Category Archives: Agriculture

But what do you mean, indigenous agriculture?

I have been working with agroecology for a few months now and have begun to understand the true strength of the concept.  Agroecology is agriculture within ecological principles, focussing on food and natural systems and based upon traditional knowledge of growing and preparing traditional varieties of food.  Perhaps one can describe it as a means of farming before agriculture was industrialised or commercialised.  It is known as an alternative to the current agricultural model and does not rely on any industry to sustain itself, it needs no commercial seed or fertiliser, no chemical anything and definitely no poisons.  It finds solutions to any hardships within the system, it is about community involvement, producing locally, buying locally, eating locally.

As is the case around most of the world, here in the south of Africa a LOT of our traditional varieties have been lost and we eat foreign food.  The more research I do into the issue, looking back to what the land supplied before it was industrialised, the more I realise we actually have many indigenous varieties, plants and animals alike.  It also begs the question of “What is indigenous?” because in these instances we mean not specifically local to South Africa.  Often these are animals that have been bred from local species originally from higher up the continent that were brought down in the years before colonisation.

So as we know, farming and the basic domestication of certain plants and animals is centuries old, as the local populations moved around the Sub-Saharan areas of the continent, so too did these varieties.

Take the humble chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus), much like the potato, chickens have been domesticated the world over.  Originally from the South Asian subcontinent, the chicken was first bred from Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus), a very elegant fowl from the Pheasant family.

Red Junglefowl Male

Red Junglefowl Female

[Photo’s:  Sohnjoo’s Photography]

Thus indigenous African breeds of chicken are

  • Ovambo (originating from the north of Namibia) which is a feisty breed.  They are more aggressive than other breeds in that they can stand their ground against mongoose and are able to catch and kill rats and mice.  They roost in trees and it’s a good idea to put their nests up high (even though it will be more work for you) as they have been known to nest in owl boxes.  They are also darker in colour which may help in camouflage against raptors.

    Ovambo Male

    [Photo:  WickedFoodEarth]

  • Vendaare more localised to South Africa, their colouring is more speckled with black and white being dominant colours.  Their combs are bright rose-red and they are also known to have five toes.  These burly chickens are bred mostly for egg-laying.

    Venda Poultry

    [Photo: South Africa’s Indigenous Breeds]

  • The Potchefstroom Koekoekchickens have been bred locally from the Black Australorp (an Australian breed) and the White Leghorn (or “Livorno”, an Italian breed laying white eggs) from the 1960’s to be more suitable to the Southern African environment.

    Koekoek Male

    [Photo:  WickedFoodEarth]

  • Mike Bosch runs Boschveld Farm where he is host to the indigenous Boschveldchicken crossed from Matabele, Ovambo and Venda breeds.

    Boschveld Chicken

In his interview with Louise van der Merwe (the South African Representative for Compassion in World Farming), Mike describes his farming practises and interestingly how he started with these chickens, “Well, it all started about 10 years ago when the price of dip went up and I decided to try and replace dip to a large extent by breeding a chicken that would eat the ticks off my cattle at the water points. I experimented and eventually came up with the Boschveld Chicken which is an all-African indigenous cross-breed. The Boschveld Chicken has reduced the need for dipping from 26 times a year to 14 and because of this, there are fewer chemicals in the environment. I now have noticed that ox-peckers have returned to the farm too.”  You can find out more about his truly free-range chickens [and the photo credit] at

The idea of using indigenous breeds in our farming practice are, amongst other reasons, because they are naturally adapted to this environment and if allowed to live naturally, the need for all the commercial ‘necessities’ (things like antibiotics and hormones) fall away.  Chickens naturally feed on certain plants, insects in all forms (grubs and maggots, larvae basically, being a delicacy), they’ll eat small rodents, frogs and even snakes.  Their diets are wide and varied and domesticated chickens are often fed certain table scraps.  When we inhibit their freedom of movement and habitat and begin to feed them controlled diets of grains day in and out, their health deteriorates and there is greater need for antibiotics, hormones and other stimulants. speaks about the indigenous breeds of farmed animals in South Africa.


