Organic seed to grow Klein Karoo

30 December 2005

New legislation will require organic farmers to use only organically produced seed to grow crops and feed livestock, but no one in South Africa produces 100% organic seed. Now empowerment company Diverse International has taken the gap in the market and set up a community seed production project in the Klein Karoo, an area hit hard by poverty and unemployment.

Farmer's Weekly The project, known as the Klein Karoo Organic Initiative (KKOI), will improve the lives of the people of Zoar, a tiny village between Ladismith and Calitzdorp in the Western Cape. Chairperson Liz Eglington says the project, run from the farm Amalienstein, will create jobs and alleviate poverty by producing and marketing organically produced fruit and vegetables.

Most of the world’s organic producers use non-organic seed in their operations. But pending South African legislation will soon restrict fruit, vegetable, herb and cereal producers to using only certified organic seed if they wish to maintain their certified organic status. Even the feed used in organic animal production will have to be produced from organic seed.

Unfortunately, there is no organic seed available in South Africa. Empowerment group Diverse International identified this shortage as a market opportunity and launched the National Organic Seed Project.

The group has spent over four years planning the project and has established partnerships and relationships with various government departments, seed companies, overseas buyers and funding organisations to support the project. They lacked only the farmers to grow the seed.

Zoar is ideally situated for organic seed production, given the Klein Karoo's dry climate
Zoar is ideally situated for organic seed production, given the Klein Karoo’s dry climate. The mountains that separate the valleys help prevent contamination from neighbouring non-organic farms.

Klein Karoo ideal for organics
Only a few places in the world are suitable for organic seed production. The Klein Karoo, with its dry climate, is one such place and is already one of the country’s largest seed-producing regions.

It is also ideally situated for organic production because several mountain ranges separate the land, helping prevent agrichemical contamination and cross-pollination from neighbouring non-organic farms.

Diverse International approached the KKOI to spearhead the project because they were already involved in organic production in the area.

Eglington believes the project will do more than benefit commercial farmers – it will transform the entire Klein Karoo.

“Many small-scale farmers in the Klein Karoo are struggling to survive, never mind remain sustainable, and most lack access to markets,” she says. “But farmers can be empowered through the production of organic seed. Organic seed can even be produced in people’s backyards and then sold to a central marketing agent.”

The first step in realising this dream is to set up a training centre to teach farmers organic seed production techniques. Initially, Eglington and her KKOI colleagues wanted to buy a farm from which to provide the training. But they found this was too expensive, and it would be better to conduct the training on an existing farm. After thorough analysis and research, Amalienstein was identified as the most suitable project site.

Amalienstein is owned by the South African government, and was made available to the Zoar community under the Land Redistribution for Agricultural Development programme. Unfortunately, the 7 000ha farm currently runs at a substantial loss. Of the 5 000 people living in the community, fewer than 30% are employed on the farm.

“There isn’t any work here,” says Hendrik January, chairperson of the Zoar Community Trust. “A handful of people are employed at Amalienstein and on other farms in the area. The rest of the people depend on seasonal and piece work.”

Small-scale farmers are organic farmers
Amalienstein is ideal for the National Seed Project as it already has the required infrastructure and the storage facilities. Existing enterprises on the farm, such as the dairy and small-scale farming projects, will continue, but as organic projects.

James Jacobs, a Zoar Community Trust member, says most small-scale farmers are already farming organically because they cannot afford agrichemicals. For most of these farmers the switch to organic farming will be natural.

“The organic seed initiative will have many spinoffs for the community,” Jacobs says. It will not alleviate poverty – it will eradicate it.”

Eglington believes the project will create many job opportunities, and not only in agricultural production.

“Our vision is to turn the entire Zoar community into an organic village,” she says. “First we want to set up the organic training centre. To do this we will need trainers and administrative staff. Compost, compost teas, organic sprays, pesticides, repellants and fertilisers will be made from material sourced from Amalienstein. This will create job opportunities in the making and marketing of these products.”

The farm will produce organic seed and seedlings for international and local markets, while vegetables and fruit, and other byproducts of seed production, will be sold or consumed locally. The production of value-added organic products, such as herbal and medicinal plants, essential oils, soaps and even cosmetics, is also planned. This will again provide production as well as marketing and processing opportunities.

Community ownership
Eglington emphasises that KKOI and Diverse International don’t want to take over Amalienstein.

“We need a training centre and Diverse International needs seed. But we want the community to take ownership of the project and benefit from it. We will supply expertise and support as long as the community needs it.”

As Amalienstein is owned by the government, KKOI will require approval before it starts anything new on the farm. Eglington has met with Western Cape agriculture MEC Cobus Dowry and says he’s willing to look at the feasibility document of using Amalienstein for the seed project. She says Dowry wants the entire Zoar community to buy into the project before approving it.

Kannaland district mayor Magdalene Barry is optimistic the project will take off.

“Zoar is sitting on a goldmine,” she says. “All the community leaders have bought into the dream. Now we only need the community to vote and commit to the project – and that will be easy since the benefits of the project are very transparent and people have been suffering under poverty for a long time.”

This article was originally published in Farmer’s Weekly, South Africa’s premier national agricultural magazine, and is reproduced on SouthAfrica.info with kind permission.