FACILITATOR: James Brodie
I have worn a few hats in my life. I grew up on this farm, “Doornplaats”, near Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Karoo, but I took a two-decade detour into the world of agricultural engineering, aerial surveying and mapping before semi-grating back in 2016.
People have all sorts of romantic ideas about farming, especially farming in the Karoo. Romance on its own is not enough. My passion is to regenerate the people, land and livestock involved in our business so as to achieve a sound, growing and resilient agri-business built on sound ecological principles.
In our context, "sustainable" is not a very helpful concept because we need to do more than sustain the status quo. Our need is not only to ‘do no harm’ to the land but to actually improve it, using farming methods that regenerate the soil and biodiversity. We are building on the work done by generations who were here before us. We view regenerative practices as sound business practice, especially in the light of an apparent increase in extreme climatic conditions.
Ours is a mixed livestock operation with both cattle and wool sheep and holistic grazing practices are essential. I make use of the herd effect to work the soil over thereby strengthening the seed bed, depositing dung and feeding the soil microbe population. At suitable times of the year we have as many animals as we can on an area, for as short a time as we can, with as long a rest period as we can. We plan for long rest periods so as to ensure that there will be at least some rain during the recovery period. Rainfall is erratic in this brittle environment and our aim is always to leave the paddock after we’ve grazed it in a state that we call ‘ready for rain’ so that we maximize the effectiveness of the rainfall by keeping it in the rootzone rather than running off with associated soil loss.
"Our need is not only to do no harm to the land but to actually improve it."
The challenge for my work with SocioTech is to transmit what I have learnt from my lived experience. When I talk to small-scale farmers, they often say ‘we need more grazing land’. I would suggest that there are two ways to expand in farming. The one way is to expand horizontally and acquire more area. The other is to expand vertically and enable the land that you have to work better for you. These two approaches are not mutually exclusive. I often say to those small-scale farmers that ‘if you get the second option right, you will be in a position to purchase additional land.’ In this context that would free them up to make decisions as individual operators that they currently don’t have on the communal grazing where they work.
"... resilient, profitable, livestock businesses. "
When we talk about grazing business - any grazing business, whether that be 20 sheep or 20 000 sheep – it revolves around managing grass, livestock and money. It is a case of turning grass into money by way of rain retention and healthy livestock. Through my relationship with SocioTech, I have been working with more than 100 small-scale farmers since 2020. The aim is to enhance best practice in those three key areas of grass, livestock and financial management. I want to enable the SocioTech participants to see their businesses as clearly as possible in those key areas through correct planning, recording and analytical tools. This lays the foundations upon which they begin to move from where many of them are now - which is often in a loss-making situation - into resilient, profitable livestock businesses.
There are some relatively small tweaks to farming techniques that can bring about rapid improvements. For instance, many of the SocioTech participants could significantly increase the carrying capacity of their land within a 12 month period by implementing planned grazing. Ideas around small scale in South Africa are going to need to be revised. I am convinced that small farmers can succeed in this environment, but only if they master the art of keeping a keen eye on profitability. It is essential to aggregate herds of animals to create the necessary business and ecological impact. It can be done. It has been done, but there are a range of personal, cultural, economic and political matters that need to be worked through for it to succeed.
So far, I have facilitated SocioTech training sessions in 4 provinces. Meaningful change requires a journey of discovery, not just a quick ‘oil change’, but I am really heartened by how the participants have been taking on board the fundamentals of regenerative grazing. From personal experience I know that change that feels huge to an individual farmer can look small from the outside – one needs to recognize every movement in the right direction.
Most of those involved in the SocioTech livestock initiatives have the major additional challenge that comes from operating a livestock enterprise on communal land. Communal land is something of a free for all when it comes to grazing. For regenerative grazing, long uninterrupted rest is one of the most fundamental requirements to allow plants and soil life to develop to full potential – on communally held land that can be a tough nut to crack.
The road ahead is challenging but I am encouraged by the way that SocioTech works. This is a model of training and development that not only sees the big picture but also recognizes the needs of individuals within the system. There is an understanding that handouts won’t help and that there needs to be lots of space built in for follow up, joint problem-solving and community engagement.
What I know for sure is that the SocioTech participants that I am working with are positive, keen to learn and hungry for hands-on training and information to improve their livestock businesses and achieve the regeneration of their land. A long journey must have a starting point. This is ours.