A holistic recipe for farming success


By Jasper Raats | 2 May 2017
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When Sebastian started farming on an old citrus farm in Zambia's Kafue district nine years ago, he carried his vegetables to town on a bicycle every day.

By producing organic vegetables, fruits, chickens, eggs and pork in Zambia’s Kafue district with holistic management methods, Sebastian Scott earns a substantial premium for his products from retailers and families in the country’s capital, Lusaka.

So much so that he could grow from a micro farmer whose products were transported to the nearby town of Kafue by bicycle to a successful operation that could afford to erect a whole learning center for other emerging farmers.

Sebastian returned his native Zambia from Euorpe sixteen years ago. In Europe and earlier in Australia, he worked as a farm-hand on organic farms and he adapted the farming principles he learned there to Africa’s soil and climate conditions.

TEACHING OTHERS

His adapted farming principles were so successful that he saw an opportunity to help other African farmers and established the Grassroots Trust in collaboration with a friend, Mr. Rolf Shenton.

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Sebastian Scott, with his friend and co-founder of the Grassroots Trust in Zambia, Rolf Shenton. The aim of the trust is to protect and develop traditional farming systems that help small-scale farmers to farm profitably and sustainably with minimal input costs.

This organization strives to train Zambian farmers to look at their farms holistically and to manage it according to the principles that the father of holistic management, Mr. Alan Savoury laid down.

In short, the holistic approach implies that farmers must consider social, economic and environmental realities in their decision-making process and ensure that their decisions do not have unintended long and short-term consequences. The emphasis is on management practices that enhance natural water cycles and nutrient flow for improved profitability and sustainability.

That’s why the Grassroots Trust works with researchers around the world to develop integrated agricultural practices on Sebastian’s farm and share it with other farmers in Zambia.

Rolf believes Zambian farmers have successfully been living with nature for centuries, but modern politics and western agricultural practices has seen communal land chopped up into small patches and farmers have moved away from their traditional grazing and planting practices.

They started ploughing and leaving the soil bare for the sun to burn off all the nutrients and the annual rains to wash away all the fertile top soil.

BUILDING THE SOIL

If one compares Sebastian’s farm with that of other small-scale farmers in the area, the difference in cultivation practices is clearly visible in the green foliage on his fields and pastures. Where other farmers remove their cover crops and even burn plant rests on the fields, all organic matter remains on Sebastian’s soil.

His approach to “weeds” is probably the biggest difference between him and his neighbours. Instead of using herbicides, or to mechanically remove all weeds, Sebastian simply opens up a small planting gap for his new crop to be planted.

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Through planting various grain and vegetable crops together, Sebastian conserves the soil moisture and gets three harvests simultaneously. He also chooses to embrace the advantages that weeds offer as ground cover and biomass rather than eradicating it with chemicals.

Rolf explains that weeds play an important role in rebuilding the soil. “To rebuild our land to its full production potential, we need at least 15 tons of biomass per hectare per year. If you only plant maize and spray all the weeds between the rows with glyphosate, you will not get close to that quota,” he explains.

Rolf says a farmer who gets seven tons of maize per hectare will only have about seven tons of biomass per hectare from his maize plants after harvesting. You will therefore have to get eight tonnes of biomass to add if you want to reach your 15-tonne per hectare target.That’s why Sebastian plants pigeon peas (Cajanus cajan), climbing beans and pumpkin or butter nut with his maize.

“You want to manage the weeds, but not wipe them out. They are an important source of food for the microorganisms in your soil,” says Rolf. “We just cut them off, but loosen the roots in the ground. The roots help to bind the soil and the foliage you cut off adds to your biomass and helps you achieve your 15-tonne target.”

Rolf says the soil cover and Sebastian’s tolerance to weeds and even termites make that maize plants can comfortably go for a month or more without rain. The weeds’ roots and termites’ tunnels feed rainwater deep into the soil profile and the ground cover prevents evaporative losses.

In this system Sebastian harvests an average of 7.5 tonnes of maize per hectare on his dry land. He harvests between 500 and 800kg of pigeon peas per hectare and what he does not use as animal feed, he sells at around R10 per kilogramme as seed to other farmers. The pigeon peas are also exported to countries like Malawi where they are cooked and eaten as a dill. The pumpkins deliver between two and three tons per hectare.

“I’m also experimenting with crops like cassava, soya and pigeon peas that I plant simultaneously in the same field,” says Sebastian.

On the soya he had already planted, he had a crop average of between 1.5 and 2.5 tons per hectare. According to his experiments, he harvested ten per cent less per crop by planting it together, but profits made up for this by far. “You get 90% of your normal crop per hectare. Multipy that with three or even four – it’s a good business,” he says.

