Mpumalanga and Limpopo are very different to Natal; there’s a different culture and a different way of life. From my perspective, Natal retains its “port-like” flavour and by that I mean that the people are used to strangers, a diversity of people, it’s more of a city-vibe where you expect to meet an unfamiliar person around every corner and life is less settled. Like the waves that lap our shore-line, people come and go.
But, as you move north, the cosmopolitan feeling dissipates and there is a deeper sense of history and heritage. It feels like the people have deeper roots; they have been where they are for generations, as have their neighbours. Strange story-writers, like me, are received with caution. And as you move even further North, it seems that the community gets tighter, the roots deeper. If it hadn’t been for a very special person’s confidence that TropicalBytes was there to bring value, I am not sure I would have been able to set up any interviews. But, once you step into the homes of these great farmers, you realise that underneath all the khaki, they are solid gold! True legends who continue to build on their birthrights and farm the land they are inextricably tied to.
|Date of visit||10 February 2020|
|Soils||Huttons – 43% clay|
|Rainfall||750mm annually average; seldom over 10mm between mid-May to mid-Sept|
|Altitude||About 200m above sea level|
|Distance from the coast||About 850kms as the crow flies|
|Temperature range||18°C – 37.4°C (July can go to 1°C min) (mid Oct – 42°C max)|
|Wind||Average around 3km/hr|
|Varieties||788, A4, 344, 246, A16, 741, Beaumont. 246 and 344 are up to 40 years old.|
|Hectares under mac||120h|
|Other crops||Bananas – 33ha, mangoes – 8ha (atchar), avos – 70h, guavas – 25ha.|
Nothing is Conventional
Think about it; when you seek advice or even just information, you’re careful about the source, right? There are many platforms and people that we just wouldn’t engage, because of their poor track-record, shoddy reputation or lack of experience in the field under discussion.
Even once we’ve established that they are respectable, knowledgeable and trustworthy, we still may not want to use their advice because our principles differ to theirs.
And herein lies my point – nothing about the Jaff in this story is conventional. Most farmers today are profit-driven, especially when it comes to the lucrative crop under discussion, that more and more businesses are investing in. Ultimately, most of us do what we do to make money and pay our bills. Sadly, it’s usually all about the money. That’s conventional. Most of us rank profits over pretty much anything else.
But not this farmer – he has principles that guide his farming decisions and, although profit is one of them, it is not the foundation.
So, depending on your principles, you may or may not find value in this unconventional farming story.
Personally, I found ENORMOUS value and am very privileged to bring you the wisdom of Jaff 10.
Jaff’s uncle used to be a Technical Advisor in this area, employed by the government. He was passionate about farming and eventually managed to buy into a 140-hectare farm. He came with a special farming philosophy, that had been born out of his own near-death experience. He was extremely sick with metal poisoning in his blood. A doctor, in Mossel Bay, was one of only 5 doctors in the world who could effectively filter the poisons from his blood, but it was a long and arduous process of running all his blood through a filter. He would be stuck in a chair, hooked up to a machine, for a full day at a time. To make good use of the time in the chair, the doctor would engage his patients, offering to teach them about anything they wanted to learn. Oom chose to learn about biological farming so the doctor went into the detail of what happens in nature, with regards to plant health and growth. Once Oom had recovered and came back to the farm, he changed the way he did things and there has never been a chemical fertiliser on the farm since then. That was 33 years ago.
In 2012, Jaff partnered with his uncle and has always been completely aligned to the biological farming methods he continues with today.
Another important piece of context is that Jaff does not consider himself a real mac farmer. (You had to read that twice, didn’t you!). In his own words, “We farm avos and have macs.” By comparison, macs are easy to manage, “They are hardy trees; the only real challenge is the stink bugs.”
Having said that, there are now 140 hectares of macs under Jaff’s management, ranging from 40 years to 7 months old so, in my book, that qualifies as a proper mac farmer!
