Claire Rousell reflects on a field trip to the Cederberg undertaken by the “Critical Perspectives on the Bio-economy” class.
In the last week of August 2022, the EGS Bioeconomy class went on a field trip to the Cederberg where we were introduced to a number of people who play interesting roles in the bio-economy of the area. It was an action packed forty-hour trip!
First stop was citrus farmer, Martli Slabber, who grows a combination of organic and conventional fruit. She is very knowledgeable about soil structure and the importance of a thriving microbiome for resilient fruit trees, carbon sequestration and maintaining healthy ecosystems below and above the soil. She explained some of the difficulties of transitioning to organic farming, such as changes in market requirements that are issued at short notice, but through her explanation of its long-term ecosystem benefits, it was clear that she saw its value.
Day one ended with a rather eventful, if short, hike from the road to Jamaka, the organic farm that would be our home base for the next two days, and a delicious communal dinner.
The following day we visited Rooibos Limited’s Martin Bergh, the largest rooibos farmer in South Africa, which is to say, the largest in the world. He explained some of the backstory to the recent R12.2mil pay out issued as part of the ground-breaking access and benefit-sharing agreement signed in 2019. He spoke about some of its contradictions and failings, although being the first agreement of this scale, it is a major achievement for all the parties who have diverse interests in the matter and a long history of not finding common ground. We then visited one of their rooibos farms where Marijke Ehlers explained some of the technical aspects of farming this wild plant as a commercial crop.
In the afternoon we visited Storytellers at the Pakhuys, where we were treated to a demonstration of the traditional bread baking method of the area using an extraordinarily simple homemade starter and a hand built outdoor clay oven. This process, and the fantastic bread it produced, was shared with us by Fynbosmengsels, a group of fynbos experts from the Vleiplaas local communities who have been working with the Co-Create project, part of the Bio-economy Chair’s commitment to ethical and reflexive modes of participatory research.
Loubie Rusch, who is a member of the Co-Create project, as well as running the indigenous food project Local Wild, joined us for the whole journey and on our final day told us a little about her work over many years to contribute to a growing awareness of the many edible plants in the Cape Floristic Region and their cultivation and care.
As we prepared to leave Jamaka, one of the farmers, Jannick Nieuwoudt told us a little bit about their operations. They are fully organic and their main crops are citrus and mangos, which they process into juice, citrus powder, dried fruit and sheep feed. The sheep also keep the orchard floor nice and tidy and provide manure for the trees. They use invasive species as mulch and harvest wild rooibos from the surrounding mountains. It was inspiring to see a farm with so many inter-related processes and products and a deep commitment to organic cultivation.
Despite being a short visit, it was an invaluable look into a spectrum of different food practices and worldviews all living together, albeit uncomfortably at times, in this magnificent mountain district. Industrial agricultural production, small-scale farming and indigenous practices have intertwined with devastating histories in this area, as in many parts of South Africa, and this visit gave us a small window into the complexity of this bio-economy landscape.