Sustainable farming: a profitable and responsible choice

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Sustainability is not only about humanity adapting to changes and finding ways to fulfil the needs of current generations without compromising the needs of future generations. It also provides significant financial benefits to producers.

This was the resounding takeaway message from a panel discussion held on the Nation in Conversation stage at Nampo Cape recently. Facilitated by Herman de Kock, executive head of sales and service at Nedbank Commercial Banking, the highly skilled panel included Dr Johann Strauss of the Western Cape Department of Agriculture, Dr Tara Southey, founder and CEO of the precision agriculture company TerraClim, Fanie Ferreira, CEO of the Milk Producers Organisation (MPO), and Shelly Fuller, sustainable agriculture programme manager at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF SA).

Financial viability of farming sustainably is the greatest, most immediate benefit

Each panel member fully supported the move to sustainability and referred to numerous examples of producers benefiting financially from being good stewards of resources.

Ferreira, who recently announced the winner of the MPO Nedbank Stewardship Award for 2023, succinctly asserted that sustainability means profitability for dairy producers. “This year, all our finalists mentioned that the financial viability of farming sustainably is the greatest, most immediate benefit. While they understand that the initial investment is high and the journey can take five to ten years, they are already reaping the benefits of working with rather than against nature.”

Fuller agrees: “Our Conservation Champions Programme is the result of a partnership of more than 20 years between Nedbank, the WWF and South Africa’s wine industry. The partnership aims to prevent vineyards from jeopardising the unique flora kingdom of the Western Cape and encourages regenerative farming practices.

“The South African wine industry is now known as a market leader, with 95% of our wines certified as sustainably produced under the industry’s environmental certification scheme, the Integrated Production of Wine (IPW). Even after experiencing the worst drought in decades and braving an ever-changing climate, most of the farms that are part of the Conservation Champion Programme have been able to maintain their productivity and their businesses are growing.”

Strauss, who leads research on conservation agriculture, says that producers who have switched from conventional to sustainable farming saved the Western Cape approximately R440 million in environmental damage between 2002 and 2020. This research is a priority project of the Western Cape’s SmartAgri Plan.

“Three building blocks of sustainable farming – minimal soil disturbance, biodiversity through crop rotation and covering the soil with living crops or crop residues – are simple and cost-effective in the long run. Interestingly, on farms where these principles are applied, there is evidence that the soil is building resilience if you compare the crop yields and recovery periods following the significant drought periods in 2015, 2017 and 2019.”

Technology is a major enabler of more sustainable farming

Another point on which the panel agreed is the role of innovation and big data in enabling producers to produce more with fewer resources and farm sustainably.

Southey believes that the use of data is more important now than ever before in making decisions and plans to adapt and mitigate climate change and market shifts. She founded TerraClim while conducting research for her PhD in viticulture and climate change and discovered there was inadequate climate data.

“We now focus on building an integrated climate, geographical information system, remote sensing, and crop database to provide policymakers with this essential information. This will also help producers understand the changes their crops are undergoing and as a result make informed decisions to adapt,” she said.

Ferreira agreed that technology is a major factor in improving yields and making educated decisions. “When I started working in the dairy industry in the 1980s, there were more than 28 000 dairy producers in South Africa. There are now less than 900. However, they produce more milk with fewer cows than those thousands of producers decades ago. There are so many innovations these days, such as cow management systems, digital milking parlour systems and genomics innovation, that drive better breeding outcomes – all of which give dairy producers the edge to maximise their yields and provide their animals with better care.”

Watch the interview here:

Fuller is a passionate advocate of farming sustainably. She wrapped up the core of the philosophy as follows: “Producers easily understand the benefits of working with nature – almost like a business partner – and their role as a custodian for the services that nature provides. Within this context and considering the ever-increasing input costs, the profitability factor is making the decision to move to sustainable farming easier and is more important than the scorecard for them.”

Think bigger. Think Nedbank Commercial Banking.

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