What not to do when you start organic farming

As city slickers turned wanna-be farmers we have many somewhat funny stories about what not to do when starting out on your farm or small-holding. We have started from scratch, not knowing much, but learning as we go which has meant that in some instances our first attempt was not the best.

Here are some of our hard earned lessons that we hope will help you to avoid these mistakes, and provide some comic relief.

1. How not to build a house
Before we moved out to Walkerville we designed and planned our home that we were going to build here. We got council approval and appointed a contractor and started the project. But as first time builders we did not know that you needed to contact the NHBRC (National Home Builders Registration Council – a government organisation in South Africa that makes sure that all homes are built according to a specific standard) prior to you starting to build. Our builder assured us that everything was good to go and so we started the process with money that we had from the sale of our previous house, while the waited for our building loan to go through.

Needless to say the bank would not release any money prior to NHBRC inspection and the NHBRC were in no hurry to come out and inspect our new building works as we had not followed proper procedure and got them onboard prior to starting to build. We now had contractors on site who needed to be paid each week, no bank loan money and no one at the NHBRC interested in our troubles.

Eventually after much begging and pleading over the phone and in person a sympathetic inspector contracted to the NHBRC came to inspect our building and got the paperwork going for their approval. After going to the NHBRC – with our 2 crying baby daughters in tow – we were able to get some movement of our paperwork and we finally got our NHBRC approval and bank loan release not a moment too soon.

So the moral of the story is to save yourself a lot of trouble and find out the right procedure for all building approval bodies ahead of commencing building.

2. How not to build a dam
In the winter of 2008 when the Highveld countryside is dry and brown, we got it into our heads that some water on our property would add a lot to the property in terms of aesthetics, tranquillity and a place for additional birdlife to breed. We also knew that there were 3 non-perennial rivers that passed through our land during the summer months that we could trap and dam up.

We knew one of our neighbours who had a TLB and we struck a deal with him to use it for 3 days for a good price and one of the old machines we had on the property at the time. The TLB did its work and we learnt that you don’t build a dam by digging a hole, but by building a wall to hold back the water. And then we waited – like Noah with his newly built ark –for the Lord to send rain to fill it.

And fill it He did with great thunderstorms during October and November. The water would stay for about 2 weeks and then seep away into what we thought was clay soil leaving a dry, dusty bed behind. Then from December through to the end of our rain season in April no water was added to our dam as something had gone wrong with the design.

This last winter in 2009 we promised to perfect the design and try again to seal our dam to hold the water we so wanted on our property. After another expensive visit from the TLB to re-grade the dam and its tributary channels and after investigating all manner of dam sealing options (including bentonite, cement, plastic and dam liner options) – our little dam idea has turned into a big expensive project which I am sure we will enjoy for years to come once we pay off the debt it cost to put it in.

3. How not to treat your ram
We bought a few sheep as breeding stock from a friend of ours – one ram and 4 ewes in order to breed some sheep for our own meat supply. When they arrived all 5 were petrified of us and would not let us walk past them without bolting. In time though they became part of the family and all got names and were spoilt with supplemented food fed to them by hand. This was all good and well for the timid ewes but is not a good idea when dealing with a ram.

We soon learnt that rams are best kept at a distance, reinforcing their respect for you. Our ram rocky – although an excellent breeding ram and a protective head of the flock is very violent with people constantly wanting to assert his dominance. He is especially bad around woman and children, who he knows are weaker targets, but does not mess with my husband who shows him no fear.

3 new little rams have recently been born on our property and needless to say we keep them in their place from the beginning not letting them get too familiar with us lest they follow the pattern of their father.

4. How not to put up a fence
When we moved to the country, we soon learnt that putting up fences is one of the main pass times of farmers. If it wasn’t our security fence around our house it was our garden fence to keep the dogs in, then the farmyard fence to secure the animals at night, then the orchard fence to keep the animals out of the orchard, then the driveway fence to keep the dogs away from the other animals and then the large property fence to keep the animals in the property.

Not knowing much about farm animals before we got them we just consulted a book for the measurements for the type of fence required to keep in farm animals and used these to put up our 1km long electrified outer property fence. Needless to say the day our sheep arrived (a Monday), they found no difficulty in jumping right through it and running away to the other side of the hill behind us. After finding them and bringing them back in we locked them in the farmyard and fed them bought grass until the weekend when we could put up 1km of Bonox fencing that was bought urgently that week.

A few months later we were horrified to wake up in the night to find 3 wild dogs had attacked and killed 2 of our sheep. They had easily pushed through the bottom of our outer fence and then pushed through the side of our flimsy wooden farmyard gate and killed the sheep while they were trapped in the farmyard.

So the next weekend we were back out on the perimeter securing the bottom of the fence with droppers so that no one can climb under it – and we put a latch at the bottom of our farmyard gate.

We are now planning to add additional strands to the perimeter fence to keep smaller animals and jumping humans out of the property .... and so the story goes on....

All these efforts have taught us to that when putting up a fence try to do it properly the first time, but be prepared to revisit this project many times in the future because putting up, repairing and upgrading fences is one of the things that farmers need to do best.

