Peasant hub: we track down peasant farmers, winning despite the odds

The well documented shortcomings of South African agrarian land reform, combined with geographical exigencies, and market forces that favour large-scale commercial agriculture, mean that there is an urgent need to locate individual and thinly dispersed surviving small-scale farmers in order to draw them into a network that in which their particular insights and methodologies will be valued, can be shared among themselves and made available to a broader community of practice as knowledge. Some best practice examples, discovered by the Niche Unity peasant hub initiative are briefly described below:

Layout of Willem Hartnick’s farm
Layout of Willem Hartnick’s farm

Willem Hartnick’s piece of land is very small, no larger than 300 square metres, which is very close to the size of most rural low-cost housing erfs – most of which do comparatively little farming. He has maximised his space to create a productive, self-sufficient operation (see the layout design). This is a very interesting model. He lives on the land in a tin shack with a separate kitchen shack.

Willem Hartnik
Willem Hartnik

What isn’t obvious from the diagram is the diversity of crops produced on the land. Willem lives far from markets and has had to diversify to keep his beautiful family in optimum health. He could expand operations by increasing use of the extensive, non-timber forest resources. I therefore recommended that he switch his pig operation to a sheep operation to make better use of the extensive grazing available in the adjacent young forest. He agreed with this wholeheartedly.

Thembisa Trust donated funds to put in a tank that would supply water to his homestead and irrigate the fields.

Layout of Simon Airies’ farm
Layout of Simon Airies’ farm

Simon Airies, a master low external-input farmer, owns about a hectare of land in his personal capacity, but accesses close on 30 hectares of land rented from other farmers. The diagram above demonstrates a complex livestock management system designed by Simon. He is an elderly man, now in a wheelchair with only one leg, but manages a very complex, integrated piggery and dairy operation and supplements his subsistence with vegetables, eggs and meat.

Simon Airies’ farm
Simon Airies’ farm

He has optimised the efficiency of his operation by keeping his bought inputs low, essentially only a bit of maize for the pigs. Simon also grows vegetables to feed the pigs – cabbage in winter and butternut and potato in summer. The dairy cattle and sheep maintain his lucerne and oats pastures. The modest capital return made from the operation is always ploughed back into farm infrastructure. This positive feedback loop improves the systems and autonomy of the operation over time. Simon requires no further assistance at this time.

Layout of Elizabeth Herdin’s farm
Layout of Elizabeth Herdin’s farm

Elizabeth Herdin is farming near Albertinia. She follows a holistic approach, producing meat, vegetables, eggs, and dairy. She also harvests her rain, although an asbestos roof for water harvest is not safe, she could do with a revamped water harvest system including a new safe roof. What can be seen from her farming diagram above is that her operation runs from a centrally located system compromising exclusion zones such as kraals and vegetable gardens. These are surrounded by extensive marginal grazing. Her cattle roam widely and freely in an unmanaged fashion on poor wooded pasture (c. 50ha). Every now and then she gets them into the more proximate camps where she can benefit by milking them. She showed me her chest freezer overflowing with 2l milk bottles, she said she would love to attend a cheese making course (this would improve her pig operation with excess whey being diverted to pig feed). There is also a pig kraal and 50 free range chickens but she has scaled her pig operation down to just one pig to keep it manageable as it is laborious and difficult for one person to produce feed for a number of pigs. The kraal manure, as indicated in the above design, is applied to the vegetable garden. Chicken, pigs, household and guests, all benefit from this small kitchen garden’s abundant crops.

Elizabeth Herdin in her small, off-grid farm
Elizabeth Herdin in her small, off-grid farm

Elizabeth would benefit from an improved water-harvest system, beginning with new guttering, as well as a safe roof, she would love to attend a cheesemaking course. Niche Unity is gathering funds to this end (TARGET: R7600) and donations can be made in Elizabeth’s name to provide the necessary materials.