Danie Bester has been farming in Mpumalanga, roughly 100 kilometers from Johannesburg, with his father for more than 10 years. Later, when he took over running the farm, he began to observe that his land was producing fewer and fewer high-quality crops.
He realized he had to alter the way he farms because of the mounting pressure to lower carbon emissions. He ultimately adopted a different farming strategy, known as regenerative agriculture, to improve yields and bring down the farm’s carbon emissions.
“All that you see here are not weeds, l am preparing my land for spring, l don't have to till the land, instead l keep crops on rotation so that my soil remains fertile,” he said.
Regenerative agriculture is a growing movement in agriculture as the need to improve or maintain the quality of topsoil has come to the fore. In addition to having a significant impact on the quality and amount of food produced, excellent soil also helps plants resist pests and harsh weather. By taking care of the soil, less input is needed to produce a given amount of high quality product.
Over the years one of the most significant challenges Bester says he faced was the carbon emissions caused by his farming practices. Like many farmers, he used machinery to till his fields, fertilize his crops, and harvest his yields.
But he quickly realized that conventional farming methods were contributing to the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change.
He then made a radical decision to overhaul the way he farms and use techniques that are both better for his soils and the environment.
He now uses several methods, including overcropping, managed grazing, no tilling, composting and agroforestry. All these methods improve soil health and fertility.
The first step in his transition was to stop using chemicals such as herbicides and pesticides. Instead, he began using natural methods to manage pests and weeds. This was a significant shift from traditional farming methods, and for Bester, it required a significant amount of learning and adaptation.
“What I learnt studying agriculture, and from farmers in the US, is that our entire approach to fertilization is wrong. I’ve seen firsthand that South Africa is years behind," he said. “Our fertilizer needs to be improved because of the levels of some elements."
In the off-season, Bester now substitutes cover crops for pesticides, irrigation, and intensive tillage. While worms and bacteria are hard at work in the undisturbed soil, enhancing its health in preparation for the forthcoming planting season, cattle graze in the cover-cropped fields adding manure as fertilizer. He monitors the soil's condition and manages his crops in blocks.
Bester explains how mechanical ploughing damages soil structure and interferes with natural processes.
“By burying plants and pests beneath the soil, soil organism activities that contribute to the fertility of the soil are destroyed when exposed to direct sunlight. The no-till method ensures that soil organism activities are maintained. The activities of the soil organism aerate the soil thereby increasing soil fertility,” Bester said.
He uses alternative crops such as legumes that "fix" nitrogen in his soil and aid in its regeneration, as more appropriate for his regenerative strategy. “By covering the land with plants that may or may not be used as extra cash crops, cover crops protect the soil. The major goals are to improve soil fertility and quality, control weeds, pests, and illnesses, retain more water, increase biodiversity, and protect native wildlife”, he said.
“Moreover, forage can be produced from cover crops. The biomass that is left behind after harvesting, grazing, mowing, or roller crimping can be left on the ground later in the season to act as mulch and recycle nutrients back into the soil. This terminology also applies to cover crops, which are sometimes called green manure," Bester added.
Bester said that as he implements these improvements, his farm is progressively becoming more diversified. Additionally, more wild species, like birds and insects, are coming back to his land in greater numbers.
According to the Regenerative Agriculture Association of South Africa, one of the major culprits regarding biodiversity loss is the agricultural industry.
The systems that sustain all life on Earth, including humans, depend on biodiversity. Without a wide range of animals, plants and micro-organisms, we cannot have the healthy ecosystems that we rely on to provide us with the air we breathe and the food we eat.
Globally, more than a quarter of the carbon emissions that contribute to climate change come from growing and processing food. Considering that the United Nations predicts the population to increase to 9.7 billion in 2050 from 7.9 billion currently, it is vital that farming practices change, otherwise feeding the world in 30 years will result in an 87% increase in carbon emissions.
Agriculture can play a vital role in reducing carbon emissions and moving toward a net zero world, which refers to the balance between the release and removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. It can be done by combining emissions removal with emissions reduction.
Meanwhile, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that agriculture accounts for 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions, which means it is also important for people to consider how they consume.
However, Bester's dedication to regeneration was also motivated by the need to adjust to a changing environment, in addition to his aim to increase the sustainability of his farm. He was aware that he required farming techniques to better safeguard his land from droughts, which are becoming more frequent and intense in South Africa.
