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Farming for the Future

Jun 07 2016 11:00

The recent drought across South Africa has left many industries stilted. One of the hardest hit was the agricultural sector, which uses approximately 84% of the fresh water that the country produces.

Alan Winde, the Western Cape Economic Opportunities MEC, told the media that the drought is predicted to last for a few years so residents and farmers are encouraged to do their utmost to make sure that water is conserved by every means possible.

The Western Cape Economic Opportunities department has been working with several farmers in the region in order to make sure that they adopt conservation agriculture practices with ‘focused research and technology transfers’. Mr Kobus Pienaar, Woolworths Foods Farming For the Future expert and Good Business Journey Manager also believes there is a hope for sustainable farming "We are not entirely powerless in the drought. Innovative thinking can bring about significant water saving without substantial financial input.” The agricultural sector is a vital sector to take a critical look at how water is used to ensure that every drop counts.  

But what can be done to minimise the amount of water that is used in agriculture? According to Pienaar, it is imperative that agriculture’s impact on scarce resources, such as water, is managed as effectively as possible. Woolworths started working with their producers back in 2009 on management practices that save water in unique ways and from this the Farming for the Future (FFF) initiative was born. This seven-year partnership has seen vegetable, fruit and flower farmers become educators and innovators in ensuring that water is used in the most effective way, without compromising quality and yield. One such example is the 23 litres of water South African farmers use to produce one plum of 135 g, compared to the global average of 237 litres of water for the same product.

The strategy and initiatives implemented have predominantly focused on farming methods that promote responsible farming and good water management in agriculture.

Starting with the soil, farmers make use of conservation tillage, and ground covers which increases water absorption and reduces evaporation, erosion and compaction as this makes sure that the water capacity increases annually. If the soil where the crops are planted is managed correctly it can be used as a reservoir in which to store water. The use of a precious resource such as water to nurture a plant is an investment in that plant. It is therefore very important to ensure that all the factors that could affect the health of the plant are properly managed. In Grabouw, Fruitways employs techniques to ensure that the soil is always covered by a cover crop in combination with plant density and improved rootstock. In this way they grow less tree and more apples. They call it the “orchard of the future” and they have reduced their water usage per kilogram apples produced.

Correct irrigation and equipment maintenance has also been a vital element in managing water. The irrigation method for the kind of crop, soil and climate needs to be taken into consideration and weather forecasts, soil and plant moisture monitored so that irrigation schedules can be adapted according to the changeable conditions. If the irrigation is overdone, both water and energy is wasted. Greenpak, vegetable farmers in the Free State, employ technology to measure the plant available moisture in the soil at different levels. This puts an end to guesswork as they are able to determine exactly when and how much to irrigate without going beyond the root zone or placing the plant under undue stress. Their scientific approach of building the soil structure by crop rotation, the application of fertiliser and improved tilling practices, has led to significant savings in the application of water.

A widely known way to conserve water is by recycling and reusing, and grey water and hydroponic systems have had a big impact on sustainable farming methods. Water can be saved by recycling the runoff; this conserves gallons of water. Silver Dawn, a hydroponic farm in Gauteng, captures rain water and recycles water that has already been through their hydroponic system, they have limited their water footprint to the minimum.

 

This requires farmers to actively get involved in measures that they have not previously had to, such as reusing water or working out the correct irrigation methods with which to farm.

In order for water conservation in the agriculture industry to work long term Pienaar believes that the sustainable practices have to become part of the DNA of producers. That the farmers need to remain motivated to think beyond doing the usual thing and continue to use accurate measurements and the scientific interpretation of the data could lead to greater water saving in an already dry South Africa.

To find out more about the implementation of Woolworths Farming for the future initiatives and the Good Business Journey Goals visit their website

farming  |  agriculture
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