In 2010, Barry Meijer returned from the United States where he had lived for the last 35 years. He’d had great memories of his time in the army at Oudtshoorn so he decided to buy a farm there. Barry had grown up on a farm near Eshowe and, while running his garden services business in California, he had done some sideline farming of oats and barley, so he knew a little about farming. When he started farming at Meijer’s Rust in Meiringspoort near the town of De Rust he continued what had been done there before and if he needed any advice, he asked the neighbours.
The majority of the farm was wild mountainous Karoo country but the arable parts had been ploughed and used as ostrich paddocks for decades. The ground was bare, depleted and sun baked, but with the help of synthetic fertilisers and water from the mountains captured in dams, Barry was able to get a crop of oats and barley off the fields each year. For his roaming herd of Bonsmara cattle, the hills and mountains were their source of food, primarily spekboom.
After a number of years of doing this, Barry felt frustrated by the volume of precious water that ran off the soil when he irrigated the crops. He could see that he was getting very little “effective rain” as both the rain and irrigated water did not infiltrate the depleted soils. It literally repelled the water.
Barry thought that there must be a chemical available on the market to deal with this, we had after all invented a technical “fix” for most of this type of problem. So in the evening Barry took to the internet. He did not find this chemical – remarkably no one has invented a poison that claims it can do this. Fortunately, he did come across a YouTube conversation between Buz Kloot (a South African doing great regenerative work in the US) and the now-famous Ray Archuleta. And there Barry started his process of learning how it is the organic matter and carbon in the soil that opens up the pores in the soil which allows the water to infiltrate and be stored.
So Barry set about turning his dead soils into living soils, his dirt to soil. He started irrigating the bare earth until something started to grow. What came to the rescue was Cynodon dactylon (kweek gras, couch grass), which, like other “weeds” has the remarkable ability to grow without the assistance of mycorrhizal fungi (although it performs better once the fungi returns). When there was a good spread of kweek gras over the field Barry planted his multi-species mix straight into the kweek. And the mix (including legumes and brassicas) started to grow.
The Bonsmara cattle now enter the restoration story. It must have been something of a shock to them to be herded onto this lush carpet for the first time. The cows are moved three times a day, grazing their way across the new pastures. With three daily moves the cattle are able to be packed tightly together and this leads to non-selective grazing and lots of trampling and hoof impact. Barry also plans his moves so that each area of grass gets at least 40 days rest before it gets grazed again allowing the plants to regrow, build up root strength and sequester carbon before the next defoliation. The next thing Barry added to the mix was the inoculation of the seeds with his homemade compost tea just before planting so that the plants start off life with a biological boost.
Four years later, without the application of any synthetic fertiliser, Barry has verdant pastures where once he had dirt, kikuyu grass has introduced itself (from where it is not known) and when he irrigates his fields none of his precious Karoo water runs off his soil.