Salt of the Earth – Lowerland
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.
THE SIXTH GENERATION TAKING A NEW APPROACH
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.
PRIMED FOR PERMACULTURE
“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.
A GLASS OVERFLOWING
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.lowerland.co.za.
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.