The role of the retailer in the farm strikes.

Alternative title “It is not only the farmers fault”

Hello Dear Reader

The recent farm strikes need to be viewed in a wider context. From the farmer right through to the end consumer. We are all farmers by proxy, each and every one of us exercises that vote at least three times a day, and by choosing what food we eat and where we buy it, we choose which farmers we support.

I am not attempting to absolve farmers of responsibility to treat their staff well, pay them well (the ANC government set the minimum wage so their comments are mere political opportunism), treat their animals humanely and ensure safe and comfortable working conditions. I would like to focus on the retailer’s role (the big national chains) as they set the price for most of the farmers.

The old joke about a farmer complaining the least in February because it is the month with the least days alludes to the fact that the farmer is being pressurised from all sides, at all times. The primary pressure comes from the income side where prices and payment terms are driven by retailers. The role of the grain traders in artificially moving prices is a topic of discussion for another day. On the expense side the pressures are the ever increasing input costs such as fuel, chemicals, seed, veterinary costs, soil balancing costs and labour costs. Other pressures include the weather (ZZ2 recently lost 140 hectares of tomatoes in a hail storm) as well as having a mostly uneducated workforce.

The retailer’s greatest pressure is to sustain profitability and if you really want to own its shares then it must continue to grow earnings. The easiest way to do this is to squeeze the suppliers. Lets take the example of milk. A certain retailer pays the farmer R2.50 per litre for the milk and then sells it at R10.00 for that same litre. If the farmer is lucky he gets paid 30 days after statement but that is more likely to be either 60 or 90 days. (Walmart/Massmart being the exception paying every 14 days). I am not trying to trivialise the work of the retailer. However the farmer has taken the risk to produce the milk. He has had to keep the animals healthy, make sure they are fed, his staff are on time every day of the year to do the milking, his cows conceive, his dairy is kept hygienic, once milked that the milk stays chilled until the retailers truck arrives to cart it away yet he only gets ¼ of the price the consumer pays and he has to wait a minimum of 30 days from the statement at month end before he gets money that the retailer received the moment the customer paid for the milk. In no one’s definition is that farming for the future.

A farmer very near me received R6 per kg for beans last week that the supermarket sells on for R25 per kg.

Why does our government not insist on transparency in the food chain? The agricultural group Sekem in Egypt has managed a transparent association chain which satisfies everyone. A transparent food chain will be of benefit to farmers who can share this information with their workers and also be of the benefit of the end consumer who gets to see where his food Rands are being spent.

Our vineyard berm management strategy

The discussion below relates to vineyards that are irrigated. Dryland has its own challenges but weed management is not one of them.

The vineyards on Spier are in their second year of conversion to organic status and then to biodynamic status. I have been managing my dryland Chenin vineyard according to biodynamic principles since 2005. I produce my straw wine from this vineyard.

In my limited viticultural experience the two biggest problems faced by organic/biodynamic vineyard mangers are feeding the plant and weed management. Feeding the plant is a subject for another day. Within weed management the tricky part, in our experience, is the berm or the bankie.

The berm needs to be kept with as little plant material on as possible so as to first allow no competition for the vine and second allow light to penetrate the canopy and and air to move freely. The air flow is almost most important because conditions conducive for fungal diseases need to kept to a minimum as we don’t have the weapon of a systemic fungicide in our arsenal.

With conventional management nothing beats glyphosate (I lie, rye grass does) but organic/biodynamic vineyard managers can’t/won’t/are not allowed to use that tool. Also we don’t want our soils without Zinc, Managanese or Iron (glyphosate chelates these minerals and we have the soil tests to prove it).

Most organic/biodynamic managers use the mechanical method of either using various tractor drawn implements to rid the berm of weeds or use labour to hoe the berm clean. Our problem with this is that the soil is left bare and bare soil is between 8 and 20 Celsius hotter than covered soil so then we need to use more water and the microbes get hurt.

Our biological method was inspired by Nick Kotze of Agricol, improved by Bennie Diedericks (082 452 7263) and is being perfected by my colleague Orlando Filander.

The first thing to do is to clean the berm mechanically. As soon as possible after harvest. Turn on the irrigation to see where the dripline is and then clear a hoe width on that dripline. Then mix Subterranean Clover seed, obtainable from Agricol, and some compost and apply this mix through a 2 litre Coke bottle in your newly created trough. Water regularly to give the clover a chance to get growing before the winter rains stimulate the other weeds to grow. The above photo was taken on the 22nd of May.

Above is one our better examples, taken on the 6th of September, of where the sub clover has established and is covering the berm and not allowing too much competition to grow on the berm. Please don’t forget that clover is a legume that is fixing Nitrogen for plant growth into the soil.

There are some other areas where we have not established the sub clover that well and accordingly there is more competition that has grown through the sub clover and we have had to use weedeaters to cut them back.

The photo above was taken on the 27th of October and shows where we want to get to with all our vineyards. The sub clover has almost entirely died, only after burying it’s seed. So not only did it fix Nitrogen whilst living, it has created a mulch to keep the soil cool and finally it has reseeded itself which absolves us of that duty next year. Every year that subclover blanket gets thicker and fixes more Nitrogen.



Our CLA beef trial

Dear Reader

Providing our clients with the healthiest beef available is one of our goals. Despite the evidence (this is for the scientific peer reviewed obsessed factory farmers out there) there are many misguided souls who believe in feedlot beef. They will come around to the facts, eventually.

One of the major benefits of grass fed beef is CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid). Regarded by many as anti cancer, anti inflammatory etc.

We have started a 5 year experiment with 8 different beef breeds to see which produces the highest CLA count. This was inspired by the Simmentaler Breed Society who claim that their breed has 30% higher CLA than any other breed.

Our 5 year trial is being supervised by Dr Carel Muller of Elsenburg with input from Prof Kennedy Dzama of Stellenbosch University. Post slaughter a sample of the loin muscle is taken from the carcass and once all have been slaughtered then the Medical Research Council will do the analysis. We have 10 oxen from each breed and by the end of this year we should have slaughtered all of them.

The English Breeds ( the first two are currently topping the scales on daily weight gain)





The French Breeds




The South African Breed



Mixed breeds


Brangus (not in this year’s trial but we plan to from next year)

This high CLA beef is only available from Bill Riley Butchery, 021 511 552, or from us as the one whole animal mince which I wrote about here. Finally occasionally from the Somerset West Spar and Paul Roos Spar in Stellenbosch. Of course only the Cape’s finest restaurants serve it too.

Stay well

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