Conventional farming vs natural farming

a Clean development mechanism for nutrient dense food production, agricultural land reform and production of biofuel and nutriceuticals in Africa.

An interview by Liza van der Merwe with Johan Bruwer

Johan Bruwer is a resource and agricultural economist based in Nelspruit, Mpumalanga for the last 15 years. During this time he has grappled with issues regarding sustainability of modern agricultural practices, or the lack thereof. Not perturbed by his less successful attempt to persuade the Mpumalanga Provincial Government to adopt an agricultural clean development mechanism (agCDM) as a central theme in their 2006 sector development strategy, he decided to initiate a biological farming trial at the Nelspruit-based Timbali Technology Incubator.


Liza: Johan, can you explain what biological farming is. Most people I’ve spoken to about biological farming seem to believe that it is the same as organic farming. Is this true?

Johan: Most people, upon learning that biological farming is based on the microbial recycling of organic matter in order to build highly productive and humus rich soils with a high level of soil microbial diversity, inevitably think “organic farming”. This misconception is very common mainly, I believe, due to the brand power which has established organic production.

Liza: But what exactly is the difference, since both farming practices seem to revolve around “organics”?

Johan: As opposed to biological farming, organic farming focuses on input substitution. Most conventional chemical farmers setting out to do “organic farming”, start out by looking for organically approved inputs to substitute all their chemical inputs with in order to qualify for the expected certified organic price premium. Whereas a biological farmer recognizes that there are many valuable inorganic inputs that do not compromise soil microbial diversity. Therefore, the input substitution model is as unsustainable as the conventional chemical model, two sides of the same coin. The cotton and biofuel industries seem to be learning this lesson the hard way.

Liza: Does biological farming therefore not constitute a paradigm shift? Have you, before the Mpumalanga Sector Development Strategy, tried to bring about such a paradigm shift within government circles?

Johan: The answer to the first part of your question is yes, biological farming constitutes a paradigm shift. The reason being that a biological farmer in South Africa is a beginner farmer, irrespective of his/her former status as a farmer e.g. commercial farmer, organic farmer, emerging farmer, subsistence farmer or non-farmer. I have come across people that refer to biological farming as advanced organic production methods, which does contain a great deal of truth and sounds good.

As you know, for most part of the 1990’s I have worked on farmer resettlement and always thought that the settlement and re-settlement of farmers create a unique opportunity for the introduction of paradigm shifts. One of the main drivers for my argument being that the critical mass required to overcome market entry barriers associated with new value chains, can actually be created over the short to medium term during such farmer resettlement programmes. However, I have learnt that government departments seldom, if ever, challenge the status quo.

Liza: Why would that be? And is land reform not challenging the status quo?

Johan: My experience is that the “middle management trap” is to blame. Middle management does not take chances with paradigm shifts in either the public sector (political careers) or the private sector (corporate careers). When things go wrong, as they frequently do in agriculture, and “the guys with the suits” move in, everything is measured in deviations from the norm. Top management always has the convenience of reporting that no future deviations from the norm will be allowed. This situation brings about a very strong business plan for anybody making a living out of the status quo. As far as land reform is concerned, if alternative production methods were given the same national priority as land ownership, the paradigm shift would be achieved in a very short space of time. Consumers already know that poor nutrient density (low levels of nutrient density) in food is unacceptable, just as government knows that the old model of land ownership is unacceptable. However, for the present the consumer must live with frequent visits to the doctor and the regular use of antibiotics and supplements.

Liza: Is there any international expert(s) on the sustainability of agricultural production that you would regard as a particularly good mentor for bringing about this paradigm shift in the Southern African agricultural and political arena?

