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Manjo Smith
Namibian Organic Association
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Optimum soil health a solid foundation for better horticulture

The Namibian Organic Association spearheaded the very first Sustainable, Ecological Crop and Horticulture Conference for Namibian producers. This effort was supported by the Namibian Agronomic Board and The Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry. Julia Nambili of AgriBusDev gave an overview of the existing footprint of the Green Scheme Programme run by the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry. The Green Scheme Programme encourages the development of irrigation-based agronomic production in Namibia with the aim of increasing food production and contributing to food self sufficiency and national food security. Mr Lungameni Lucas of Agricultural Marketing and Trade Association (AMTA) also spoke to delegates about the role and future activities of AMTA in the agricultural sector in Namibia. The  Okahandja conference on 8 and 9 August was aimed toward large scale producers, while the conference in Rundu on 13 and 14 August was developed specifically for small scale producers. The focus at both conferences was building resilient farms by concentrating on using sustainable methods of building up soil quality that can produce greater crop yields.

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“Organic Agriculture makes farms and people more resilient to climate change, mainly due to its water efficiency, resilience to extreme weather events and lower risk of complete crop failure.    Organic Agriculture builds up soil instead of fostering land degradation and therefore contributes to global food security,” says Manjo Smith, Chairperson of the Namibian Organic Association.    She goes on to add, “In dry climatic conditions this is important because it means that we don’t need to irrigate too frequently but we can still be productive, and are therefore also less vulnerable if the rainfall is not sufficient. Also, the soil help to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, and microorganisms in a living soil will help with pest and disease control.” An organic farmer in Okahandja, Smith is the driver behind the conferences and serves as a World Board Member on the International Federation of Organic and Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). This particular portfolio gave her access to some of the world’s leading experts in sustainable, ecological and organic agriculture practice and soil health.

Mr Andre Leu, President IFOAM and organic farmer in Australia for the past 22 years shared his experiences of farming organically with large scale commercial producers. Commenting on having reached a stage of production where the ecosystem of his farm is healthy and well balanced, he said, “Because I travel so much, people often ask me who takes care of the farm while I’m away and the simple answer is always, it does,” he added, “I haven’t irrigated in 7 years and other farmers who farm organically and I are often very nervous when we think of having to irrigate because we don’t know if our irrigation system works after all this time.” This attitude is testament to the fact that when a lot of organic material, like compost, is worked into the soil, it locks in up to 30 times its weight in water, cements soils particles and reduces soil erosion. According to Leu, properly composted and mulched production areas also have the added benefit of increasing nutrient storage and making it easily available for healthy plant growth and improved crop yield. He presented compelling evidence from the Rodale Institute that shows how organic agricultural practice outperforms the production capability of crops where chemical inputs have been used by up to 30% under drought conditions. “Typically, chemical inputs will also mean that plants will need to be sprayed with pesticides and herbicides, leaving even more harmful trace elements and residues in the soil,” he said.

Delegates to the Okahandja conference had the privilege of being addressed by Mr Volkert Engelsman, founder and CEO of Eosta in Holland, advocate of organic and sustainable farming practice and leading distributor of organic fresh produce in Europe. Speaking from a marketer and consumer of organic produce perspective, Engelsman emphasised the continued and consistent demand for organic products in Europe.

In marketing organic food and food production in Europe, Eosta has embarked on extensive marketing campaigns that demonstrate how conscious purchasing of organic produce empowers producers internationally, supports communities and their cultural activities and preserves the environment. “There is no sustainability if there is no transparency”, says Engelman, whose organisation has developed a highly effective “Nature & More” campaign to encourage European consumers to go online, through a producers barcode and point of purchase, check where the product comes from, the details of the growers and familiarise themselves with the details of their farm. The exercise is aimed at and making consumers understand that fresh produce can no longer be regarded as a mere commodity, but as products of a unique system where physical health, social impact and environmental concerns are paramount.  

Their latest campaign aims to make urban consumers conscious of the quality of soil and the possibilities of growing food organically – even in inner cities. “We are encouraging our consumers to get their hands dirty and make contact with soil and to make them realise even they can grow their own food on any available piece of soil,” says Engelsman. “The idea is to decommoditise our fresh produce and let our consumers connect with how their food is produced.”

