Salt of the Earth – Low­er­land

Indwe - - Contents - Text: Will Edgcumbe Images © Supplied

The idea of farm­ing is of­ten a ro­man­tic no­tion to those of us stuck in the city. Deep in­side many of us, per­haps, is a small yearn­ing to cast off the smog, the busi­ness jar­gon and the re­lent­less­ness of ur­ban liv­ing and trade it all in for the still­ness of a farm, or per­haps that bone-tired rest from an hon­est day’s work in the sun.

Whilst farm­ing is all that, it can also be some­thing of a mer­ci­less en­deav­our, show­ing up one’s frail­ties in the face of na­ture or a mer­ci­less mar­ket. The re­al­ity usu­ally falls some­where in be­tween. It’s ex­tremely hard work, but equally re­ward­ing. And though it’s hard to ig­nore all the dire pre­dic­tions about the fu­ture of farm­ing – from eco­nomic is­sues to cli­mate change – all it takes is com­ing across one farm which proves that do­ing things right is a vi­able way to make a liv­ing, and it kin­dles real hope for the fu­ture.


Low­er­land, on the north­ern bank of the Or­ange River near Prieska in the North­ern Cape, is ex­actly that farm. Bertie and Alette Coet­zee and their team fo­cus on con­ser­va­tion agri­cul­ture and holis­tic man­age­ment, and are steer­ing Low­er­land to­wards a re­gen­er­a­tive, sus­tain­able model for agri­cul­ture – and prov­ing that per­ma­cul­ture can be ap­plied on a larger scale.

“I’m the sixth gen­er­a­tion that farms in this area. My grand­fa­ther bought this piece of land in 1965 and started pump­ing wa­ter with a diesel en­gine, and my par­ents started farm­ing here in 1980,” Bertie says. “In the 37 years they have been on Low­er­land they have seen and grown it all, from pota­toes, seed onions, peanuts, cot­ton, maize and wheat to wine grapes and wine, cat­tle [Bon­s­mara stud], pecan nuts, and now fi­nally or­ganic pro­duce. My wife Alette and I ar­rived here in 2013 and we have pushed the farm to­wards an or­ganic operation.”

Be­fore join­ing the farm, Bertie en­joyed a stint as a mu­si­cian in the suc­cess­ful band

Zinkplaat. While record­ing their last al­bum, Bertie spotted a com­post heat out­side the stu­dio. Some­thing clicked, and he signed up for a com­post­ing course as well as brandyand wine­mak­ing cour­ses.


“Alette had health is­sues at the time and she ended up do­ing a per­ma­cul­ture and nat­u­ral build­ing course at Berg-en-Dal in Ladi­smith [in the Western Cape]. When she came back I couldn’t un­der­stand a word that she was say­ing, so I signed up for an on­line course with Aus­tralian per­ma­cul­ture guru, Ge­off Law­ton,” Bertie says.

“I re­alised that per­ma­cul­ture can and should be prac­ticed on a broad or com­mer­cial scale and that it is not nec­es­sar­ily only for back­yards or small home­steads. I also re­alised that we were al­ready prac­tic­ing most of the prin­ci­ples on our farm. That en­cour­aged me to em­brace the phi­los­o­phy and to make it hap­pen as soon as possible.”

Bertie isn’t kid­ding about the timescale. In just a few years, Low­er­land has be­come one of the flag-bear­ers for per­ma­cul­ture at com­mer­cial scale. If per­ma­cul­ture is an un­fa­mil­iar term to you, the gist is that it’s the de­vel­op­ment of agri­cul­tural ecosys­tems in­tended to be sus­tain­able and self-suf­fi­cient. Con­sider this quote by Wen­dell Berry: “Na­ture in­cludes us. It is not a place into which we reach from some safe stand­point out­side it. We are in it and a part of it while we use it. If it does not thrive, we can­not thrive.”

In a sense, sus­tain­abil­ity comes down to soil health – it’s the soil from which plants, an­i­mals and hu­mans ul­ti­mately draw their nu­tri­ents, and so ev­ery ac­tiv­ity needs to nur­ture and pro­tect the soil. This means that mono­cul­ture (grow­ing a single crop year in and year out) is a bad idea. Rather, ro­tat­ing or si­mul­ta­ne­ously grow­ing com­ple­men­tary crops and live­stock can pro­tect the land whilst reap­ing from it. It cer­tainly sounds like a sus­tain­able idea in the true sense of the word – en­vi­ron­men­tally, so­cially and eco­nom­i­cally.