Johan: Yes, Dr Arden Andersen. Dr Andersen holds 2 doctoral degrees in medicine and agriculture and has published some of the definitive works on sustainability of agricultural production in recent years. He is familiar with South Africa and has presented various courses on the subject matter. Dr Andersen’s insistence on the monitoring of the refractive indexes, in ºBrix or just leaf sap brix, brings about two important issues. Firstly, one needs to measure and report on what you are trying to achieve, which is exactly what leaf sap brix is all about and secondly, although there is a lot of hard science behind leaf sap brix, even an illiterate person can be trained in how to adapt farming practices in order to reach the end goal of achieving high brix readings.

Liza: Taking all of the above into consideration, how does Timbali provide you with an opportunity to achieve your end goal of a paradigm shift?

Johan: I’ve decided to set up a biological farming trial, with two distinctive phases. Phase I concerns itself with soil fertility which involves the building of soil through the microbial recycling of organic matter and minerals. Phase I is therefore the proof of concept phase. Phase II is concerned with farming on the soil which was created in Phase I. It relieves some of the tension involved with a paradigm shift. People involved with the trial can expect remarks like: “That is not how it is done in farming” or “This technique does not work in agriculture”. They can then respond with: “We are not farming; we are creating a specific type of soil. If we succeed in making the soil, we will try our hand at farming that specific soil”. Those persisting with negative criticism are then obviously those that cannot make the paradigm shift. Simple, isn’t it?

The companies involved in the trial have one thing in common. Over and above the obvious interest in sustainability, the companies need to be able to circumvent the middle management trap. For this you need a special type of person in top management (CEO or MD level) and very short line functions. I need to have the support from top management to be able to shoulder the ups and downs of the learning curve. Remember, everybody is a beginner farmer when your primary crop is fertile soil.

Liza: Who are the companies involved in the trial, and what will each bring to the table except for making the trial possible?

Johan: Firstly there is the need to package proof of concept technology. Timbali Technology Incubator (TTI) has a good track record as an established agricultural based incubator that specializes in packaging new technology for start-up farmers. Timbali focuses on creating an enabling environment through the business development process of agri-SMME’s.

Timbali is currently accelerating its drive to support the needs of the start-up farmer. Small scale farmers in South Africa are entrenched in a cycle of inertia resulting in poverty due to outdated technologies, lack of skills and limited access to formal markets. They address these problems by providing growers with access to technical expertise, financial administration as well as markets in order to reduce the skills gap between large and small scale farmers. If the start up farmers can be placed in a position to earn a price premium on higher quality produce, Timbali wants to help make more things more possible for more people in the agricultural sector. Timbali is a section 21 company which on the one hand has the management expertise to make the trial a success, and on the other hand has an appropriate nutriceutical mandate.

Secondly there is the need for an irrigation system that can facilitate the infield creation and composting of organic matter. Floppy Sprinkler is a South African company with probably the most solid set overhead irrigation experience in the southern hemisphere. Thirdly there is the need for high quality biological fertilizers. Advanced Nutrients SA, with its origins in Australia, has developed biological fertilizers that are very much aligned with Dr Andersen’s teachings.

Liza: What is the starting point of the trial, and where does it need to lead to?

Johan: We start out with green manuring, which means growing a crop for the sole purpose of returning it to the soil. We are starting out with Dolichos beans (Lablab purpureus). Initially we want to demonstrate that it is possible to reduce input costs due to increased efficiencies in input use, by utilizing appropriate technologies in new operations. Eventually we want beginner farmers to have the potential to earn price premiums on high brix produce. Should government come to the table, the country and the region should be able to earn carbon credits from large scale agCDM projects. In my opinion, qualification for biomass carbon credits is a prerequisite to biofuel and its associated fuel switch carbon credits. That is if you want to farm without subsidies and achieve greenhouse gas balance validity.

Liza: Do you have any international business people, with a known investment interest in Mpumalanga, in mind with results from the trial.

Johan: Without a doubt, Sir Richard Branson. Who better to brand your concept, when your concept is Virgin Soil?

Liza: Do you have a motto that keeps you motivated?

Johan: Yes. Failure is never final, success is never permanent. In the end it is only your faith that counts!