Behind the groomed Spier Estate we all know with its smooth picnic lawns and fine food, lies another world. Rolling back for hundreds of hectares is farmland going through biodynamic conversion.
There are 3 models inspiring what’s happening; Sekem in Egypt, Polyface Farm in the USA, and la Vialla in Tuscany. It’s a big dream, of a major biodynamic centre producing everything from olive oil through to vegetables, cheese and meat, inspiring and feeding people, healing the earth, and creating a sustainable farming model based on organic and biodynamic principles.
“Spier has been heavily farmed in the past under vines, nectarines and later carrots. This depleted the land because conventional farming and fertilisers destroy microbial life in the soil. So that’s where we’ve started – fertile soil is the foundation of it all,” said Christo, the farm manager, as we bumped along in the bakkie.
“We’ve sown a mixed pasture of grasses and legumes for their nitrogen-fixing ability, then once the pasture is established we move in our cows which build the soil with their dung and urine When they’ve grazed the pasture sufficiently we bring in hens in our portable ‘egg-mobiles.’ The hens’ function is to disperse the micro-organisms in the cow dung with their scratching as they search for fly larvae in the dung while adding their own droppings.”
And so the cycle continues, rotating over time, and slowly restoring the soil.
Skrop hoenders and egg-mobiles
A shining rooster strode towards us, as if off the page of a picture book.
“We’ve chosen older breeds, known in Afrikaans as ‘skrop hoenders’ for their desire to range and scratch,” Christo explained.
The egg-mobile is a portable nesting wagon that can be closed at night to keep the birds safe in the fields; by day it stands open and they come and go. On another part of the farm there is a row of chicken houses, moved every day to fresh pasture. They consist of open-bottomed cages that give the broilers access to fresh grass while they simultaneously fertilise the pastures. It’s fascinating ‘proof’ to see how the greenness of the pasture corresponds exactly with where they have been. Another breed they’re trying is the ‘Boschveld,’ an original South African hen.
“Being indigenous they are more active and work the land more, although they will probably lay fewer eggs. Commercial hens are quite sedentary in comparison, even if allowed to range,” said Christo.
Fresh pastured chickens and eggs will soon be selling through the Spar in Somerset West and at the organic market at the Stellenbosch Waldorf School.
“Pastured chickens are bigger and the flesh is firmer because of the entirely natural diet and life,” he said.
“The taste is incomparable – you can never go back to eating factory-farmed birds.”
We passed a herd of grazing cattle, mostly spotted Nguni’s and some red Bonsmara. I couldn’t believe how beautiful the Ngunis are with their delicate markings and wondered why we don’t often see them around.
“Their calves are smaller at weaning,” Christo explained, “but they produce more beef per hectare. Also, people have been conditioned to expect red or black-and-white cows, but Ngunis are making a comeback!”
Compost is a huge element in all organic farming. On BD farms it is made solely with manure from cows living on that farm – manure is not brought in.
“The dung is then perfectly in tune with your own pasture, with what the cows have been grazing – the compost is an exact recipe for the land.”
In BD farming there are also special lunar times for making compost and particular plants (comfrey, tansy and stinging nettle) that get added. A new compost heap is begun every month, each with a stick like a thermometer poking out with dates written on. I was invited to put my arm into a young heap and was amazed at the warmth and sweet smell.
“Most BD preparations (natural equivalent of fertiliser) start with cow dung,” Christo explained.
“Compost tea/extract is used extensively to feed the soil – this is made up of worm compost, regular compost and water churned for up to 72 hours. When well aerated the liquid goes through the irrigation system and is sprayed on the plants and soil instead of fertiliser.”
Spier’s pastured beef will soon be sold locally too, wrapped in biodegradable cellulose and bearing the Spier BD label.
Plants love Mozart
From across the fields came the sound of music. It seemed so unlikely, and yet so right. The vegetable garden is run by Terri.
“Studies have shown that baroque music and Mozart both benefit plant growth,” she said quietly.
“The other day the cows were lined up along the fence next to the vegetable garden listening. The workers and I benefit too.”
The vegetable garden was started in April this year, which seems unbelievable. Not only are the plants luscious and strong and the soil dark with health, but there is an atmosphere of peace. A mist of water was blowing over the crops.
“All our activities centre around the lunar BD calendar, which was designed by Rudolf Steiner,” Terri explained.
“There are flower days, leaf days, and root days. When one works in harmony with this, one works with the flow of nature. So for example on a root day we work with onions and other root vegetables and not with leaf crops. This is quite different to conventional farming where activities are planned regardless of the forces and flow of nature.”
BD farming involves minimal tillage, so when a crop has been harvested, compost is added to the bed and worked in lightly – there is no digging. The harvested produce is sealed in biodegradable packets and sold locally through a box scheme, the Somerset West Spar and Pick n Pay at Stellenbosch Square. Terri has an interesting method for drying the lettuce leaves prior to packaging which she learned years ago, namely that once washed they are spin dried in a twin-tub washing machine!
Today is a leaf day
Our tour in the bakkie took a few hours and covered many other interesting features: a vineyard in conversion, straw wine-making, the original circular garden radiating peace, cob houses, solar panels for water heating, and rain-tanks tapping roof runoff. Wind power is being explored.
“As you farm this way you become more aware of subtle energies, of the stages of the moon and the rhythms of life around you,” Christo mused.
There is a long journey of conversion ahead and years of chemical farming and monoculture to be undone. Nature cannot be hurried. But the dream is doing its work and the plants and animals and earth are doing the rest.