Farmers provide essential food for our expanding population and are also an important part of our economy, especially in rural areas. Much like all economic activities, there is an environmental impact and balancing farming with conservation requires careful balancing skills. There are many farmers who work hard to achieve this balance. Even in these trying times, there are environmentally conscious farmers who are engaging in new techniques to feed the population, while applying strategies to decrease environmental degradation. We recently interviewed one of these individuals, Nico de Kock, the manager of Riet Valleij farm. We wanted to explore with him how he attempts to approach farming from an environmental perspective.
However, before we dive in, we would like to give some background on the farm. The farm Riet Valleij was bought in the 1990’s with the intention of the owner not only to operate an economically sustainable unit, but also to provide a social contribution to the local towns of Suurbraak and Swellendam. Along with this initiative, the farm also aims to adhere to its moral responsibility to protect the environment. The most important activity on the farm is milk production and then livestock breeding for the meat market. The total size of the farm is 2100 hectares, including mountainous area and cultivated lands. Of this total, 270 hectares is irrigated land and 250 hectares dry lands, supporting their 1600 cattle. Riet Valleij’s farming methods can be summoned up by three practices: conservation, preservation, and modernization.
Nico has always had a passion for conservation and believes in the philosophy that “If nature were largely left alone, the world would be a better in balance”. The main reason why the world and nature are not in balance, is because of mankind. If you, as part of mankind, do not adjust, it will get worse. Especially from a farming perspective. He explained that we need to farm in harmony with nature. This philosophy guided him to Conservation Agriculture. A practice described as a sustainable farming system, adjusted to local conditions and crops, that optimises yields. It aids in the prevention of soil erosion and degradation, while improving soil health and facilitating the preservation of natural resources (Gonzalez-Sanchez et al, 2015).
Under Nico’s leadership, Riet Valleij has adopted conservation agriculture, through the conservation tillage or minimum tillage approach. Archer et al (2017) explains that this method aims to encourage better environmental and economic gains, through minimising the frequency and intensity of tillage operations. According to Nico, minimum tillage was brought to the South Western Cape and the Overberg by the late Jack Human, who travelled to Australia to learn how it worked, before returning home to teach other farmers.
Prior to the more environmentally orientated farming approaches we find today, soil was just considered to be the place where roots grow. The organic content of soil was not taken into account because it was believed that the full nutritional requirements of plants could be supplemented by fertilizers. Today the agricultural community has realised that soil is more than that. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2015) explains that healthy soils, yield healthy foods for our population and animals. Soils are the basis of our food system and they are a dynamic, living ecosystem that can be destroyed. To assist farmers, Technifarm, in Swellendam, analyses soil samples from the field to measure the soil’s nutritional status, but also the soil’s health status.
The farm is also very water conscious. The water in the dairy parlour is recycled and the water washes down into a dam, where a tanker transfers the water to the fields as a source of organic fertilizer. The World Wildlife Fund (2018) estimates that 43% of the Western Cape’s available water is used in irrigation. Climate scientists foresee the Western Cape enduring warming and drier conditions over the next 100 years, and a decrease of 30% of the current rainfall levels by 2050. Farmers need to acquire new practices to preserve water resources (World Wildlife Fund, 2018). Combined with water recycling, Riet Valleij (with assistance from the Grootvadersbosch Conservancy), intensely clears alien invasive trees that deplete water supplies and decimate indigenous vegetation. The owner of the farm expressed from the start that all the wattles on the farm must be cleared. After 26 years of clearing the process is still not complete.
Another factor to consider in agriculture, is the construction of infrastructure and the impacts on the environment. Nico constructed a catchment dam above his property which was built according to the instructions provided by Nature conservation authorities. They visited the site and specified how the dam should be constructed. They also included a smaller pipeline to ensures that when the river runs low, water is still allowed through for the maintenance of downstream aquatic ecosystems. The water for irrigation is conveyed through the pipelines to storage dams. From here irrigation is done under own gravitation, which enables the farm’s irrigation to be 80% independent from electricity.
Nico is an avid birder and a lover of the great outdoors and this is evident in his efforts to preserve indigenous and endemic flora and fauna areas on the farm. The farm also practices modernization by attempting to reduce fertiliser usage. They are aware of the impact of fertiliser and are slowly decreasing the volumes they use. Through the application of precision farming you can ensure you do not over fertilise a field.
Nico maintains that it can be too costly if you just conserve the environment. The farm will also not survive if you put all your efforts into conservation, but it is possible to maintain a balance between the two. Balance is the key!
Archer, L., Im, J., Ransom, B. & Coley, M., 2017. What is Sustainable Agriculture? - Conservation Tillage [Online] UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Available at: https://asi.ucdavis.edu/programs/ucsarep/about/what-is-sustainable-agriculture/practices/conservation-tillage [Accessed 17 June 2020].
Gonzalez-Sanchez, E.J., Veroz-Gonzalez, O., Blanco-Roldan, G.L., Marquez-Garcia, F., Carbonell-Bojollo, R., 2015. A renewed view of conservation agriculture and its evolution over the last decade in Spain [Online]. Available at: http://www.ecaf.org/ca-in-europe/what-is-ca [Accessed 17 June 2020].
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2015. Healthy soils are the basis for healthy food production [Online] Available at: http://www.fao.org/soils-2015/news/news-detail/en/c/277682/ [Accessed 17 June 2020].
World Wildlife Fund, 2018. Agricultural water file: Farming for a drier future [Online] Available at: https://www.wwf.org.za/water/?25441/Agricultural-water-file-Farming-for-a-drier-future [Accessed 17 June 2020].