Jaff explains that this area faces 3 big challenges:
- Overgrown orchards.
- Old cultivars.
Levubu is the birthplace of the South African macadamia industry – read more here. Many of the trees are mature, older cultivars that cannot deliver the same as the newer, more refined cultivars now available. Both these challenges can be addressed by replanting.
One thing that is out of our control is climate change. During the 1980’s this area used to farm rice! That’s only 40 years ago. The farmers explain how they would sometimes not see the sun for weeks, during the summer. The climate started to get drier and hotter and the rice paddies turned to pineapple and tobacco fields. Then, in the first decade of this century, citrus orchards began to replace those crops. Uncontrollable insect damage in these orchards has meant many farmers invested in macadamias. Jaff wonders whether the continued climate changes are going to see macs make way for yet another crop in the not too distant future.
This map shows how Levubu sits in a hot, semi-arid region, close to the border of a humid, sub-tropical area. Depending on the micro-climates on each individual farm, macs may or may not succeed.
Jaff’s farm is set at the base of the mountain which improves conditions as the mountain acts as a sponge that releases water as required by the area below. There are also pockets that enjoy the humidity of mistbelt-climates, like in the Piesanghoek area. Even so, Jaff is not sure about the long-term outlook of macs for the greater region.
The greatest concern is the timing – macadamias flower after winter. These flowers are delicate and susceptible to heat damage. As Spring gets warmer and the rainy season gets later every year, fewer and fewer of the highly sensitive mac flowers set into nuts. Already, for this reason, 788s don’t work here anymore. The current season (2020) has been very favourable thus far, with much rain during winter, cool conditions, and a promise for a good crop (so who knows what the climate is going to be doing next…).
Cultivars that are doing well in Nelspruit, like 814 and 816, develop husk rot in Levubu. And that’s if the thrips haven’t destroyed them first.
It certainly is a unique environment that borders on ‘unviable’ when considering macadamias.
A different way to farm:
How we farm is determined by what’s important to us. We all want to succeed but what is success? Being “the best” farmer? Unfortunately, we always want proof of who is “the best” – the easiest way to do that is to see who is the biggest, delivering the most nuts, with the lowest unsound kernel. Even I did that, when I first started SugarBytes and I wanted to interview the TOP sugar farmers, I started calling on the farmers with the highest yield per hectare and the highest quality. It has taken me a few years and over 50 interviews to realise that TOP farmers are not judged that way, well, not for me anyway.
But, as humans we all fall into societal expectations, increasing inputs so that we can achieve those ever-growing targets. People rarely see your bottom-line so who’s to know how financially sound your pursuit is?
And then we get the unconventional farmers, those who remain focused on their principles, profit margins and future prosperity.
On the avos, Jaff’s costs are about R30 000 per hectare. The average Limpopo farmer has costs closer to R65 000 per hectare, with the “top” farmers investing up to R95 000 per hectare. When you compare their results – Jaff features in the top 25%. It just doesn’t make sense to double your input costs when results will only improve, at best, by 20%. And the bigger concern is that sustainability becomes an issue. Once you start doing things unnaturally, you have to keep doing it, and more, or you will crash and burn.
One of the highest input costs is irrigation. Jaff decided it wasn’t worth it …
We don’t often get to learn from dryland mac farmers because there are so few. To be fair, it can’t be done just anywhere. On this farm the rainfall averages 750mm annually and they are drip-fed by the mountain range. Another factor making dryland a viable option is the good quality, clay-rich Hutton soils. The final piece of the puzzle that makes this feasible is the way Jaff farms with Nature, especially when it comes to soil health and nutrition.
Fertilisers are the conventional way to deliver nutrition to your trees, but it is not the natural way and it adds to your input costs.
What’s the alternative? Jaff explains his plan: Firstly, you have to accept that you won’t deliver the highest yield in the area but you will have lower input costs and a more sustainable future.
- Effective Micro-organisms (EM)
- compost and
to keep the soil healthy and relies on that to feed the trees what they need.