Everywhere in Sebastian’s 9,5ha farm there are also fruit trees. Papaya, litchi, guava, mango and orange trees are planted about every 20m between the vegetables and cereal crops. There is also a banana orchard. He has also planted macadamia, citrus and avocados to see how it goes.

IT STARTED WITH VEGGIES

When Sebastian started out at Old Orchard Organic Farm, he did so as a vegetable farmer and because he did not have a car or a bakkie, he transported his vegetables with a bicycle pulling a small trailer to Kafue, a town about five kilometers from the farm. There he sold it to shops and street vendors. “The trailer was designed to transport 150kg, so I could deliver between 150kg and 160kg a day.”

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Not only did this bicycle and trailer made it possible for Sebastian to build houses for his co-workers and their families, they also found a training centre for the Grassroots Trust. The lecture room is in the background.

Today he uses a bakkie and many of his vegetables and fruits are sold at a premium to specialty stores in Lusaka as organic produce. A friend in the capital also operates a vegetable box system and packs a variety of Old Orchard Farm products according to the needs of his different customers every week, delivering it directly to their homes.

Sebastian plants rows of different vegetables next to each other rather than single crops in one block. “Every two to three weeks we plant six rows of vegetables: a row of the solanaceae family like tomatoes or eggplant, one of the amaranthaceae family like spinach or beet and a row of the brassicaceae family like broccoli or cauliflower, a row carrots, a row of beans or peas and a strip of onion. The rows are rotated and mixed to help with insect control.

Sebastian explains that, due to this practice, he suffered almost no harm when the Tuta Absoluta tuber moth hit Zambia last year. “There is no big block of tomatoes that attract the moths and through which the worms can work their way, so our damage is limited to a few plants.” The same principle applies to other pests.

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Different types of vegetables are planted in rows next to each other to contrl the spread of disease and insects.

TRAVELLING CHICKENS AND PIG TRACTORS

Sebastian irrigates his vegetables with a home-made dragline system and supplements the natural compost of plant rests with manure he collects from the paddocks where his cattle and pigs graze. Frogs, spiders, wasps and chickens help with pest control and Sebastian says damage caused by insects to his crops is negligible.

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Weaner pigs are used to till and fertilize the soil while they feed on vegetable rests. A 12m x 4m mobile cage or “pig tractor” with 12 piglets is moved once a day to keep the pigs happy and healthy. Larger hogs are reduced to eight per cage and are moved twice daily.

From his Black Australorp Chickens he markets free range eggs to a supermarket in Lusaka, and he also raises about 400 broilers at a time.The main purpose of the chickens is insect and weed control in his fields. They live in mobile chicken houses that can easily be moved by two people.

As soon as a strip of vegetables is harvested, a mobile pig cage or pig tractor, as Sebastian calls it, moves over the vegetable plantings. The ‘tractor’ comprises 12 weaners in a 2mx4m mobile cage. They feed on the plant rests while they till and fertilize the soil.

The cage is moved once a day, and when the weaners reach a weight of approximately 40kg each, they are reduced to eight pigs per cage and the cage is shifted twice a day. The chickens follow shortly on their heels.

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Chickens play an important part to control the insects and weeds on Old Orchard farm. They are moved in these mobile pens following behind the pig cages and they help to prepare the soil for the next season.

Rolf says Sebastian’s farming method mimics nature. “In the forest the leaves fall on the ground and herds trample buffalo and other wildlife come to trample the soil and fertilize it as they move.

SAVING ON FEED

By utilizing his vegetable stubble and producing own feed from grains, Sebastian saves not only on his feed bill, but keeps the nutrients from his animals’ manure on the farm. “We collect all the manure of the animals and save it under a tarpaulin until the next planting season. My input costs are therefore minimal.”

The weaner pigs that feed on the vegetables and between the fruit trees come from three production sows Sebastian keeps in a big pork paddock. From each sow he markets about 20 pigs for the meat market every year, and his best female animals are being held back to sell to other farmers as breeding material.

A month before the weaners are marketed, they are released in the paddocks with the cattle to roam freely. A local butcher in Lusaka, Majoru Butcheries, does the slaughtering and processing of carcasses and Sebastian markets his meat directly to retailers as a free range pork.

He also has some cattle that contribute to the extent to which Sebastian can sustain his own family and that of his two workers / partners on the farm. He says after everything is paid there is always enough profit for the three families to save and some to pay for quality education for their children.

It is from this profit that he was able to erect the Grassroots Trust Learning Center and can continue to experiment with low input farming technologies.

Nowadays, non-governmental organizations regularly sponsor groups of Zambian smallholder farmers to come to Sebastian to learn about holistic management so he is earning an from his knowledge.

Contact Sebastian Scott: Sebtree@hotmail.com