SA farmers find alternatives to unsuitable ploughing

A farmer ploughs a field with horses in France in 1937. The practice is inappropriate for local soils. (AFP)

A farmer ploughs a field with horses in France in 1937. The practice is inappropriate for local soils. (AFP)

Ploughing. Apparently we’re doing it all wrong. And we have been doing it wrong for a considerable time.

It’s just that the mainstream is loathe to listen to some odd folks on the sidelines, who mix the narrative of saving the world with that of getting better yields out of a field.

But a fierce debate is bubbling away with more and more farmers swaying to the side of saving the world – and improving yields.

At stake is the future of the humble plough, that icon of indomitable agricultural independence and lynchpin of rural life. Ploughing – and the ploughs used in South Africa – are both under attack from the left. And right. No furrows, please.

It all started when European-style ploughs were shipped down south. Faced with brittle soil and a country covered in barely fertile soil – only 12% of South Africa is considered good for growing even basic crops – farmers went ahead and copied their far-northern neighbours and got into ploughing.

The principal architect was the mouldboard plough. After centuries of careful (read haphazard) evolution, this was the king of European agriculture. Its curved bits suited soil that had been hammered by dark and soggy winters. The blades dug deep and brought soil up, giving it a chance to sunbathe.

Which is great, unless you farm in South Africa. Local soil is fragile. Plough too deep, or too long, and it falls apart. It also has few nutrients. To get around this, farmers have resorted to hammering in tonnes of fertiliser and other unpleasant compounds and ploughing them until the soil gives in and sprouts food for the nation. That leads to erosion and a serious long-term drop in soil fertility.

Various extremes of doomsday propheteering have happened over the years. On the left, environmental groups have talked of ploughing destroying all manner of bugs and ecosystems. They get ignored.

But, at the same time, a growing number of farmers have tried their own alternatives to ploughing.

One of these seems to be winning them over and threatens to stand triumphantly over the rusted corpses of the nation’s ploughs – no-till farming. The Agricultural Research Council says it is the “only” sustainable cropping practice, because it does not disturb the soil. It has steadily grown in popularity, with the council reporting that around a tenth of the country’s cultivated land is being farmed without ploughs. A third of all land is being farmed using methods that use less ploughing, it says.

Rather than fix the past by creating a more appropriate plough, this strand of farming is doing away with them. Instead, fields are looked after. Rather than turning soil over, farmers – still all manly and resplendent in olive green – drive no-till tractors. These drop seeds in what is now healthy soil. Erosion has been reduced, natural ecosystems have returned to farming areas, and fewer chemicals are flowing into rivers. Even better, no ploughing means carbon is kept in the soil, so the planet is warmed a little bit less.

It’s time for the plough to die. Panzi, European mouldboard, panzi!

Sipho Kings

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