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Organic farmers sow seeds of profit

Published Dec 1, 2002

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A group of emerging black farmers south of the city are taking advantage of wealthy consumers' growing appetite for organic foodstuff.

At Umbumbulu, 50 farmers have formed a co-operative that grows organic sweet potatoes, madumbis and baby potatoes.

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The co-op supplies Pick 'n Pay through H2A Botanicals. Woolworths has also expressed interest in the project and is discussing a collaboration.

The project - which is supported by the KwaZulu-Natal department of economic development and tourism, with additional technical support from the province's department of agriculture - was started by organic farmer James Hartzell and Albert Modi of the University of Natal, and is being used as a pilot project.

It began in 2000, in partnership with the Centre for Rural Development Systems of the University of Natal, and has received funding from the national department of arts, culture, science and technology, and the South African-Netherlands Programme for Alternatives in Development.

Hartzell says the challenge is to construct an irrigation system in the area, which is hilly, linking small disparate plots.

"The area has not been surveyed for water capacity and the water sources are scattered."

Hartzell's role is to oversee and organise the pilot project, assist farmers in upgrading on-farm organic fertiliser production and erect fences to protect crops from cattle.

Hartzell says there are plans to assist other emerging farmers to convert to organic production and so benefit from higher prices locally and perhaps ultimately export.

"But there are many fundamental technical challenges to bring subsistence farmers into organic production."

Rural communities not only lack resources but have to deal with malnutrition and chronic diseases. An agricultural project takes on more dimensions than just producing food, and any project must be sustainable in the long run.

In Umbumbulu, for example, farmers are encouraged to grow the crops they have traditionally grown. Over time, new crops will be introduced.

"These farmers know how to grow traditional crops and will move cautiously in introducing new ones," Hartzell says.

The possibilities include commercial vegetable varieties, fruits and herbs.

Organic farming requires trial and error, and patience. On Hartzell's farm in Assegay, he came up with an innovative solution to rid his fields of thousands of snails. He bought 23 ducklings, raised them largely on a diet of snails, and let them loose.

Raymond Auerbach, an organic farmer, says most emerging black farmers are organic by default, but the aim is to bring them into the mainstream by certifying their crops and so helping them to fetch higher prices.

Auerbach runs Afrisco, a company that certifies organic produce. It recently became the local representative of Ecocert International, the biggest international certifying organisation. Auerbach also heads the Rainman Landcare Foundation, which teaches and researches organic farming.

He says organic farming is more sustainable as farmers are relying on their home-made fertilisers, which nourish the soil instead of depleting it like conventional fertilisers, which also contaminate water sources.

An organic farm must be established as a balanced organism. This means selecting the right balance of perennial plants and animals, and determining the best areas for crops and livestock. The main problem is weed control and the making of compost, which in organic farming is labour-intensive.

"The art is getting the soil right and getting the right balance of natural predators.

"In general, yields on organic farms are a bit lower than a conventional farm, but the costs are also lower and the returns are much higher,"Auerbach says.

Organic farmers have to pay for certification and to some extent the lack of market support. That, however, is changing.

By 1993, Europe was producing organic foodstuff on about 200 000ha. Today, over 7 million hectares produce organic foodstuff. Over 10 percent of agriculture in Europe is organic.

South African consumers are slowly wising up to the benefits of organic food - it tastes better and is more nutritious.

Hartzell is about to embark on research that will assess whether chemical fertilisers change the molecular structure of plants and what the consequence of that is.

Woolworths and Pick 'n Pay have taken the lead in responding to developing the market for organic agriculture.

Peter Armold, the general manager for fresh produce at Pick 'n Pay, says the challenge in stocking organic produce is insufficient continuity of supply. Consumers who choose organic produce want a complete range 12 months of the year.

"We can't build a business on inconsistent supply. Nevertheless, Pick 'n Pay recognises that organic produce represents an opportunity and will continue to source organic produce."

Johan Ferreira, the head of technology for foodstuff at Woolworths, says the retail chain started providing organic food about four years ago, driven by customer demand and environmental responsibility.

"Promoting organic food has been an aggressive strategy that is now starting to pay off."

Woolworths sources organic produce from 20 farmers. Its total produce is sourced from just 100 farmers across Africa.

Organic produce is more expensive because of the nature of organic farming, which can be more time-consuming and labour-intensive.

Arnold says some growers do not support a premium for organic produce, saying the price must be determined by the market. But for smaller growers perhaps a slight premium is justified. - Durban

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