by Niki Neave
It’s not the soil itself — it’s the soil life that is the most important element. — Geoff Lawton, Permaculture Soils DVD
When the question came up, "How could permaculture be applied on a commercial scale successfully?" it led to an amazing opportunity to meet up with Nico Snyman, a long time South African farmer, and his wife Janie, who are using soil organisms to rehabilitate polluted and damaged soils.
Nico & Texas Grano onions. It was the 5th consecutive trial where the
soil is now fertile enough that it does not need GROW AGRA for the time
being, only raw material for food for the organisms. The image on the
right: a single onion was placed on a side plate with 18cm diameter.
These onions are too big for the market, but sweet and tasty. We donated
10 to the church fair where they fetched R4-00 each.
Over the years Mr. Snyman has noticed a decrease in the number of farmers countrywide due to ever increasing input costs. He mentioned that farmers’ major expenses are the purchase of fertilizers and pesticides. (Many farmers of his time were brought up and taught at university to farm with these products.) His son, Peter, B.Sc Agric (Hons.), who is farming in Zambia, also noticed that after a number of years of the soil been treated with fertilizers, it had become infertile, infested with eelworm and nothing would grow at all.
They began to wonder if there was another way – a way which would require a new way of looking at farming in a new light. They realized that they would need to replace the biological component in the soil.
This eventually led Nico to (the now late) Dr Pieter Cloete, a D.Sc. (Agric) Biochemistry and eventually a medical doctor who discovered that when he took a soil sample from a totally undisturbed forest or wildlife area and was able to reproduce the organisms and introduce them into infertile, poor or damaged soils, that he started experiencing astonishing results.
Dr Pieter Cloete also discovered that plants feed anaerobically from deep soils. He proved that by applying organic material and his anaerobic organisms, he could regenerate orchards of peaches, citrus, mangoes, apples, paw-paws and bananas miraculously.
Soils which were polluted and depleted, suddenly had new life within them. Nico tested the organisms on various crops (corn, vegetables) and noticed a marked difference and improvement in soil quality, plant growth and yield. eg. his corn had grown to over three metres tall and he was also getting a double increase in his yield with the additional deep feeding.
Nico explained that if the soil is healthy and balanced with the necessary soil organisms, the surrounding environment is in equilibrium too – ie. pest populations are non-existent or are limited in numbers and plants and trees are healthy and acquiring the necessary nutrients from the soil. "As above – so below" now took on the perfect meaning.
During my conversation with Nico and Janie, Janie got up, went to the fridge, and sat down again at the table with a bottled organism mixture from their bio-bank. It smelled of molasses. I was a bit taken aback at what she did next. She poured herself a cup and drank it. Janie explained that it was even beneficial for humans and animals too; that it was a pro-biotic.
After this meeting and back at home again, I stayed in contact with Janie. She emailed this to me a few days later:
The GROW AGRA bio-organisms and trials can restore depleted and eelworm infested lands within 2 years without chemicals. We think that Dr Pieter Cloete, posthumously, deserves the Nobel Prize in Agriculture and that his findings of anaerobic feeding of plants and trees and the establishment of such a bio-bank is in the same category like the findings of Albert Einstein. I am forwarding the pictures of our old peach tree which had, on top of its old age, Hyvar X contamination, which affected a huge Karee tree behind it to such an extent that it died completely.
Janie told me that after 50 years of the old peach tree being presumed dead/dying it had started growing leaves again and then had all of a sudden started producing fruit. She put it down to the tree’s roots being able to reach and feed off the nearby compost heap (which had these soil organisms within it).
The old peach tree, brought back to life
I’ve also included 3 articles written by Nico, below (PDFs). They are in Afrikaans but the English versions will be included once they are all translated.
Organic? Biological? Natural Farming?
By NT Snyman B.Sc. Agric (Agron.)
Background: Nico Snyman
Nico is a scientist and researcher at heart, apart from being a farmer. He started off on an engineering degree but switched over to farming (B. Sc. Agric. (Agron.) Pret). He was also a Tractor Dealer and during that time introduced the Stubble Mulch and Minimum Tillage idea in the Bothaville/Viljoenskroon area years ago (1970) for the wind blown and dusty fields. He was also Head of Extension services & Head of Research and Development for many years in the tobacco industry.
After retirement he built a few revolutionary machines like a High Crop Tractor, Sugarcane Harvester, and low profile Stope Drill Rig for the mines. He is currently working on a proto-machine for commercial farmers to introduce the GROW AGRA straight into the soil together with organic material in one shot. There is however a lack of capital for further research and development until a grant can be obtained somewhere. In the meantime he carries on with the vegetable and maize trials (for the 5th year) and does cross breeding of maize and sugar maize for more tasty and edible corn.
Corn towering over Nico and Janie
I’ll keep you all updated with a follow-on post very soon. As I was putting this article together, an update came through my RSS news reader from the Permaculture Research Institute; and yes, you guessed right, it was all about soils, so I’ve decided to include it as well.
Bio-Agriculture – a Solution to Climate Change
by Craig Mackintosh
If I were to compare industrial, monocrop agriculture with permaculture or organic biological agricultural methodologies, and then boil my observations down to their base differences, I would describe them thus:
– Industrial agriculture focusses on feeding the plant
– Permaculture and organic biological agriculture focus on feeding the soil
For the industrialists, if they have a big green flush of foliage, in their mind they’ve succeeded. Whether the plant is healthy, or tasty, or whether the soil is being depleted, eroded, polluted and salinated in the process of growing it, is of secondary importance. The industrial system is about standardisation, transportability, externalised costs and instant gratification — or instant profits. Such plants normally have nutrient imbalances, and trace mineral deficiencies, that make them prone to pest and disease attack and make them less healthy for animals and humans. In addition, industrial agriculture turns our vast agricultural lands into carbon sources. Nitrogen fertiliser inputs systematically ‘burn up’ carbon rich humus, sending it into the atmosphere to act as a greenhouse gas rather than the foundation of soil fertility it was meant to be. Indeed, this form of farming should not be called agriculture at all, as ‘culture’ means to refine or foster, to bring about an improved state. Industrial agriculture does quite the opposite.