Despite the fact that it has required a lot of trial and error, his persistence is paying off. He has received multiple national awards, including the 2020 Young Farmer of the Year, and in 2022 he was a finalist for the competition out of the northern region.
He also holds numerous other awards and he says he has lost count of how many are hanging on his walls. And Bester is not the only one whose transition into no-tilling is bearing fruit.
Farmer and regenerative advocate Gugulethu Mahlangu grows nutritious, chemical-free foods, leafy green vegetables, and maize at her farm, a 14-hectare farm in Witbank. Mahlangu says she has a lot to be proud of as an accomplished "agripreneur" and a woman succeeding in a field where men predominate. She says her shift to no-tilling has been the best for her soil.
“Regenerative farming is a basic way to go back to farming that was done generations earlier that focused on restoring and working with the natural ecological balance of the land. So for me improving soil health was the priority," she said.
Moreover, balancing the role of the agriculture sector while meeting the need for increased climate action is a challenging task. Agriculture is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, yet it is also an essential sector for South Africa's economy.
To bridge this gap, Mahlangu knew that she had to find ways to make her farm more sustainable while also remaining profitable.
Mahlangu says there are many benefits of regenerative farming. “When you don't till or reduce tillage of the soil you help increase soil organic matter, and that means you are adding layers of soil organic matter in your soil that can trap carbon,” she said. “The method also promotes biodiversity, because this kind of farming already creates this natural habitat that attracts insects, birds and wildlife."
However, regenerative farming has its own challenges. Both Mahlangu and Bester agree that most farmers lack skills and there is a need to understand nature when one is transitioning.
Meanwhile, according to independent environmentalist Gavin Mathews, there are also key rules which farmers need to focus on to get the best possible results of regenerative farming. “Having the correct equipment is vital to successful implementation of no-till. One needs to have a planter that is suitable to plant under no-till conditions. This would usually consist of a planter that can give significant downward pressure to penetrate through the top layer of material and crust,” he added.
Bennie Van Zyl, CEO of TLU SA Farmers, a farming body based in Pretoria, South Africa said besides reducing carbon emissions, regenerative farming has many benefits such as protecting soil health, improving water retention, and enhancing biodiversity while producing high-quality food.
TLU SA Farmers also advocates for policies that support sustainable and environmentally-friendly farming practices. “The government needs to give subsidies to farmers who would want to transition to regenerative farming because it can be financially straining. It takes a very long time to see results and sometimes you might fail before you get it right,” Van Zyl said.
In a 2017 evaluation of the policies needed to promote sustainable agriculture in the country, doctoral researcher at the time, Humphrey Khwidzhili, with the Department of Agricultural Extension and Rural Resource Management at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal’s School of Agriculture, Earth and Environmental Sciences, wrote with Professor Stephen Worth that it is necessary to create a formal, inclusive policy on sustainable agriculture methods in South Africa.
This will position agricultural extension to promote the five pillars of sustainable agriculture and help the nation prevent further environmental exploitation. Khwidzhili and Worth argue that policies to support sustainable agriculture should focus on protecting natural resources, biodiversity and water, and guard against soil erosion. It should support safe and high-quality yields, and should contribute to social wellbeing. Farmers also believe it is crucial to look long-term and build a system that will help ensure the longevity and profitability of farmers.
Although South Africa has the most industrialized farms in the continent, no-till farming is uncommon. Danie Slabbert, a farmer in the eastern Free State near Reitz, grows soybeans, potatoes, and maize. He started using no-till in 2008, and over time, he converted 1,300 hectares to regenerative agriculture.
"Once I saw improved water penetration and less erosion, I planted multispecies cover crops and high-density grazing of sheep and cattle to protect the soil. I also started using fewer fertilizers and chemicals, and I could see how the earth started to come back to life. Additionally, my biggest crop comes from regenerative agriculture land," Slabbert said.
TLU SA Farmers says the shift towards sustainable farming practices is not without its challenges, but farmers who are practicing regenerative farming have shown that there is a way forward that benefits both the environment and farming communities.
This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Zimbabwe Digital Express 30 July 2023. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner Image: Farmer, Danie Bester / Credit: Bongani Siziba.