When Tommie van Zyl returned to the family farm after postgraduate studies in the USA in 1985, the family farm was already one of the largest farming enterprises in South Africa.
It was built up by his father, Bertie van Zyl, with his uncle, Flip van Zyl, and a team of loyal farmers and workers.
Farming practices were on the then conventional lines of commercial farming: Dams in the river with pumps to high-lying brick dams for flood irrigation (in 1981 replaced by drip irrigation); set protocols for synthetic fertilisers and chemical pest control, largely on the advice of commercial agrochemical consultants; a field rotation based on crop failures; and a single channel marketing strategy to fresh produce markets.
At this stage (1984), ZZ2 already had its own fleet of market-trucks, and over 3000 people in its employ.
From the start Tommie was keenly aware of the unsustainable nature of this industrial farming model, and searched for better strategies.
Increasingly dangerous and expensive insecticides were recommended against increasingly resistant pests and the increasing number of repercussion pests on tomatoes (particularly the fatal potato moth, bolwurm, looper, American leafminer and red spider mite).
Added to this was the notable deterioration of soil health and fertility, with field rotation time extending to up to ten years and still with poor results. His efforts to change farming practices were not always appreciated by the successful previous generation, and it was only after 2001, when he achieved real control as CEO, that his approach to farming gained momentum.
Before the turn of the century, Tommie was already inspired by the wisdom of Dr Jona Fisher (of Plaaschem), Ibrahim Michael (from Egypt) and other alternative thinkers in agriculture. He visited Oregon with Dale Paul in 1994, and later started a joint venture insectary with him. He also instituted three teams in 1996, dedicated to the improvement and innovation of the following task areas: Pest Control; Irrigation; and Plant Nutrition (in 2005 supplemented with Engineering Services).
In 1994 Ben Durant was employed as first full-time agronomist at ZZ2, and he devised an exemplary plant nutrition protocol (still in use in modified form), and enthusiastically supported more natural farming methods such as composting.