Home Changemakers Innovators Respected scientist wins the hearts of farmers and Mother Nature

Respected scientist wins the hearts of farmers and Mother Nature

Dr Elsje Joubert runs a centre of excellence to support the production of macadamia nuts in South Africa

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Women who want the whole package – an enviable career, husband, children, fulfilment – seldom find a rural environment able to provide. But Dr Elsje Joubert, scientist and researcher on subtropical crops in Levubu, Limpopo, not only created an idyllic family life on a farm that features her valued subject, but is sharing her expertise with a community in need.

“This is my dream,” says a beaming Elsje, motioning to the space that encompasses what used to be the Levubu rugby club. Her industrial sized printer, placed behind the serving counter, is churning out course material while she starts up her laptop connected to the projector on the far side wall. In an hour’s time, the hall will be filled with farmers, farm workers and would-be farmers hungry for knowledge on macadamia farming.

While Elsje does present a good syllabus in her newly formed centre of excellence, it is her reputation as being one of the country’s most respected researchers and scientists on what is South Africa’s fastest growing crop, that draws in the crowds.

Dr Elsje Joubert explains that cutting branches off the bottom of the tree is an outdated practice that reduces its nut-bearing capacity. Photo: Lindi Botha

Born and raised in Nelspruit, Mpumalanga, Elsje has spent her life surrounded by sub-tropical crops. Her fascination with the biology and science behind farming led her to study ecology and entomology at the University of Stellenbosch. Upon graduating she returned to her home province where she furthered her research on pests affecting the citrus and sugarcane industries.

An appointment to Subtrop, the industry body for the subtropical crops industry, brought a move to Limpopo where she has spent the last decade honing her research on macadamia production. Coincidently, she also met her farmer husband, Stoffel, while out on the job, which has seen her settle in Levubu permanently and able to fulfil her dream of opening the centre of excellence.

At the age of 34, there is hardly a farm in the lush Levubu valley where she has not set foot, and not a farmer who does not highly value her opinion. Now, at her centre, she hopes to reach a wider audience on a continuous basis, to instil a thorough knowledge of macadamia and avocado production that will enable the producer to make better decisions that will benefit both farmer and environment.

A better way

Elsje is passionate about farming with nature, not against it. She speaks out strongly against farm management practices that are exacerbating the ever-increasing problem of harmful insects in macadamia orchards. Instead, she teaches holistic management practices that look at increasing orchard health by producing strong trees, from healthy soil.

“Stinkbug numbers do appear to be climbing, as is thrips and nut borer. I believe climate change does have something to do with it as the increasing temperatures result in a higher pest load. This does not bode well for the future, in an industry where orchards are rapidly expanding, temperatures are climbing, and farmers are resorting to extreme measures to keep pests under control by increasing their pesticide applications.

“We are seeing more and more pesticides being applied and our orchards and ecology is effectively dead. There is no life other than weak trees that are being attacked by pests because their natural resistance has been wiped out by overuse of chemicals.”

She recommends going back to basics by first focusing on the orchards and surrounding ecology before reaching for a quick solution. “Look after the ecology and manage your farm holistically. Make sure your trees are not overgrown and there is enough sunlight in your orchards; encourage ground coverage by other plants and weeds and make your orchard inviting to helpful insects.

Joubert points out lace wing insects – one of the many beneficial insects – in the orchard. Picture: Lindi Botha

“This includes natural predators like ladybugs that can eat up to 90 aphids a day, parasitoid wasps that prevent stinkbugs from hatching, and bats that eat stinkbugs. It is a combination of beneficial life that farmers can introduce to the farm to help with pests in a more natural manner. They all help and they are all part of the bigger circle of life in a holistically managed orchard.

“Unfortunately you can’t get away from using pesticides completely. But you can greatly reduce your applications. It takes a lot more work and more time spent in the orchards, but that is farming.”

Elsje not only talks the talk, but walks the walk. Her early morning wanderings through the orchard, with son Chrisjan on the hip, shows a woman in tune with what is happening in the Joubert orchards. While she admits that they are by no means the best farmers around Levubu, the trial and error process of finding a better way forward is bearing fruit.

“Macadamia farming is a new industry and we still have so much to learn. Farmers need to keep an open mind and be willing to change their way of thinking if this industry is going to survive the pest onslaught going forward.”

Through the centre of excellence Elsje is hoping to do just that. Changing the outlook of a whole community towards more holistic farming practices is no easy feat, but Elsje’s energy is relentless and she is not only up for the job, she is excited by the prospect!

Lindi Botha
Lindi Botha
Lindi Botha is a journalist and communications specialist with a specific focus on the agricultural field. She has an unrelenting passion for agriculture and writing stories that show the industry as a positive contributor to social change and economic upliftment. She has garnered numerous awards during her career, the most recent of which is International Federation of Agricultural Journalists Star Prize 2019. Lindi also serves as the secretary of the Agricultural Writers’ South Africa, where ensuring professional development of those in the media and enhancing the image of agriculture in mainstream news is a key interest.
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