Category Archives: Keyline ploughing

The fascinating world of the Keyline System, and the promises it makes.

Feed the Planet Outta Your Own Backyard

The town of Hamburg – the one in the Province of the Eastern Cape in South Africa, as opposed to the lesser known one in Germany, is a rural town of a couple of thousand people. It was started in the 1840’s when the British brought in German legionaries to create a militia to manage their borders. I won’t go into the history, but they laid out a series of farms, each about 100 Acres, which exist to this day, sans German legionaries, of course. It has been through a number of incarnations since, but the same basic (crap) farm planning remains. Our practice has been appointed amongst other professionals, to try and outline a number of interventions to regenerate this town, which is blighted with almost ubiquitous unemployment and precious-little by way of economic activity.

The exciting part of the project is the emerging agricultural potential of the land. The more we do back-ground reading, the more exciting it becomes. The Eastern Cape is the heartland of the ANC government, and many of the leading lights in South African politics originate from this area. During the years of apartheid, the labour policies of the previous government lead to a massive exodus of migrant labour to the mines and urban areas, which contributed in some part to the demise of the agricultural sector in the area. This is a complex issue and one I will avoid, as I have scant knowledge of the historical detail. What we do know for sure is that there has been a massive exodus of Eastern Cape residents to other urban centers within the country which has gone more or less unchecked for the past twenty years.

‘Up to 5.5 million people trekked to urban areas in South Africa between 1996 and 2001 – a rate of more than a million a year.This had resulted in “the mushrooming of almost 3 000 informal settlements”‘ []

The migrants are in search of better opportunities in the large centers. Unfortunately, many end up unemployed and living in poor conditions in squatter shacks. The amazing thing is that for a very long time, the trend has continued, which has to go some way to indicating how much worse things must be back home to continue this flow into the cities. The Government Statistical Agency – STATS SA quotes the current unemployment rate as 25.4% [] . Global Poverty Research Group puts the rate at between 36 – 42% , and in the 16-24 age group for young Africans, it reports the rate at 51% []  Kingdon & Knight’s summation of the situation makes for sobering reading:

“Young uneducated Africans living in homelands and remote areas are most vulnerable to unemployment. There are two particularly striking features of South African unemployment: firstly, the fact that rural unemployment rates are higher than urban rates is atypical among countries and is explained by historical policies restricting mobility. Secondly, the majority (62%) of the unemployed have never held a job before, i.e., they entered unemployment from the time of entering the labour force. The very long duration of unemployment (>1 year) among a high proportion (68%) of the unemployed suggests that the demand-side of the labour market is responsible for a good part of the unemployment.”

Which would explain why the ‘Big Smoke’ may appear a better option. When poverty is all you can look forward to at home, the motivation to move must be very strong. Here is a poignant definition of poverty, from the World Bank in 2002:

“Poverty is hunger.  Poverty is lack of shelter.  Poverty is being sick and not
being able to see a doctor.  Poverty is not being able to go to school and not
knowing how to read.  Poverty is not having a job, is fear for the future, living
one day at a time.  Poverty is losing a child to illness brought about by unclean
water.  Poverty is powerlessness, lack of representation and freedom.”

So back to Hamburg. It would be a hard sell as it stands at the moment. It is a beautiful little town, unspoilt and with spectacular scenery, but the town’s folk live on remittances from other family members in the cities, apparently. But what to do when the collapse of the capitalist system makes the rate of urbanization untenable, or the cities are simply unable to carry as many people as they do now? How would it be if the rural areas offered a good living – and by ‘good’, I mean good in a way that is the antithesis of ‘poverty’. Lets use the word ‘bountiful’.  Take the World Bank’s definition of poor and replace it with ‘bountiful’:

‘Bountiful is a lack of hunger. Bountiful is the security of shelter. Bountiful is being able to see a doctor when you are sick. Bountiful is being able to go to school and learn how to read. Bountiful is having a decent job, is confidence in the future. Bountiful is healthy children with access to clean water and good food. Bountiful is representation and freedom.’

Cracker. We all want that. Hamburg and the surrounds can have that bounty, but they need a driver. And forget Tourism. Tourism is a ‘nice to have’ – but too many people see it as the panacea for all economic ills. Sitting around hoping some rich family in an SUV are going to roll down their window and drop cash in your lap is likely to end as well as my Lotto Retirement Plan is shaping up. In the words of Timothy Leary, “What we need – is a plan”. And the plan is a farm.

The University of Fort Hare, in the bonzer little town of Alice, about an hour away from Hamburg, is rolling out a series of Agriparks – initiatives which are business units, growing, processing and packaging food. Here’s the best bit – their client is the School Feeding Scheme of the Eastern Cape Province. The School Feeding Scheme have been looking for suppliers of quality nutritious food, and have been trucking it down over a thousand kilometers from Gauteng Province, simply to meet demand. They will take everything the Agriparks can produce, and have signed agreements saying so. The University of Fort Hare want to ramp up their production, and we are meeting with the University to start the discussion about having the next Agripark in Hamburg. Preliminary discussions are sounding very positive. This is the kind of economic driver that the area needs – a guaranteed inflow of money in exchange for an outflow of food. All that is needed is to kick-start the agricultural production.

Which poses the question – how do you ramp up a system which has run out of steam – which has lost all its power? Or to put it in more political parlance – How to you empower a disempowered system? The land is so depleted, how can you get it producing again? That’s an excellent question, and I’m glad you asked that.

There are two ways. the first is to shovel money at it. Invest in massive infrastructure spending – irrigation, civil projects and agricultural engineering. And fertilizer. Lots of it.

The second way is to follow a return to natural farming principles, like Permaculture, Holistic Resource Management, and Keyline Ploughing. By healing the water systems, and changing the way the water moves across the land, we can completely change the characteristics and fertility of the area. This has been proven over a period of the last 40 years – go to
and see how they can grow 3 inches of topsoil in as many years.. Go to the Holistic Management International site and watch on their homepage what they have achieved internationally with Holistic Resource Management, and Google ‘Permaculture’ and see the thousands of different sites in which people are growing their own food on varying scales, without the need for capital intensive investment or machinery. Tractors can be replaced with Animal Traction, and the University of Fort Hare has an Animal Traction programme in place, which has already proven the commercial viability of this type of farming.

And the issue of scale is interesting. According to Fatma Gul Ünal, in her paper ‘SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL: EVIDENCE OF INVERSE SIZE YIELD

“A strong inverse relationship between farm
size and yield is prevalent”.

By her research, smaller farms – especially those run by families, who have a vested interest in its success, produce a higher yield per hectare, than large expansive farms of monoculture. I recall driving through the Rhine Valley ten years ago, through the vineyards, and remarking to my companion at how every single inch had been utilized – every crag and nook was being farmed. My German companion explained that land was so valuable, that every inch was put to use. The intensive use of space can yield a good return. According to Swami Prabhupada of Krishna Consciousness fame,  Two hectares and an ox per family is all that is required for self sufficiency. Keith Farnish puts it at less:

“Realistically, a family of four growing just their vegetables on about 1/4 acre (about a 100′x100′ plot) would be a huge amount of their food supply and quite manageable if you were willing to put in the work!” – []

The plots in Hamburg are mostly, about 2 ha. in size. It turns out you don’t need a farm the size of Texas in order to survive. All you need, is a plan.