While soil conservation through proper contouring; and soil health maintenance through adequate fallow periods were well established at ZZ2 by the turn of the century, the deterioration of soils through synthetic fertilizers was becoming an obvious problem.
In those days organic farmers had already proved the benefits of compost, but this was limited to small-scale farming. To grow thousands of hectares commercial farmland with compost was not regarded as feasible. First experiments with large-scale compost production were initiated in 2003. With the principle proven, a larger plant with a custom-made mechanical compost turner was established at Olyfberg, in the mountains above Mooketsi in 2006, with the idea that raw material could be sourced from chopping up the invader trees which had taken over many of the mountain areas*. Unfortunately transport logistics made this idea non-viable, and a larger composting site was established on Vreedsaam farm in 2008*.
In this period, 30 hectares of tomatoes were also grown fully organic, to test the concept. Although 60 ton/ha was harvested, it was established that this methodology was not economically sustainable.
In 2001 the role of humic and fuvic organic acids in the conditioning of soil for water-penetration were already realised, and effective micro-organisms (EM) was introduced in 2002. The effectiveness of EM was dramatically illustrated to all sceptics of this invisible additive when first applied commercially in 2004: The underground sections of the Saligna tomato poles were totally decomposed by the EM*. The focus of our research now shifted to the many functions of living organisms in soil, and their contribution to the physical, nutritional and disease suppressive properties of the soil.
In 2005, Tommie van Zyl visited Australia and Thailand on a quest to understand the origins of EM and Bokashi soil conditioning developed in the East. At the Saraburi Institute and the Kyusei Nature Farming Centre he became familiar with the work of the founders of the Asia Pacific Natural Agricultural Network* (notably ProfHui-lian Xiu, K. Wakugami and the pioneer M. Okada).
He returned impressed by the “deep green” aims of this movement, i.e. to prevent agricultural pollution; to protect the natural environment; to enhance food safety; and to enhance human health and nutrition. A great advance towards optimising yields by matching plants, water and fertigation to soil type was begun in 2016 in collaboration with Agri Technovation, a company involved in precision farming through fine-grid mapping of soil types. Combined with our GIS system, this promises a new level of productivity in future.
In the search for best science and technology, composting underwent intensive refinement.
The impetus of the findings led to the establishment of NEM, an undertaking specifically dedicated to propagation of EM-applications. A production plant for compost tea was added to the compost production in 2006, first (2008) improved with expensive imported machines*, but later with simple homebuilt breeding tanks*.
A laboratory* was added to the compost and compost tea plants to monitor the quality and effectiveness of compost and compost tea, where a microbiologist played a leading role. The whole Natuurboerdery® Centre, including compost, compost tea, EM production, FPMS as well as the laboratory and research teams, were operational from 2002. Our first international consultant on the enhancement of soil health through composting was Prof Elaine Ingham* who headed the Soil Foodweb Institute in Oregon, USA.
From 2003 she visited ZZ2 several times and drew our intensive attention to the living component of soil. Later Prof Janice Thies* of Cornell University also visited ZZ2 on several occasions with students (2011 onwards), and introduced us to the soil health test, which gave rise to the establishment of our own laboratory. New raw materials of compost were intensively investigated and experimented with. In 2004 a small plant for vermicompost was built, but not found to be viable on large scale.
In 2006 bat guano was imported from Mozambique, but the suppliers’ logistics were not on par. In this period marine guano from Namibia was also added, but transport costs terminated this additive.
Eventually a stable and very satisfactory compost, EM and compost tea protocol for soil conditioning was arrived at. The inputs of Dr Michael Raviv of the Volcani Institute in Israel since 2007, further improved our compost, particularly its disease supressing properties.
His invaluable pragmatic insights were followed with great success, also when we established subsidiary composting plants at Waterpoort in 2010 for our northern farms and in Ceres in 2003 for our Western Cape apple and pear orchards. Throughout the development of the switch-over from inorganic fertilizers to compost, the fact was grasped that our long-growing tomatoes would need fertigation growing stages in addition to the initial nutrient boost of compost in the later.
Carefully monitoring the plants, nutritional needs with i.e. cardimeters* and designing appropriate fertigation protocols with best science and technology, was a key component to maintain maximum yields with best soil and plant health. All these insights could eventually be adapted to our intensive nethouse cultivation practices.