Tim Wigley is a natural farmer who has spent his life starting food gardens in rural communities around SA. He spoke to Justin Nurse in this week’s edition of the Pied Piper Project.
I’m 65 years old and was born in Willowvale, Transkei. I’ve always wanted to do farming, and in my early 20s, the opportunity arose to work as a handyman and farmer on a Catholic mission near Kosi Bay, Maputaland. I did that for six years and also began setting up food gardens in the nearby local communities, even though I had no formal agricultural training.
I then moved with my family to just outside Mdantsane near East London, and started doing natural farming on some church land there.
We built a “wattle and daub” (mud) house and started Ikhwezi Lokusa – a permaculture farm that is still thriving today, operating with the resilience of a food forest.
I worked for the World Vision SA NGO for 18 years, teaching poor communities in the Eastern Cape how to farm naturally with whatever land and space they had.
Seeing as maize is a staple crop in our country, I started experimenting with planting maize seed in mulch (decaying leaves and compost that acts as an enriching insulation for the soil) in a year of major drought. While my neighbour’s died, mine survived. That really got me thinking that there was a different way of doing things. I decided there and then to teach people that they already have all that they need to farm naturally.
I resigned from World Vision SA and put together a course on teaching farming naturally, as I’d learnt that farming with pesticides damages the soil. It looks all healthy and productive for the first year or two of using chemicals, but then your yield drops off dramatically as the soil deteriorates. I farm because I love the earth and love being close to the people. I want to protect those two things as best I can.
How many communities have you worked with around SA?
I’d guess around 60 or so. They’re almost all still growing their own gardens, which is an achievement as NGOs will fund the initial training, but rarely pay for follow-ups. What we did to counter this was set up a support group network between the participating villages – we’d share knowledge and resources, successes and failures, and swop seeds and chickens.
What’s the importance of natural farming in SA?
It’s not very big, but it is crucial. The global economy dictates how we farm using industrial methods, and people need to adjust to doing things in a natural way that allows ecosystem processes to recover and the reparative function of nature to operate, if we are to survive – especially with climate change hitting us as it is. A scary statistic is that worldwide, in the last 20 years, the carbon content in our agricultural land has gone from 20 percent to 1 percent. If you just keep ploughing and ploughing, you burn off all the organic content and micro-organisms in the soil.
Companies have such massive clout with these food programmes with our government, who then go to local villages offering to plough all their fields for them. The first year it’s free, the second year it’s 25 percent of the cost, the third year it’s 50 percent, and the fourth year 75 percent, until they’re (theoretically) successful farmers.
And I’ve just watched them fail one after the other. By the time they get to the second year the income from that land is less than 50 percent of the cost and they can’t pay. They end up selling their cattle and losing their pensions, and the government just moves on to the next village.
This is what we’re up against.
Do you consider yourself a leader?
I do. For me, leadership means inspiring people with their own potential. I like to help people see that all around them they have all that they already need. I also love seeing the results and the enthusiasm that locals share with me about the difference that natural farming has made to their lives. It’s been very rewarding.
Are you hopeful?
I am, though government’s seeming inability to do anything about climate change is somewhat depressing.
So I don’t know why I am hopeful in the face of the power these large corporations have to keep things going in a destructive direction.
But when I return to some of the food gardens that are now food forests that I helped start and see, decades later, the healthy food that is still growing there, I know that it can be done.
These days Tim can be found at Khula Dhamma Eco Village outside East London. Please visit: www.khuladhamma.org
l Justin Nurse is a freelance journalist and founder of Laugh It Off.