This is very similar to what one of our earlier stories featured. David Littley ran a tank of micro-life that generated the power to light up his life 😊. Rather than lighting up his life, Jaff is applying the ‘juice’ to the soil, and powering up his trees.
The EM juice is kick-started with a special cocktail of organisms. It is a living colony that grows and multiples and has to be fed and sustained. Jaff maintains a 1000 litre tank and draws off 10 litres when he needs it for the trees, often sipping a little himself 😳. The 10 litres is diluted in 1000 litres of water and applied as required.
Isn’t drinking it himself taking things a little too far? Jaff explains that I am not the first one to think he’s nuts! Pun intended. 🤣 But seriously – what’s really in this stuff? Unfortunately there are not many laboratories in Africa that have the capabilities to test it. “Life” and “faith” is the best he can tell me, although he does admit that the testing he has done shows that there is a lot of N, P and K as well. Current health trends among humans is focused on gut-health and how important it is to our overall well-being. Not surprising, since all our nutrition is processed here. Why then are we so surprised that soil (where the trees’ nutrition is processed) shouldn’t be full of live organisms that require a healthy, stable environment themselves.
No fertiliser means more compost. This is made on the farm by decomposing any organic material. They buy in pine chips and use the macadamia husks. The prunings are also chipped up and added. Biochar (more on this later) is another important ingredient.
There is a skidsteer-mounted auger that constantly moves through the farm, creating holes as close to the trees as it can get without damaging the tree or the machine. It drills two 120 litre-sized pits per tree. This pit is filled with the compost and about 30 litres of EM solution and covered up. About 3 years later, it’ll be back to drill another set of compost pits.
Looking for a clever way to use the macadamia shells lead Jaff and his cousin to consider making activated carbon. Long story made short; they have managed to successfully launch a business providing solutions for water, air, medicinal and other requirements. In the manufacturing process, there is a certain amount of mac shells that are carbonised (made into charcoal) but not activated – the “unsound kernels” of the activated carbon processing plant.
They decided to research uses for this waste and discovered that it can be used to significantly improve the carbon content of soil, in a natural, agricultural context.
What does this carbon (biochar) do for the soil?
- Microbes need carbon to live. If there’s no carbon, microbes die. A lack of microbes means organic matter cannot be converted to plant food.
- Improves water retention of the soil. Carbon-rich soils hold water more effectively.
- Prevents nutrients from leeching. Carbon is a large molecule and bonds easily with most other minerals and elements. This reduces leeching and keeps the necessary nutrition available for the trees. It is for this reason that some commercial fertilisers have a small amount of carbon in them.
How much should be applied? Although studies are currently underway, it is too early for definitive recommendations. Jaff feels it is about 4 tonnes per hectare. Finely crushed carbon, dug into the soil to prevent it washing away is the best way to apply it, if you aren’t going to dig the pits that Jaff does.
There are other ways to get carbon into the soil: decomposing organic matter creates carbon (but, unless your soil is full of micro-organisms, your organic matter won’t decompose fast enough). Photosynthesising plants take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turn it into carbon in the soil. These natural processes can be supplemented by adding biochar.
Disturbing the soil (tillage) allows carbon to escape and it is for this reason that Jaff follows minimum tillage practices.
An interesting fact is that 70% of the earth’s carbon has been removed in the last 50 years. Essential carbon reserves are being depleted and we will soon realise the consequences.
Silicon is a highly beneficial supplement that has been proven to reduce nut borer damage, increase yield and quality of the nuts. But, in order to achieve these outcomes, the whole area under the tree canopy must be drenched every month. For the return, it is a wise investment as it only costs about R60 per hectare per application. Unfortunately, the trials have shown that it had no affect on stink bug damage.
Cytokinins – this hormone is important during flowering, together with zinc and boron.
Auxins (like those in some kelp products), also natural hormones, are important for root growth.
