Home Entrepreneurs Agri-innovation How a Free State farmer brought his dying land back from the...

How a Free State farmer brought his dying land back from the brink

Sustainable farming can save the agricultural industry for future generations, says Riemland co-founder


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Danie Slabbert (39) might look like a typical farmer, but his forbearers are probably turning in their graves questioning his unconventional farming methods. This farmer’s philosophy is that he’s merely borrowing the land from his children and their children to come.

He believes that the focus should be on the next generation and this is the main reason why Slabbert farms “regeneratively”, to ensure the survival of the South African farmer.

Slabbert was raised on his family’s farm in Reitz in the Free State, where he still lives and farms today. “I have a brother and four sisters and we’re actually two sets of twins. I have a twin sister and my brother has a twin sister. My mom is a hero to have survived with six children. My dad is my other hero. He built himself up with very little and we had to work hard.”

Danie Slabbert with TV personality Ivor Price and former Springbok coach Pieter de Villiers.

The patriotic Slabbert matriculated from Reitz High School and went on to study agricultural management at Saasveld Forestry College on the Garden Route, between George and Knysna in the Southern Cape.

“I moved out of my routines in the Free State to learn more about the cultures [in other parts of the country]. It was a great experience, completely out of my comfort zone and I’m happy that I did it. I completed my studies and started farming three years later, in 2000.”

As a toddler he may have dreamt about becoming a fireman or a policeman, but for as long as he can remember, farming has been his ambition. “I don’t see myself doing anything else. It’s our mission and I think it’s the reason we’re here on earth. Farming is a calling. We’re stewards of the land and we’re actually put here by God, to work the land and to provide food in a sustainable way.”

Riemland agri research group

Eleven years ago, Slabbert and a group of his friends decided to establish the Riemland-studiegroep, a conservation agricultural research group. It came about after the group realised that there weren’t really any state-owned agricultural institutions doing trials, and that interactively worked with farmers. He says they didn’t expect the group to grow as much as it did. “It’s actually an open agricultural study group and without us even realising it, it sort of took the direction into conservation farming.”

When asked about why he chose this unconventional farming method, Slabbert says he prefers the term “regenerative farming”. He says their aim is to work with nature instead of against it. “We want to build. We want to build fruitful land”.

Slabbert adds that he’s saddened when he thinks that agriculture over the past 200 years has been very degenerative. “Agriculture has broken down, with chemicals and tools. We’ve actually weakened the land without even knowing it. What we want to do, is bring it back to its natural state.”

For Slabbert, regenerative farming has definitely been more effective.

“A few aspects of farming changed completely. It’s a whole new challenge. For example, we don’t work the land, no ploughing, nothing. No farming operations. The only operation process is when we plant.”

People definitely thought he was crazy when he started farming this way. “Change is obviously one of the biggest challenges for anyone. It’s somewhat of a paradigm shift, but it’s growing worldwide. In South Africa, the growth is phenomenal. We’re 100% reliant on nature, so why would we break something down that is working for the industry we work in?”

Slabbert explains that it’s been very challenging, but what they’re basically trying to do is to not disturb the land and to bring life back. “We want to bring back livestock. We want biology and organisms to live. We want to use less chemicals that breakdown the land and retain the lands moisture and structure.”

He’s been using this method of farming for 11 years and is experiencing a huge change in the structure of his land and its ability to retain water. With less input, he’s been able to produce a greater harvest. “My plants survive with less rain and my land’s nutrition status has improved immensely.”

Proof that regenerative agriculture works

According to Slabbert the quality of his produce is better too. Although he cannot test it on corn or grain in South Africa, he can physically see a difference in his potatoes. He also speaks passionately about how nature works for them on the farm.

“If we encounter a plague in soya with the bollworm, the first and easiest thing to do is to spray chemicals. This is a treatment of a symptom, so you’ll kill the bollworms, but then you kill their predators too. You end up dealing with a symptom that will just return a year later.”

This farmer agrees that a decision to not use chemicals and pesticides on any farm is risky, but he says that you won’t stop spraying anything all together. He adds that once you spray, you kill the ladybird too and then it’s just a cycle continuing to threaten a symptom instead of healing it. “To heal it”, he says, “you’ll have to take a few drastic steps and lose profit in the short term to win in the long run.” 

You won’t believe how nature can heal itself.

Seeing the results of the life in his soil is what keeps this farmer, who’s dubbed himself an earth farmer, motivated. “It is incredibly stimulating to see how earth worms naturally reappear. You won’t believe how nature can heal itself. I always say God created it so beautifully. Nature heals itself.”

On his farm, he’s recently seen 26 owls in one swarm, 150 blue cranes and on any given day you’ll find between 100 and 150 hadedas because they eat earthworms. Within the next five to ten years, Slabbert sees himself farming on exactly the same piece of land, and doubling his production. “I’m trying to prove that there is actually enough space for everybody in South Africa.”

Perhaps he’ll be proven right, after all.

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Dawn Noemdoe
Dawn Noemdoe
DAWN NOEMDOE is a journalist and content producer who cut her teeth in community radio. She brings a natural curiosity instinctively dedicated to truth telling. Persistent and nurturing a strong sense of commitment, Dawn’s heart for equality drives her work, also as Food For Mzansi’s Project Editor.

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