Bucking the trend in the drought

Western Cape farmers take water security in their own hands

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The Western Cape has faced its worst drought in a century, and this is the third consecutive year of that drought. Cape Town’s mayor has been at pains to point out that—with climate change — “This is the new normal.”

With dwindling water supply to farmers, crop productions have been slashed and, across the Province, between 35 000 and 50 000 jobs are at risk, excluding an even larger number of seasonal workers. I asked for the provincial department of agriculture’s stats for produce under threat but received no response! I am underwhelmed!

Minister Alan Winde’s speeches, however, paint a dire picture which are just a tip of the iceberg. A month ago, Alan visited the West Coast. “There’s thousands and thousands of hectares of agricultural land below the Clanwilliam Dam which produces a lot of produce and revenue for our country that’s now under severe water restrictions. They’re going to produce 50% less,” he said. “Farmers are being throttled and are forced to use 60% less water, with the Clanwilliam Dam level at around 36%. There’s an 80% decrease in potato crops and a drop in wine and export quality citrus.” With commercial farmers struggling, one focus for Province is supporting backyard food gardens for workers’ food security.

“In places like Ceres, 80% less potatoes and 50% less onions will be planted resulting in about R40 million less paid out in salaries and wages. In Lutzville the tomato paste plant will not even open this year. Some 30 000 animals have been sold as farmers battled to feed their core herds.”

Against this backdrop, Boschendal started out at the beginning of the drought with a massive planting of 600 000 new fruit trees over a period of three years—which has just been completed. Permanent jobs in farming operations alone has grown from 70 to 287. Their dams are full and Jacques du Toit, Boschendal’s general manager, said the dams started overflowing on 20 August and he counted 15 streams on the farm running into the Dwars River, on to the Berg River, and out to sea…

Boschendal dams (and just some of them are shown above) hold 3½ million cubic metres of water—3 500 megalitres. Boschendal relies entirely on its own dams for all agricultural water.

It doesn’t draw any water from the Theewaterskloof, Berg River or any State dams for farming operations.

Filling the dams and making the water last is achieved by careful and effective custodianship and management of the land—alien clearing does make a very big difference to water flows from the mountains and nurturing soil quality in the vineyards and orchards sees water use reduced by 30%. Jacques du Toit keeps repeating: “Soil health is everything.”

Jacques and former CEO, Rob Lundie, spent hours discussing and debating innovations to improve the management of the land. Rob encouraged all managers to research and innovate—and YouTube is full of inspiration for farmers. They trialled new orchard blocks where cover crops were planted before and after the new trees were planted. Planting cover crops after the new trees were established won. The cover crops are a mix of rye grass, turnips, ciradella, radishes, vetch and red & white clover Boschendal’s Black Angus beef herd grazes on the cover crops… leaving their own goodness behind.

Apart from reducing water usage, the good soil quality also reduces the need for fertilizers by 30%.

Using biological fertilizers, although more expensive, is also better for the soil.

Jacques started soil tests at Rob’s insistence and the orchards gave a reading of only 2. He went up to the Viewpoint to fetch some topsoil for comparison. “One needs a non-disturbed reference as yardstick. It was rich and full of earthworms,” he recalls. “The reading from that soil was 21! Better than good.” In the following six months, he managed to improve soil quality in the orchards by 400-600%.”

“Healthy soil holds rain water—the statistics show that 300 000-500 000 litres of water per hectare per 1% increase in humus is saved. You need less irrigation and the land seeps for longer, amongst many other benefits,” says Rob.

Boschendal is micro-managed. There are 300 precision probes in the soil measuring moisture every 10cm to a depth of 80cm—one per hectare in the orchards and one every three hectares in the vineyards—with repeaters to the office.

There is an irony to the “bad” alien vegetation … it is being recycled to improve the quality of the soil in the orchards. It all goes into a chipper—at a rate of 50m³ a day—and 200m³ of wood chips/hectare goes into the topsoil on the orchards. It’s going to take another two years of chipping before there will be enough for the whole farm.

Distributing the wood chips was a time-consuming process so Jacques designed a machine to do it more efficiently.

Some of the alien vegetation is used to create biochar, which is added to the farm’s composting operation, using waste from the restaurants and winery.

The worm farm on the Estate has become a dedicated operation.

The beef herd, which peaked at nearly 800 cows, has been reduced to 600—the number best suited to the farm.

Farmer Rico’s pasture-raised chickens also fall under Jacques’ ambit now and will soon have 4 000 lay hens and 2 000 broilers.

But it’s the pigs that must be the envy of pigs everywhere! There are three forested camps each of about 2½ hectares in forests where they roam free.

With Eskom’s future looking increasingly bleak and electricity price hikes almost assured, Boschendal’s massive second solar farm producing almost 1 megawatt of electricity has just been commissioned, reducing the farm’s reliance on the national grid.

What are the lessons from Boschendal? The most important is that preparation for the drought should have started over three years ago.

This has less to do with Stellenbosch municipality and everything to do with the farmers of the Greater Simonsberg Conservancy—who cleared alien vegetation in the catchment area and watercourses above the dam.

Take a bow Tokara and Thelema Estates, for over five years they have continuously cleaned up all alien vegetation. Cape Town’s mayor is correct when she says “this is the new normal”. But the City has been preaching Climate Change for nearly 20 years… so why wasn’t it prepared? Why is the City building temporary desalination plants if this is the new normal?

The mayor recently added alien clearing around Wemmershoek dam to her list of interventions—that’s going to have no impact in the short term because the rains are long past.

Had they started five years ago, clearing alien vegetation in the catchment areas of all Cape Town dams, an expert speaking on CapeTalk radio said the impact would have been the equivalent of building a new full Wemmershoek dam.

The City has failed its citizens, and national government… well… they have neither the competence, the political will nor the funding to make a difference.

The national Department of Water & Sanitation is bankrupt. Politicians are playing Russian Roulette with the Province’s future. They focus on politically-expedient decisions rather than long term plans. I asked one politician what will happen if the drought… the new normal… doesn’t break next winter. “We’ll all resign,” was the answer. Now that’s cold comfort! Maybe a few really good farmers would do a better job of running the City and Province.

Carl Momberg

This article first appeared at www.capeinfo.com

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