Both these are produced naturally by the tree, but Jaff has found that an additional boost is worth the cost.
Jaff analyses the compost and holds that up against what they know the tree uses, and what is available in the water, soil, and leaves of the trees. They use this information to adjust the amount of compost put into the pits.
A recent concern on this farm was the surface-crusting of the soil but, when poor pruning practices were addressed and plant growth on the orchard floors re-established, the crusting issue has abated.
One of the many benefits of diversified plant life in the inter-rows is that it returns carbon to the soil (through photosynthesis). The plants are selected for their unique nutritional contribution to the soil.
In this picture you can just see wild sorghum, sunflowers and sun hemp among the 12-month-old avo trees (left) and macadamia trees (right) Jaff has purposefully grown to improve soil quality, provide pollen for beneficials and fix nitrogen in the soil. These plants also capture the carbon in the air (CO2) and put it back into the soil.
When carbon levels increase, micro-organisms increase, organic matter turns into useable nutrition and water retention improves.
Most (conventional) farmers would baulk at this site, but not Jaff – he is very happy with this abundant growth. He chuckles when he explains that his late uncle used to run a spotlessly clinical farm before he learnt about plant and soil health. But since he recovered from the metal poisoning and put his newly acquired knowledge into practice, the farm has looked like this.
You guessed it – no herbicides on this farm either. “Just constant brush-cutter work,” laughs Jaff, “Why would I kill the plant life I have in the field and then pay to have organic matter brought it. It’s already here, just keep it under control without poisoning anything.”
“My uncle taught me that you cannot beat nature. If you try to kill something with poisons, something stronger will come and replace it. Eventually, you will be using so many strong poisons that the land will die and neither you, nor the weed, will live there. Even in that, Nature has won!” He goes on to say that it makes far more sense to him, to farm with nature. The yields maybe lower, and the farm a little scruffier, but the costs are lower and the long-term outlook is far better.
Jaff likes to plant on ridges and will seed these with an array of various plants (things like sorghum, sun hemp and sunflowers) once they have been built. He then leaves them to settle for up to 2 years. In his mind, planting straight into freshly disturbed soil doesn’t make sense. He explains that his concern is about how “shocked” the life in that soil is when it has just been worked. Everything is upside down and stressed. As he doesn’t apply any fertiliser and relies instead on the soil life to nourish the trees, it makes sense that he waits for the soil to settle and re-establish the life required to feed the trees.
Once the soil has fully recovered and can sustain the new trees, Jaff digs the holes and fills them with water to settle any airpockets. Then the tree goes in, with a little bit of Rescue (pelletised, composted poultry manure), if he has it available (this is the only exception to the ‘no fertilizer’ rule).
Jaff explains that it is easier to fill up the soil around the top of the newly planted tree than it is to dig it out if it subsides too deep. For this reason, he leaves the tree slightly high to begin with.
The cultivars on this farm are 788, A4, 344, 246, A16, Beaumont (695) and 741. Of those, the A4, A16 and 741 are doing well. Jaff thinks that the A-varieties are going to do better in the climatic changes mentioned earlier. Last season, they set nicely despite the hot, dry conditions during flowering season.
246 was new to me. I soon learnt that it is one of the original cultivars and almost every farm in this area has a good number of them. They have performed well and are reliable but cannot really compare to the newer cultivars.
As some of the trees here are either very old (40 years) and/or unsuitable cultivars, like the 788s that are not coping in the dry heat at all, Jaff is busy replacing them. They are grafting in-field onto the existing root-stock. He cuts every second tree back to the root stock and allows it to regrow. They then select 3 to 4 of the strongest shoots to graft. They have been getting a 35 to 40% take but are improving all the time as they learn and improve constantly.
Jaff believes that we are in need of better cultivars to be released. I asked about the two new ones – A203 & A268. “Those are Australian cultivars. We can do better by developing our own that are perfectly suited to our unique environment,” was a reasonable answer.