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Afghan farmers turn to beekeeping as an alternative to Papaver production

This is one of the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) supported initiatives for alternatives to opium production.  The video is reported by British Forces News which claims that the initiative is sponsored by Anglo-American.  I am not certain whether to be concerned that the US and British military have gotten involved in the agricultural sector but the critical bee situation outweighs any ulterior motive there may (or may not) be.  To quote Sami Grover,

“Of course it goes without saying that the “official line” of either the Afghan government on opium production, or the British Army’s reporting on outreach efforts, should not be taken completely at face value.”

However, military involvement that doesn’t seem to be part of any kind of war is also a good thing, but I digress.  Each student who attends the beekeeping course held at the Gereschk Agricultural College in the Helmand province gets a starter kit upon completion which consists of a hive and various tools.  As reported, there are 17 hives at the College at present and once the number has been built to 75, a cooperative will be established to sell the honey, I’m assuming to process and distribute it too.

One of the other initiatives involves wheat production, and in this case the wheat seed and fertiliser and technical assistance is brought in by the Food Zone, the Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team‘s biggest programme.  Apparently the farmers are allowed to perpetuate their own crop season after season and only those who have not previously been part of the program are eligible to receive the seed and fertiliser.

These initiatives are all in support of Provincial Governor Mohammad Gulab Mangal‘s programmes intended to eradicate poppy production.

In South Africa we produce about 2000 tons of honey per year with a national demand of 3000 tons means we import from various producing countries, but most obviously from China.  China’s honey production is another story for another day.  The bee industry is valued at about R4 billion per annum which includes pollination services to crop production, as stated in SABIO‘s (South African Bee Industry Organisation) Environmental Impact article.  A similar initiative could well be established in South Africa to mitigate the need to import 1000 tons, as a means of employment and poverty alleviation and perhaps a step in the right direction of bee conservation.  Bees Without Borders is an international organisation specialising in education and training, they have done some amazing work and are worthy of patronage.  For more about the work they do, access the New York Times article about founder Andrew Coté and his father Norman.

For information about the need for bee conservation, go here.

via Sami Grover at TreeHugger, andRob Olver at British Forces News.

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The past and future of agriculture

The industrial agriculture model has started to get quite moth-eaten.  Big weaknesses throughout, but the threads that keep it together are funded by big, big, bad corporations.  Lots of investment, lots of control.  And you have to think about it practically, the point was to cultivate as much as one could on a finite piece of land using whatever tricks were necessary to make sure there were high volumes of yield.  Fungicides, herbicides, fertilisers, heavy machinery, pesticides, monoculture, genetic-modification as a solution to the maintenance ‘issues’…  Really is silly at the end of it.  Very, very unnecessary.

So there new movement of change, not so new in the sense that it is knowledge we have lost in the plight to be bigger/better/faster/richer. For example, agro-ecology as a new model for agriculture.  Locally there is a great organisation moving mountains (well, climbing them in fact), promoting and helping societies create the necessary change.  Surplus Peoples Project deserve a lot of recognition for the work they have done.  Check out their Facebook page here.

And so, the biggest issue is the sever manipulation the industrial agricultural model has created, depleting vast areas of land, utilising an absolute kaktail of chemicals which creates agronomic imbalance, and the most obvious issue:  monoculture.  To want to plant only one species over vast areas of space creates many complications.  It’s the perfect breeding ground for fungal blooms, the insects that naturally feed on the plant family now have huge feeding/breeding ground and thus become pests.  Plants that ‘wonder in’ and settle between the crop are really a natural mechanism to cover the soil, for it to repair itself, these ‘weeds’ pulling nutrients up from the soil and depositing them on the surface through abscission.  They’re only ‘weeds’ because they’re not wanted.  Fungal infection is literally a form of population control.  The Great Balance is severely imbalanced in monoculture, as we all know and have seen.

So varieties have been hybridised to cope with mass-planting and all the issues it brings and to cope with post-production (lasting capacity:  storage, transport, waiting on the shelves to be bought and finally waiting in your fridge/pantry to be eaten).  What does this mean?  Essentially greater loss of nutrients and taste.  It’s a shame but it’s the truth.  This article by Natalie Jones explains it better than I do.  Not your grandma’s strawberries indeed!

Image: Lily Mihalik

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Filed under Agriculture, Agro-ecology