“We rear mostly cat­tle and sheep. Pigs we bring in to fin­ish rot­ten pump­kins in au­tumn. We have wine grapes and pecan nuts as our peren­nial or­chards. We make our own wine and shell and sell our own pecan nuts. We farm pump­kins for the ex­port mar­ket, and

In just a few years, Low­er­land has be­come one of the flag­bear­ers for per­ma­cul­ture at com­mer­cial scale.

then maize and dif­fer­ent wheat va­ri­etals for our stone­ground milling operation, called Low­er­land Whole Grains. These crops are all fully cer­ti­fied or­ganic,” Bertie says.

They man­age all this with­out us­ing her­bi­cides. Rather, through clever use of tim­ing, graz­ing, plant­ing a di­ver­sity of species in com­bi­na­tion, and even al­low­ing weeds and grasses to take their course, the soils on the farm are in a healthy state. Bear in mind, they also man­age this in the rel­a­tively un­for­giv­ing en­vi­rons of the North­ern Cape, where both frost and heat waves are a real dan­ger.


The team at Low­er­land have also proven that world-class wines can be pro­duced in the North­ern Cape, as it shares traits with some of the world’s great­est re­gions. “I feel that our wines are unique be­cause of the re­gion or ter­roir – some­where be­tween the Up­per Ka­roo, Kala­hari and Boes­man­land, with an al­ti­tude of 1,000 m, 700 km in­land, and with an in­ter­est­ing mi­cro­cli­mate next to the river,” Bertie ex­plains. “When I ar­rived on the farm, I de­cided to farm the vine­yards or­gan­i­cally, be­cause I wanted to do nat­u­ral fer­ments and then you wouldn’t want to spray your grapes. I also felt that we needed to give the grapes the chance to express them­selves with­out mi­cro­manag­ing with fer­til­iz­ers and chem­i­cals. That, for me, is ter­roir.”

What they’ve achieved is no small feat, prov­ing wrong the sen­ti­ment that per­ma­cul­ture can’t be done at scale. This isn’t to say that there aren’t chal­lenges, but Bertie and his team are in­spir­ing and on a won­der­ful path. “The big­gest chal­lenge with this ap­proach is the mar­ket. When you start farm­ing with­out agro-chem­i­cals, in a di­verse operation, with in­te­grated pro­duce and ro­ta­tions, the whole busi­ness model changes,” Bertie says.

“When you take fer­til­izer out of the pic­ture, the operation needs to be­come very di­verse and in­ter­con­nected. This is be­yond or­ganic – it is per­ma­cul­ture and it works in closed loops. Sud­denly you need to learn all about dif­fer­ent crops and an­i­mals in a very short time, while you are on the road look­ing for dif­fer­ent mar­kets for mul­ti­ple prod­ucts. This is a dif­fer­ent kind of scale. It is the di­ver­sity scale, where you can be ev­ery­thing for your clients and pro­vide them with all the nutri­tious, sea­sonal pro­duce that they need.”

You can find out more about Low­er­land’s pro­duce – and pur­chase their phe­nom­e­nal wine – at www.low­er­

Open­ing Page: Work­ers at Low­er­land seed a short sea­son cover crop cocktail to bal­ance soil nu­tri­ents be­fore plant­ing or­ganic wheat.Sec­ond Page Left: Ti­aan Lot­ter­ing “Pas­toor” is on his sec­ond year of train­ing on the Fu­ture Farmer pro­gram and he al­ways has a smile on his face. Here he is harvesting Mer­lot.Sec­ond Page Right: Bon­s­mara calves in a mob graz­ing sys­tem. The cat­tle on Low­er­land plays an in­te­gral part in their ro­ta­tions and only feed on pas­tures.Sec­ond Page Bot­tom: Flow­ers in the cover crop and pas­ture mixes at­tract pol­li­na­tors, preda­tors and other ben­e­fi­cial in­sects for the whole year.This Page Top: A se­lec­tion of Low­er­land’s world-class wines.This Page Mid­dle: Gilga find­ing some shade in the rolled cover crop mix of oats, vetch, radishes and clover. Or­ganic maize are planted straight into this live green mulch car­pet.

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