Rosedale Farm, near Addo Elephant National Park in the Eastern Cape, started out as a conventional citrus farm. Though Keith Finnemore had always wanted to farm organically, it wasn’t until one of his workers had an accident that he realised there was no other option. After stepping in to spray the orchards, Keith suffered from hallucinations and discovered he had organophosphate poisoning. It didn’t need much more thought – he promptly began researching organic conversion and looking for a market for organic citrus fruit. That was in 1998, and today Keith has a successful Ecocert certified organic citrus farm in the largely conventionally farmed Sundays River Valley in the Eastern Cape, that exports to the EU.
Keith has over 25 years experience in farming. Starting out as a pharmacist he decided to go back to university in the late seventies to study agriculture, after which he worked for a parastatal until 1994, when he and his wife Nondumiso bought Rosedale Farm. After fours years of farming conventionally, Keith began the conversion, and Rosedale has been organic now for over 12 years.
Organics for sustainability
The first six years were the hardest, and the last two years have been the best, Keith says. He stuck with it despite the difficulties he encountered – “I had to relearn farming” – because he understood the ecological and economic benefits that would ensure the sustainability of his product. “It just made sense”, he says.
“The biggest challenge was bringing the highly depleted soils back to health”, Keith says taking a handful of dark earth out from under one of his trees. It took him about six years to rehabilitate his soil, but once healthy there was a noticeable improvement in his trees’ resistance to pests and drought, and water requirements declined. Good soils also result in nutritionally superior fruit. After 12 years Keith is happy to say that most of the usual farming pests and problems are under biological control, meaning that the parasites and predators that were introduced to control them have found their place in the ecosystem. “The only things we worry with are red-scale and the ants”, Keith says.
Organic compared to conventional – the numbers
So how does organic citrus farming stack up to conventional in terms of numbers? Keith says that on average the gross yields are almost the same, and he’s confident that current research will help them produce even more than conventional farms in the near future. The one challenge is the consumer – they demand a visually perfect, blemish-free fruit which means that organic export cartons are only a half to a third of what conventional farmers can export – even though the fruit itself is perfect on the inside. However, they get a premium price for their fruit which makes up for it.
Well, then, what’s stopping more farmers from going organic? Keith says there are barriers. For example, organic farmers rely on good marketing strategies for success, and (like most farmers) they need to make sure the middle men aren’t taking advantage of them. Since it’s not really possible to farm organically at the scale of conventional farms it’s important to collaborate with other farmers and form cooperatives that can supply the required quantities for export. Keith has joined forces with a few like-minded farmers in the valley and after “a few bumps in the road” they’ve formed the Sundays Organic Growers Association (SOGA).
The final barrier, and possibly the most important, is the stigma around organic farming. Keith says the myths about organics need to be dispelled. “You don’t need to be airy-fairy about organic farming. There is a lot of good science out there; published science. Organic farming is not anti-science.”
Where’s the money?
But are industrialised farms more financially sustainable? No, says Keith, “world over they rely on government subsidies and cheap oil.” Both these cornerstones of conventional farming are not looking too promising these days. While the organic conversion process takes time and money, the costs come down after just a few years and then it becomes far cheaper to farm organic, because you don’t need to buy expensive fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides. Your products also become a lot more valuable.
Light at the end of the supply chain
Keith is a pioneer in organic citrus farming in South Africa, with a wealth of knowledge and an open door to anyone willing to learn. He welcomes any farmers who want to make the switch to talk to him, learn from him and reap the wisdom of his labours.
With all the conflicting arguments out there about the viability of organic farming, it was good to hear a success story straight from the horse’s mouth. Keith’s words make sense and his orchards are the proof of them. He and his fellow SOGA farmers are making progress in their field. Yes, there’s work to be done, but the future of farming looks brighter with guys like these around. It’s only a pity that as South African consumers, we can’t buy these beautiful fruits here!
Rosedale Organic Farm
The farm is 45 minutes from Port Elizabeth airport, near Addo Elephant National Park in the Eastern Cape.
Tel: 083 329 8775
Rosedale Organic Farm also run a charming bed and breakfast lodge. Nondumiso runs this and can be contacted on +27 (0)83 433 0822 for reservations. A one-hour farm tour can also be organised.