Contextualising the fragility of soil systems, Mr Mike Prevost of Elgin Organics in the Western Cape said in his presentation, “In a teaspoon of soil, there are billions of microorganisms. In healthy organic soils, there are always good guys and bad guys and if you manage the soil properly, the good guys will always win.” The good guys – the beneficial microorganisms - live in symbiosis with the root system of plants and trees, creating a substrate that is nutrient rich and supports optimum production and crop yield. In well balanced soil systems, the bad microorganisms also act as food for the beneficial microorganisms, contributing to the health of the fruit bearing plant or tree and helping to combat disease. For pest control Prevost has put up bat houses on his farm and geese roam the farm freely. He also applies highly sophisticated scientific methods of pest control that keep his orchards safe from potential damage caused by coddling moth and fruit flies. “Very many years ago, my wife and I realised that we didn’t hear the sounds of frogs and birds and we then made a conscious decision to bring back those sounds by practicing organic farming and I am glad to say that we have succeeded,” he says about the benefits of farming organically. Prevost exports organic apples and pears to Europe and introduced his organic apples at the Namibia Tourism Expo through the Namibian Organic Association earlier this year.

Dr Irene Kadzere, of The Research Institute of Organic Agriculture or Forschungsinstitut für biologischen Landbau (FiBL) in Switzerland, presented the findings of research conducted on different crops grown organically and conventionally from around the world, comparing different farming practices, including crop rotation, soil health and crop yields. The potential for this in Namibia is developing research trials in and comparing yield of crops and soil health of conventional farming and organic systems and relying on the expertise of an organization such as FiBL for assistance.

Mr Tobias Bandel from the organisation, Soil and More in Holland, did a demonstration to the large scale producers of how to make their own compost. Apart from having worked all over the world helping producers make compost for their large scale crops, Bandel is an expert in soil structure and knowing how to remedy soil nutrient deficiencies using compost. More importantly, he uses materials readily available on site and adjusts additional requirements accordingly. Delegates were able to learn firsthand of proportions of the different materials used, measuring temperatures as the compost develops, aerating the heap and finally mixing it up. He has spent years on farms in Egypt and helped transform the desert into an oasis, producing healthy, sustainable crops that producers are also starting to export. “We must be able to produce food as naturally as possible,” he commented during his presentation. The demonstration took place at Greenfields in Okahanjda and delegates enthusiastically participated in compost making.  

Councillor Joseph N. Auala of Broken Hill Farm in Namibia said of the Conference, “we are so grateful to be exposed to this kind of experience because as farmers, we always feel alone in the challenges we face every day. It’s good to know that these challenges are shared.” Mrs Charlotte Hellinghausen says, “It was so motivating that I feel we should just do it,” referring to starting to compost as soon as possible, reducing and finally eliminating the use of herbicides and pesticides in food production.

Small scale producers in northern Namibia were keen to learn and incorporate compost making and application into their farming practice. A delegate from Etunda Green Scheme Project said, “The most interesting topics of the conference were compost, organic and effective microorganisms. I will improve my farming and want to support my colleagues.” The small scale producers also learnt from experts on how to they could improve their farming practices from conservation agriculture specialist, Mr Max Simfukwe. “Namibia is the driest country in sub Saharan Africa and we practice unsustainable farming practices at small scale,” he told delegates. “If we carry on farming this way, we will leave a legacy of sandy and unfertile soils,” he said. He defined conservation farming as a number of practices that when combined, conserves soil, moisture, inputs, energy, time and money and presented delegates with different and highly improved farming methods that include new plating techniques and crop rotation. Currently, many small scale farmers still practice highly destructive and unsustainable farming methods such as residue burning and ploughing.

The Rundu delegates were also given presentations on the importance of record keeping of planting, crop rotation, yields per hectare, cost of production as well as the consistent supply of fresh produce to traders. Mr Patrick Hilger, farming mentor in the Kavango Region and Mrs Elaine Smith of the Farmer Support Programme attached to the AgriBank both felt that exposing small scale farmers to sustainable farming practice was a positive move. Elaine Smith commented, “Overall, the conference was very interesting and I think judging by the high delegate turnout, there is a huge interest in the topic of sustainable horticulture practice.

Ambassador Dr Samuel Mbamba, Governor in the Kavango Region addressed the conference and said to the delegates, “you are empowering us to do what we expect you to do, and that is to produce food for the country.” In a separate interview, Ambassador Dr Ambamba said of producers in the region, “we need to find a way for people at the grassroots to be active and participate and for them to understand that what they need, they already have,” he went on to add, “the ideal for our producers is to start with what they have and only when they get stuck, they should ask government for help. Our people should also understand that much of the experience and knowledge of older generations is still relevant and that we should refine and use that knowledge to produce food.”  

The compost demonstration for small scale farmers was done by Mr Robsen Nyirenda, from the Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre in Zambia. For many of the participants, compost making was new, while others had been using composting for a while. He also showed how an organic pesticide can be made by pounding neem tree leaves or seeds, common in northern Namibia, soaked in water and spraying it on to affected areas. Mr Danie Marais of Agra also demonstrated setting up a basic irrigation system for small scale crops. In a lucky draw at a dinner for all delegates the night before, Mr David Ashimbanga from Olushandja Horticulture in the Omasati Region, won the irrigation system for his farm.
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