It is a hot day in the Western Cape with an occasional breeze from the ocean. Clad in a light blue shirt, navy blue shorts and walking barefooted, Angus McIntosh, owner of “Farmer Angus”, is at the farm’s main building.
Very conspicuous on the wall outside the white-painted shed is a quote by famous American novelist, poet and environmental activist Wendell Berry written in black bold letters. It reads “We are all farmers by Proxy”. Perhaps, this is a mantra which Angus lives by as he believes that even the food choices that people make can contribute to sustainable agriculture practices.
A management accountant by profession, Angus, who left his job to start farming in December 2008, seems to be enjoying the freedom that his farming career offers him compared to an office job.
Life on the farm
Our tour of the farm starts with visiting a herd of cattle grazing on fresh pasture.
“We have two herds of cattle on the farm, and these are moved six times every day to fresh grazing pasture. They are also provided with this free choice mineral lick,” Angus says while pointing at a wagon containing different kinds of minerals.
“The principle of this mineral lick is that all soils are deficient, they are missing something! It becomes a cycle; the plants growing on the soil become deficient as well, leading to the livestock eating deficient pasture. Deficiency becomes a disease.”
He says the livestock know that they are missing something, and they come to the wagon to lick the mineral of the choice. From these minerals that they take in, he says 30 percent fixes the livestock’s internal imbalance and 70 percent comes out biologically as manure.
Angus says: “Consequently, this helps address the deficiency of the soil thereby leading to healthy pasture and healthy livestock. The pasture on this farm was planted in 2011 and we have never had to replant because we don’t use artificial fertiliser.”
Next stop: the piggery, surrounded by an electrical fence within the farm. Apart from a strong stench of poop, what also welcomes us is a sight of empty egg trays, eggshells, empty cartons of yoghurt and residues of fruits, notably oranges, all over the place. The contents of these residues, Angus says, are some of the foods given to the pigs.
Interestingly, the farmer says, unlike the cattle, pigs are moved to fresh pasture only once a week. Angus says this is because he wants the pigs to completely destroy an area before they are moved. While this has proved beneficial to him over the years and he has not had to deal with any disease outbreak, he says keeping the pigs in the electric fence, and generally farming in Africa, is costly.
The pigs on the farm are slaughtered and turned into different products such as salami sticks, salami felino, and salami slices, pancetta, prosciutto, and coppa ham which are available in selected stores in South Africa.
After a little chat about pigs, it is time to experience the poultry side of the farm. As we enter the layer hen paddock, there is no hen in sight except for one that comes towards Angus. He explains the bird's behavior, saying that it is distressed. Angus crouches down to pat its back briefly before sending it to join the rest of the hens seeking shelter under the egg mobiles.
The farmer says chickens struggle with the heat. This has encouraged him to get white hens because they are able to tolerate the Western Cape heat easily. There are 21 egg mobiles housing at least 350 laying hens each on the farm.
A close look in the paddock, it is evident that one side has been grazed flat while the other side has luscious green grass standing tall, waiting for the chickens to move there. Angus says the egg mobiles are moved once a day so as to avoid excessive overnutrifying of the land. Just as the cattle, the chickens are also given extra minerals such as calcium as well as kelp, a seaweed, to supplement their diet.
“We buy the chickens at the point of lay, but one day we would need to do the hatching,'' he explains, adding that the eggs that they produce are sold mostly to retail outlets and restaurants.
While Angus has been successful and is able to sell most of his farm products across South Africa, farming has not been without challenges for him.
He says he has faced several challenges, some due to the global Covid-19 pandemic underway. However, one setback he will always remember is the huge drought and record-breaking water shortage which was experienced in the Western Cape between 2015 and 2018.
Just like many farmers in the area, the father of three found himself between a rock and a hard place as he had to ration the water that he was using on the farm to irrigate pasture for livestock as well as for other activities on the farm.“Drought shrinks business”,he sighs.
“When the drought was at its peak, I had to offload half of my cattle herd because my irrigation water was cut by 95 percent. Our quota went from 4,000 cubic liters to 1,800 cubic liters and it kept on going down.
“Previously, I had paid a R250 000 fine for overuse of water in the summer. My cattle only eat the grass that grows on our farm. In summer, we need to irrigate to keep this grass growing. However, we just couldn’t do it anymore and some cattle had to go,” says Angus.
Keeping up with challenges
As the dry spells in Western Cape continue, Farmer Angus is able to get away with irrigating less every year and being able to provide his livestock with healthy pasture because the farm can now increase the carbon in the soil. He says the more carbon there is in the soil, the more the soil holds water.
But how is the carbon in the soil increased?
Angus explains that carbon gets into the soil as a by-product of photosynthesis in a scientific process whereby non-matter becomes matter.
“It's predominantly carbon dioxide that gets pulled into the plant and gets converted, in return the plant spits out the oxygen that we breathe,” he says.
But that is not all. Angus pulls out a mini notebook with a little illustration to explain the second way in which carbon goes into the soil.
“This graph here attempts to show the growth curve of grass. The vertical side “H” represents the Height of grass, and the horizontal part of graph “T” shows the passage of time. If grass is grazed, left untouched and watered, it immediately starts growing.
“Three to four days after grazing, the normal growth curve of the grass pushes carbon into the soil. Another way to think of this is that the picture above ground and below ground is always the same. When the animals graze the whole panel right down, the farmer is left with a big root mess.” Angus says, adding that, then, the plant recognises that it has a small panel above ground and a huge root mess below ground and it cuts off its roots.
He adds it takes six weeks for the cycle to complete, but in summer it is quicker because it is hot.
“However, we can only achieve this because we put a lot of animals in a small space for a short time followed by a long resting period,” says Angus, adding that the amount of carbon in the soil is measured through soil tests every three years.
As science continues to prove that agriculture is an undervalued and underestimated climate change tool that could be one of the most powerful strategies against a climate crisis, so does Angus continue the fight against climate change through regenerative agriculture.