Interplanting guavas and macs – the guavas have a much shorter life span.
Jaff uses ethapon to assist in getting the nuts out of the orchards quickly. This reduces their susceptibility to late season stink bug damage and his need to spray pesticides. It also helps him to continue with the pruning required and give the trees the chance they need to recover from the crop.
In this area, harvesting and dehusking should be done quickly and efficiently. Conditions at this time of the year are perfect for fungi and anything left in the field or in husks is at risk of losing quality quickly.
It is important to keep accurate records; theft is an ever-increasing risk that is increased when farmers don’t know exactly what they are producing.
And on to the six-legged pests …
Male (on the left) and female (on the right) two-spotted stink bugs.
This is a particular area of interest for Jaff, in fact the mac orchards are used as a test station more often than is comfortable. Last year they did their very best to deal with the stink bugs naturally and it ended up costing in the region of R4 million in unsound kernel. While these kinds of losses are not ideal, they value the learnings.
The avos are farmed without any pesticides at all – there is no need. The life in those orchards is self-moderating and the fruit is perfect. Parasitoids are one of the most effective ways of controlling pests in avocado orchards. There is a great diversity of life in the avo orchards. Scale insects (not the same ones that are avocado pests) harboured by natural grasses could be the “breeding grounds” for the good guys.
And MOST insects in the macs are dealt with the same way on this farm; bio-control predators are released for thrips and nut borer and they keep the numbers in check. But those darn stink bugs! You can feel the frustration Jaff is experiencing as he has had to resort to using chemical pesticides to control this persistent insect amidst natural parasitoids being present – and not just one – five different species were identified from the eggs of the stink bugs by researchers at the University of Pretoria! The pesticides affect what he is doing with the natural predators against thrips and nut borer as they have to continuously release new batches after the pesticides kill the beneficial insects.
Jaff looks forward to the day a natural control is found for the stink bugs. He knows that bats can make a significant impact but it’s just not enough to deal with the ferocious breeding of stink bugs in a mac orchard. Well – his orchard for sure.
Currently, there is also a nut borer parasite being researched for commercial release. It is a type of nematode that picks up on CO2 in the soil. As living insects emit CO2, this nematode will detect its presence in the soil, move towards it and infect it, effectively breaking the life-cycle at this point. The same nematode could be effective against thrips.
But what about stink bugs? Besides pesticides, fungal sprays have been effective. The limiting factors with this weapon are: 1. Fungus is a living organism that is extremely sensitive to UV, hot and dry conditions. It will die under these circumstances. 2. Direct contact is also necessary so the efficacy is easily limited by poor application. Jaff has found some success by spraying the EM he uses to enrich the soil onto the trees. The bacteria in the EM irritate and often kill the stink bugs but it faces the same challenges of sensitivity that all bacterial sprays do. It also needs to be sprayed regularly (bi-weekly) as there is no residual effect.
This is a weekly exercise, throughout the macs. A 3% representative batch of every orchard is identified in variation, i.e.: one week it will be a single row, on the edge, the next week, random trees throughout the orchard, the next week, 4 small clusters etc etc. The scouting team has to be well-trained on how to keep their scouting effective.
Monday is spent prepping the trees by clearing all debris from under the canopy with a blower. Jaff admits that this is not ideal and would prefer not to expose the surface roots but, right now, scouting accuracy supersedes this preference. Sheets works well too. On Monday night, the knock-down chemical is sprayed and, on Tuesday, the count is done. Whenever the curve is in an upswing; greater than the week before and approaching 4 bugs per 10 trees, Jaff sprays.