5. How not to start a flock of hens
One day, driving down the road we saw a man selling day old baby chicks. With my two little girls in the car I thought it would be a nice idea for them to see them so we got out to take a look at the little babies. I had been wanting to get some chickens to keep for meat and eggs and when I heard how cheap they were we decided to buy 10 (which turned out to be 15 as we realised when we got home that he gave us some extras – must have been desperate to get rid of them). We took them home in their little box and raised them in the house for the first few weeks as it was still winter. My husband built me a hen house for them to go into in spring and my girls and I lovingly raised these little babies.

I was expecting that some would be hens that would eventually lay eggs and some would be roasters but as they grew they all seemed to look the same and I could not even tell if that meant that they were all roosters or all hens.

So off I went to the library to read up about chickens only to discover that they were all broiler males meaning that they are bred only for their meat and that the breed are not good layers not that my roosters were going to be able to lay anyway.

After reading the book and talking to some local people I was resolved to the fact that there is nothing else you can do with broiler males than to eat them - which we did.

I then sourced a local supplier of pure breed laying hens and a rooster which we bought at 12 weeks old and we have been happy ever since eating farm fresh eggs and organic free-range chicken.

6. How not to start a mielie field
We plant our mielie field according to the Farming Gods Way principles which state that you should avoid over tilling the soil as this causes loss of moisture, loss of nutrients and loss of mulch etc in the top soil. So we plant our mielies by digging each hole with a hoe and placing manure in the hole with the seed and waiting for the rain.

But when we decided to start, we first had to clear the field and so we started scraping the soil to get rid of the plants that were there. Needless to say it took days and hundreds of rands worth of labour before we realised that if we just started digging our seed holes immediately we did not have to first remove the plants which became valuable mulch and nutrients in the top soil when we were planting anyway.

7. How not to start a compost heap
Grant wanted to start a huge compost heap to produce enough compost for all of our mielie seed holes we were digging. So he built a massive 2m by 2m heap and filled it up with dry grass, a bit of sand and wet it with water. Needless to say that without layers of hard; (bark, sticks and twigs) green; (grass and leaf cuttings) and already decaying matter (dry leaves, and kitchen waste) that compost heap was producing nothing but dry grass. So he then spent many more days sourcing the cuttings he needed for the other layers that would start the decomposing process and transform his dry grass into compost.

8. How not to grow seedlings
One year what we did was build a lovely plastic see-through box to grow our seedlings in winter. But we kept forgetting to open the flap in the day to let air in. So although our young plants had plenty of nutrients, water and sunlight they had no oxygen and did not grow well.

When we started growing heirloom and open pollinated vegetable varieties we thought that we could just treat them like we did the hybrid seeds we had planted till then. So we planted them in seed trays in August (end of winter) and kept them in the sun and well watered. Most of them came up and then died. We soon discovered that natural seeds are a little more fragile than hybrids and needed to heat them at night until the spring evenings warmed up. Although they were getting enough sun in the day, the cold night were too harsh for them – even though they were kept in a growing tunnel. So we started keeping them on a food hot tray at night or covered with our electric blanket and the results were amazing as they thrived in the warmer environment.

9. How not to pick up compost
Knowing that I needed to get some animal manure into my plant beds in order for my plants to flourish I approached every horse and cow farmer I knew in my area begging for their animal poo. The dairy farmer next door said that he would do me a favour and sell me some of his. So the next day I went over there with my bakkie and trailer. When my trailer was empty, the wheels seemed fine, but once the trailer was full of manure, the wheels sagged. Seeing as the dairy farm is next door to my house I thought that it would be ok to get me home. But next door to my house is actually 5 km away and when I began to make the dirt road climb to my house the wheel gave way and literally bucked outwards. I had to dray that wheel home and take it off to be replaced – after I had off loaded the manure wheel-barrow by wheel-barrow on my own as we had no full-time labour on the property at the time.

10. How not to plant fruit trees and how not to prune fruit trees
We planted our orchard of fruit trees before we moved out to the country, even before we had municipal water connected to the plot so my husband had to faithfully come out to the plot each week with bottles of water to water the trees before we got municipal water connected.

When we planted them we did what most city slickers do when planting a tree – dig a hole as big as the bag the tree is in, take the tree out of the bag and pop it into the hole. Needless to say our fruit trees have grown very slowly and produced little fruit since then.

On our steep learning curve we have since learnt that a far superior way to plant a tree is to dig a large hole 1m wide by 1m deep to provide lots of room for the new trees root development. Take the tree out of its bag and place it into the hole at the height that you want it. Then fill up the hole with rich organic matter that will feed the roots. Before you close up the hole don’t forget to put in a piece of pipe reaching down to the roots and coming up out of the ground at least 10cm in diameter which makes it easier to water your trees by pouring the water into the pipe which goes straight down to the roots.

I am the one on the plot tasked with pruning the trees which I do diligently just when you are supposed to in August of every year. I assumed that pruning is really to clean up the wayward branches that are growing where you don’t want them and to clean up the base of the tree so that branches don’t grow too low down the base so that you encourage upward growth.

I have since learnt that pruning fruit trees is somewhat of an art that is vital for the optimal fruit production of the tree. Basically you need to choose 4-5 main branches that make a hand like shape around the tree and prune off any others as it is too many for the optimal fruit production of 1 tree. Then trim these main branches of any side branches that are growing in towards the tree – as these will get tangled and damage the tree. Then trim the vertical and horizontal stems until there is a flat top to the tree. You trim these stems at an angle with sharp sheers just above a bud that is facing in the direction that you want the stem to grow.