For most mainstream farmers, five hectares of land is a small area they would easily set aside as an experimental plot, but for Jason Cullen, it’s all he has.
Cullen is an urban fruit farmer on the periphery of Johannesburg. He has been farming organic pomegranates for almost a decade, and like thousands of other farmers across South Africa, his water challenges aren’t going anywhere.
Deciduous fruit farmers in the Eastern and Western Cape provinces are particularly affected due to crippling drought conditions, however a conference held late last year by organisation Hortgro, presented possible strategies and solutions for farmers to help mitigate the impact of the drought.
Some of the water saving measures included mulching, revisiting the design and planning of irrigation systems, restricting irrigation to the root zone and netting.
A number of these methods have been implemented on Cullen’s farm and eNCA’s Rianté Naidoo paid him a visit to see if they’re working in his favour.
Like many urban farms, the irrigation system on Cullen’s pomegranate plot is heavily reliant on borehole water. But conserving water and reducing its usage is not only about how much water is being pumped out of taps and boreholes.
“To reduce water usage, you must not have bad soil,” he says. “Nutrient rich soil loses its water a lot slower than dry soil. So no soil should be left exposed, something must grow on it to hold it and keep it there.”
“Mulching is a natural process that nature has been doing for years,” Cullen says as he picks up a handful of damp, dark earth.
Mulch, or green manure as he prefers to call it, is a layer of earth or natural materials that consists of everything from bark, sticks, dead bugs and mowed grass to animal droppings and fruit peels. This layer covers the soil and locks in moisture by preventing evaporation.
Over time, the mulch decomposes, filtrating nutrients into the soil for the microbes and roots beneath the surface.
“Remember, a good soil won’t lose its moisture easily, and a good soil is a living breathing soil,” Cullen says. “If you pick up a handful of good soil, it’ll be damp, have some earthworms, bugs and a network of roots in it.”
However, he notes that mulching is easier to do on a smaller scale as it is expensive, time consuming and labour intensive. “You’ll need trucks to mulch an entire farm and for urban farmers, labour can sometimes become very expensive.”
However, in the long run, he says it’s the way to go for farming on a smaller scale.
Another water saving measure is drip line irrigation.
“These are simply pipes that run along the surface of the ground where your fruit trees or vegetables are planted,” Cullen explains, as he moves a low branch aside to expose a black rubber pipe.
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Every 500 metres or so, holes are pierced into the pipe. Water drips through these holes into the porous ground, which is then soaked up by the roots underneath the earth’s surface.
He explains that depending on what you’re growing, different irrigation systems suit different types of produce, but for him, drip irrigation works as it saves him water by watering only what’s essential – his fruit trees – and cuts down evaporation. As for the rest of the farm, “well, as good farmers, all we can do is rely on the rain,” he says.
Micro-sprays, and on a much larger scale, centre pivot systems, can be wasteful, Cullen says, “because if there’s a strong crosswind, all that water is blown further afield and at times doesn’t water exactly where it’s supposed to.”
Organic produce fuss
Seeing that Cullen’s farm has been certified by EcoCert as an organic pomegranate farm, does the produce require more nutrients, better soil or more water to be better, or organic? The short answer to that is no, Cullen says, as organic simply means “farming nature’s way”.
This means that a farmer cannot use any pesticides or chemicals. “If there is a pest infestation, you have to introduce nature’s pest control,” Cullen says, which can often be plants, ladybirds or wasps. He adds that “if you want to spray aphids, you should be able to drink that chemical.”
“People say organic farming is such a trademark name and it’s just selling expensive food,” he adds, “but it’s actually a cheaper way of farming.”
Then why is organic produce more expensive? Cullen says this is because organic farming is not done on a wide scale in South Africa, adding that the yield is not as predictable and controllable as mainstream farming.
“Organic farming is not so common anymore, so there’s more work, effort and research that goes into it,” he says. “We have to observe nature and figure it out, we can’t just call the pest control guys.”