Spray calibration is one of the most important activities on this farm. Jaff emphasises that ineffective spraying is not only wasteful, it is harmful. To this end, they will spray, test, calibrate, spray, test, calibrate, until they are happy that the volumes, speed and access is all perfectly set to deliver full-coverage throughout the orchard. They do this by placing pieces of litmus paper in all the hardest-to-reach places in the orchard and sending the spray cart through with water. If the paper is drenched, the reach is good. If it isn’t, they assess whether the tree needs to be pruned further, or the equipment adjusted. Whatever tweaks need to be made are done and then they test again. This seems like a lot of effort but Jaff insists that it is well worth it. He says it is not only going to tell you whether your equipment is working as it should but it is also an excellent way to assess your pruning. Keep checking until you are absolutely happy that the chemical you plan to spray throughout the orchard is going to be as effective as possible. You will not only minimise the number of times you have to spray, you will also limit resistance build up. If you do these checks early in the season, you can be ready as soon as the first sprays are required.
If you look at the litmus paper in the centre of the picture above, you can see that the penetration in the upper part of the tree is not what it should be.
Jaff knows that the stink bugs do not leave the orchards during winter. Their activity slows down but they remain there, surviving on the leaf sap in the new flush. If you are not quick to deal with them early, you will start the season in the negative.
How to control stink bugs naturally:
Time and sacrifice. Jaff drew a helpful analogy with a game farm. You want the lions (as income earners) but would rather not have too many impala. But, before you can host a pride of lions, your impala have to be prolific enough to encourage the lions to breed. So, you have to persevere through the uncomfortable stage where there is an imbalance – it takes time. But, once the lions have reproduced, they will control the impala population. There is no short cut; by killing the impala, you limit the lions. Continuously importing lions to a farm with insufficient impala will result in their starvation. The same is true in our mac orchards – when the stink bugs eggs are sufficient to attract and sustain a colony of predators, they will thrive but, that will mean two to three years of uncontrolled stink bug damage to the nuts and most farmers do not have the appetite for that. And after a R4 million hiding last season, even our Jaff is not so excited to try that again.
Even with chemicals, the mac industry is losing R240 million per year to stink bug damage and 45% of that is in this Levubu region. Jaff believes that this situation is a direct result of poor pruning practices (and the consequential ineffective spraying) over many years and implores the other, newer regions to learn from their mistakes and pay careful attention to both pruning and spray efficacy.
Hopefully the original natural food source for stink bugs will be found – there’s a R10 000 reward for anyone who can identify (conclusively) what that is. Jaff suspects that marula may be close so, if anyone has the capacity to investigate further, you could be rewarded with a lot more than just the initial R10 000 on the table.
Stink bugs are the only pests that push Jaff to the point of using pesticides. When it comes to thrips, he’s never heard of anyone who has won a fight with that creature. If you do something you cause damage, if you don’t do anything – you have damage! He has learnt to just walk away.
There really isn’t much that Jaff struggles with in the mac orchards, besides the stink bugs. Even phytophtera is not a concern. The perspective here is that avos are particularly susceptible to this fungus so, by comparison, macs are a walk in the park. He also knows that the EM they use throughout the farm is full of strong bacteria and beneficial fungi that will quickly overpower the fairly weak strain that phytophtera is. Added to that is the fact that the EM strengthens the root structure of the trees so that they are less susceptible to the infections, if they are present.
When you consider the extensive root damage caused by the auger digging the compost pits every 3 years, I am also convinced that there has to be something special going on in the soil that these trees are not falling to phytophtera after that. Jaff adds that phytophtera thrives in low oxygen levels which is created by water-saturated soils with low microbial life.
The value of pruning has already been emphasised under pest management. Jaff keeps his trees under 6m in height. Being an avo farmer first (where trees are kept low and wide), they were not managing the width of the trees well but, since the stink bug problem escalated and they realised the need for chemical access, he is gradually removing the competing central leaders and getting closer to a classic Christmas tree shape. Now, pruning is a constant activity on this farm.
Final words of wisdom:
Jaff suggests that you always have a control block for everything you do so that you have some comparison and way to gauge your results.
Thank you, Jaff, for having me on your farm, in your home and for sharing so much.
A very full dam after all the rain, and the Soutpansberg Mountains in the background.