castring after all these years and the Haraka enabled me to do so irrespective of plant size. The labour intensity will decrease when I am able to haul manure, cut green and dry stuff with a mower, mix compost with a 75kW tractor and implement. And although I am happy with the planters, a small seed cover crop drill will help me a lot to plant rows at 18 cm which will help with weed control in the following cash crop. Also, a hooded sprayer will enable me to spray in-between the rows and if it can be a Knapik bicycle sprayer, all the better, to avoid the chemicals om my body.

I need to consider the way forward. One possibility is to expand on the free range chickens that are fed non-GM feed with no growth stimulants or regulators. Also, there is the question whether it is better to grow my own quality protein maize, sunflower, beans and sorghum or to buy maize and sunflower from my CA neighbour? I found that maize and sunflower are two easy crops to grow and while one cannot always be on top of the weeds these two crops, at an advanced stage, can compete well with weeds. Therefore, I prefer growing it myself so that in the end I can sign the traceability document regarding passes and actions of the grains produced.

Nepo SA wants to buy more non-GM soya and maize from CA farmers. Preference is given to smallholders and as close to organic CA as possible. The latter is undoubtedly possible at a scale of between 20x20m and 0.3ha. Is the latter worth the effort? Well with high standards and at 9 ton/ha, this still gives me 3 ton for the mill from that 0.3ha. In KwaZulu-Natal and Lesotho we encourage more and more smallholders to produce that 3 ton per farmer (more info is available from Nepo SA). The challenge is to organise the logistics of a farmer co-operative/Mashav. We produce our own vegetables and when the market demands vegetables under regenerative farming, then we can produce that. Although the way I currently farm is labour-intensive, we have noticed that soil fertility has increased (as I plant only maize with a top dress) and there are plenty of earth worms. The sheep are reproducing and the chicken market is growing. Unfortunately, marketing these things take time, but there are more and more positive feedback from the local consumers about the chickens. I am also planning on having a mobile chicken house to trail behind the sheep high density grazing.

I have started to save money and I believe that with R250 000 we can buy most of the things mentioned second-hand. That will not only make my life easier, but also allow me to stay true to the mission and vision of facilitating cleaner food. Upscaling manual systems requires lots and lots of hard work, but it is doable and manageable when some sort of mechanisation is there. The big issue I often disuss with Nepo SA partners is what the future holds. If there is perhaps no petrol (for generator type of equipment e.g. threshers, weedeaters, 2-wheel tractors), no diesel (for tractor-based implements), or no electricity? Will we still have food then? I feel that despite the immense amount of work necessary, I am closer to being able to farm the soil under these negative (however unlikely) scenarios than most, if not all, commercial large-scale farmers in the Free State. But, as long as there is diesel available, let’s use some mechanisation to speed up soil building and expanding hectares under regenerative farming. Thereafter, I assume we have the challenge to find people that want to work hard and smart alongside me.

Lastly, by being so hands-on my relationship with Abba Father has deepened. The last 6 years were some of the hottest and driest years ever, and had me on my knees often. God’s grace is sufficient for me. There is no place and space for “I am going to do this all by my own strength”. Never. I increasingly realise that God has a plan and puts a calling on my life. What are the chances of someone buying you a farm; of someone donating 20 ewes and a ram to enable us to farm more profitably; of my neighbour who convinced us to collectively start rearing the broilers; and of a few companies donating seed to us. God puts the right people on our journey. There is a bigger picture, as I don’t believe in coincidence…

Read Part 2 here.