By Garth Johnstone
While traditional farming remains the heart and soul, high-volume food production system in SA, many local farmers are innovating, finding ways to put the soil, their livestock and people first.
Some of the techniques being used are well-planned crop rotation; soil regeneration and investing in high-quality, rich organic matter; no-till crop growing; rotational grazing; water-saving interventions; using wind, solar and alternative energy sources, and much more.
One of the local small-scale farms doing things their way is Bramleigh Farm (about 25km from Nottingham Road, reached via a dirt road off the Lotheni Road), which is run by Andre and Kaitlynn Kauerauf. In addition to growing their own veg and raising animals, they have four eco-friendly accommodation units that they rent out and are well-known food producers who sell and market their products through Reko at Hilton and Howick and at the Earth Route Market at Nottingham Road. (Reko is a Finnish trading movement, meaning “fair consumption”, which aims to put customers in direct contact with local producers to have a market of fresh, healthy, local produce, while supporting small-scale producers. Orders are made through Facebook.)
While they follow a regenerative farming approach, Andre makes the point: “We don’t want to appear to look down or dismiss other approaches to farming in SA because we know how tough it is and how important food security is. We have chosen this route because we are passionate about it, but it is just one way of doing things.”
He said in farming, investment was not only financial, but huge in terms of time and effort.
“We are putting every bit of our time and effort into making our farm work. It is physically draining and never ends, but we are passionate about our goals and how we want to do things,” the pair say.
Andre and Kaitlynn grow veggies, mainly for themselves and staff, and sell the excess. For now, however, the main part of their business is raising chickens and pigs.
Andre was previously a renewable energy engineer, while Kaitlynn was and still is a teacher.
Sustainable, healthy living
“We were on a journey of sustainable, healthy living. We became very conscious of our diet after we both had some health problems about five or six years ago,” says Andre. “It was a question of trying to get to the root of both of those factors, how do we live a life that is both healthy and sustainable? Our aim was to generate as much of our own food and energy as possible. This led us to regenerative agriculture, which also encompasses human, social and economic well-being.
“It’s a blessing and a curse that neither of us came from an agricultural background because there’s a lot of traditional agricultural practices that we would have had to ‘unlearn’ to start looking at production the way we do it. So there’s been a big learning curve because we make a lot of mistakes due to lack of experience. But overall we have saved ourselves the pain of going through the old methods and wasting time and money realising that it’s not sustainable for us.”
“While our vegetable production is primarily subsistence, our main focus is livestock … We produce pasture-raised chicken and eggs, and forest raised pork products for sale. Regenerative practices are beneficial for the land, but they also involve highest welfare for the raising of animals, resulting in premium nutritionally dense food products,” says Kaitlynn.
The animals are all raised outdoors, with mobile infrastructure that is moved to fresh areas every couple of days, providing fresh forage and hygienic living conditions, while keeping the animals healthy and able to express their natural instinctive behaviours. “We supplement their diets with hormone and medication free feed.”
“Planting annual vegetables, by definition, is always more extractive than raising livestock,” says Andre. “You need large applications of compost, covered crops and a huge investment in putting more back into the soil than what you take out, whereas with animals, if you time it correctly they will graze, trample and leave a lot of fertility in the form of urine and manure. The topsoil building effect of livestock is much quicker.”
They are already planning the next steps in their farming journey. “The animals we are raising now are all part of getting us ready to introduce bigger grazing animals (cattle), so that is the next step in the system.”
Kaitlynn says: “The regenerative system mimics nature. In nature you would have animals of varying sizes, in varying numbers, depending on the lie of the land. We are very conscious of what might suit our particular context.”
“We don’t want to overly impose on the landscape with our farming. Participation is a better word,” says Andre. “A gentle participation, looking at the patterns that are already there. Working with those and with the knowledge that it is always going to be work- and management-intensive. You have to always be watching, the timing changes. The rain pattern changes, animals are always mobile.”
They are very conscious of environmental impact in everything they do. “As much as we are trying to do in building soil and sequestering carbon, every time we get into our car, for example, we are making a conscious decision to undo that. It’s a conscious balance, but we are determined to do everything we possibly can to be environmentally conscious, regenerative and sustainable.”
Serious talk about soil
For a while we talk seriously about soil, and the benefits of building up and maintaining quality top soil: “It’s becoming ever-more important to ensure that rainfall stays on your property. In some cases, people are hurt by drought because the water that falls leaves the land too quickly. If land is too compacted the water just runs off without infiltrating and replenishing the ground water table. If the ground water is depleted, your springs stop running.
“You need to increase organic matter in your topsoil to increase the water retention. Nature covers the top soil with leaves, broken branches and so on, and that gets trampled into the soil (animals can help with this process). It’s preferable to have a diversity of species growing in the soil. Always have roots in the soil, roots convert carbon in the atmosphere into carbohydrates.”
— Oistein Thorsen (@VinoThorsen) January 23, 2020
It’s not all happy days and smooth sailing for this hard-working pair. There are a lot of challenges.
The type of farming they are following is time-, labour- and management-intensive. Finding a market was, for a time, a struggle, until the pair found the Reko model, which is helping their business.
“In farming, in general, there are a lot of perceived challenges that are not as big a deal as people think. Land is one example,” says Andre. “For small-scale farming there is a lot of land available to lease. Some farmers have waste areas, hectares which are fenced off, and where close to nothing happens. There are pockets of land which can be utilised and productive.”
Right market for the product
Another perception is that you need many hectares of land to do anything profitable. “But you don’t,” says Kait. “There are political and practice barriers, where people think you can only farm on large land.”
They have also noted the thinking that there has to be a trade-off between economic growth in farming and ecological well-being. “It’s a common misconception that it’s a one-or-the-other situation, but you can have both,” she says.
They have advice for small-scale food producers who are struggling to get going. “Search for the right market or platform for the product. If you can’t find it, start your own. That’s a lot of the reasoning behind us working with Reko, which is really an outlet for small-scale, inconsistent production. We didn’t come up with the model, but were able to find it and try it out here. It has been vital for our business.”
Kait recently travelled to Kenya to attend a slow-food conference as part of the Midlands Regenerative Producers’ group. She, along with Mpophomeni food producer Pha Mabaso, learned more about the slow-food movement; techniques applied in indigenous African farming and food production; how to preserve and protect such practices; preserve and save the use of traditional seeds, and much more. There was a mandate for advocacy and sharing knowledge gained to help protect and establish local, indigenous food systems.