The period since Vol. 11 was circulated has proven to be less charged with adrenaline stimulating events but has remained challenging. Foremost among these challenges is probably the energy crisis that grips our country and is resulting in crippling load-shedding events, hampering an economy already constrained by a multitude of other factors and a world economy that is still reeling from the impacts of covid.
Under tight operating margins, resulting from economic pressures, it is often difficult to justify involvement in less financially tangible pursuits such as conservation and sustainability programmes with long-term projected returns. In such periods leadership has to remain committed to sound fundamentals, while navigating stormy financial waters. Fountainhill Estate (FHE), is fortunate that it has a Board of directors that remains steadfast in its mandate of “Farming in Harmony with Nature”.
The merits of a programme should be measured in terms not only of financial reward but also in terms of contribution to best practice and overall sustainability, now and into the future. FHE undertook a review, during 2022, by an independent third party, Blue North, a consulting group on global sustainability initiatives and produced a Perspective Report, providing details of contributions made, benefits derived and future directions to further enhance performance.
Commercial agriculture has experienced mixed blessings during this period. The sugar industry remains under threat at local level, with two milling companies under Business Rescue, the reduced sales initiated by the controversial sugar tax, unprecedented carry-over crops due to poor mill performance and vertical production growth as well as poor planning at industry level. Yet we have been blessed with good climatic conditions, particularly rainfall, as a result of a 3-year La Ninã cycle. The avocado industry experienced low returns due to the impact of high freight costs and the Russo-Ukrainian war. However, new export markets are close to opening up to South African exports of this nutritious crop. Our clonal avocado nursery has produced our first saleable trees during this period and qualified with a 5-star Avocado Nurseryman’s Association (ANA) grading. A promising start to a capital and technology intensive sector.
The declaration as a Biodiversity Stewardship area has now entered the management phase and requires focus on Better Management Practices as well as maintenance of initiatives that supported the declaration. These efforts are complementary to commercial agriculture providing testimony of the efforts toward sustainability, required ever-increasingly for preferential market access. This and the Perspective Report now permit us to undertake the SIZA Cares environmental audit process. Such is the impact of investment in conservation efforts that it underpins commercial entry to market opportunities.
Similarly, decisions were taken to reduce reliance on the fragile electricity grid in the country with an investment in solar at all energy consumption points on the farm. This solar generation capacity and limited storage is already providing savings in energy cost and an ever-decreasing reliance on Eskom. Presently a generation capacity of approximately 210 kW has been installed and is due to be augmented with battery storage and possible hydro power. The amortisation period is expected to be 8 to 10 years.
Rangeland management is notoriously slow in providing tangible improvements to veld condition and improved biodiversity; and the past three years of good growing conditions combined with the hiatus in alien plant control, resulting from the covid period and budgetary constraints imposed on the Department of the Environment, Forestry & Fisheries (DEFF) “Working on Water” & “Working on Fire” programmes. Fortunately, both programmes have been reinstated and the lost ground in combating alien plant species can resume. To a certain extent the “Herbicide Assistance Programme” provided to landowners, by the DEFF has assisted in preventing a complete loss in gains made over the past 5 years. Nonetheless, the rangeland appears visually to have lost condition with invasive pressures of both alien (mainly Lantana camara) and undesirable indigenous species (Lippia javanica & Senegalia ataxacantha) predominating.
Such is the nature of agriculture and conservation (agro-ecology) that setbacks are inevitable due to natural and other disturbances and therefore programmes need to be seen through to their conclusion.
Our investment in support of and facilitation of research continues to provide a deeper insight into the natural resources, their management and past history. Current projects include, the Closed Water Balance Model compiled by SRK Consulting; the small mammal and reptile surveys (Cameron Cormac & Colleen Downs of UKZN), with the former having been concluded since the last volume of this newsletter; a collaborative project between the UKZN team and Jesse Delia of the American Museum of Natural History, on frog mimicry; the Raptor Scoping Surveys, continue under Tammy Caine & Wade Whitehead of Free Me, and have been expanded to include surveys on Bat spp by Michaela White also of Free Me. Ian Kiepiel & Steve Johnson of the Centre for Functional Biodiversity, UKZN continue their work on the Natal Crocus Apodolirion buchananii , found on FHE and have discovered numerous interesting pollinators and characteristics of the plant, previously unknown. Timo van der Niett from the same department at UKZN has undertaken preliminary work on avocado pollinators, in a joint project between FHE, Donovale Farming Company & UKZN.
Other research projects include the rangeland monitoring programme supported by Cobus Botha of the Department of Agriculture & Rural Development’s Bio-Resource Unit, at Cedara. The linked bulk grazing trial continues into its third year, in conjunction with Priscilla Dent.
Agricultural research projects such as the protective netting over avocados, the SASRI trial on sugar cane nematode treatments & varieties, as well as the soil & tree health of avocado, being monitored by UPL Chemicals, are expected to provide further inciteful information this year.
The team from the University of Tübingen, Germany, under leadership of Gregor Bader & Manuel Will returned in 2023 to continue the dig on the Holley Shelter, first examined by Gordon Cramb during the 50’s. They have now confirmed various levels dating back 40,000 years. This year they were accompanied by Aurore Val & Sarah Rhodes who have analysed micro-faunal deposits and identified mammals and bird species present during these periods. Collaborative assistance from the University of Johannesburg (Marlize Lombard) related to plant foods that sustained Middle Stone Age Man; the University of Witwatersrand for carbon dating and identification of species from carbon remains; Trevor Hill (UKZN Geography Department) and colleagues from the University of the Free State are undertaking paleontological analyses on pollen in the layers of sediment extracted from the excavation. Much interest has resulted from their work here and once they conclude their excavations, in 2024, we intend to lead paleontological tours to the site as part of our eco-tourism programme.
New and proposed research projects include a survey on ants, spiders and insects, studies on the Nile Monitor Ecology, by Euan Geniever, and a study of the African Rock Python by Kirsty Kyle, both studying under Prof Colleen Downes, of UKZN. FHE is still looking to find a student willing to assess the wetland health status on the property.
We held our 6th Research Symposium, with the kind assistance of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) the UKZN Centre for Transformative Agriculture & Food Systems, the UKZN Corporate Relations Department and Friends of UKZN, which through virtual capabilities, allowed participation by researchers associated with 11 international and local universities. A total of 27 papers were presented covering multi-disciplinary topics and included international researchers. The 7th symposium is presently being planned.
Our investment in eco-tourism is also paying dividends with our trails and day visitors attracting in excess of 500 day visitors per annum, a figure that is growing every year. Numerous school tours and children’s camps are utilising our environmental facilities as part of their environmental awareness education and Tess Miles has initiated “Into the Wild Horse Safaris” on FHE, for experienced horse riders. These are proving very popular with 18 excursions having been undertaken since October 2022.
So, for all the challenges mentioned, there have and continue to be some remarkable successes and we are grateful for the diverse interests of FHE, which ensure that some aspect of agro-ecology always provides a positive light, even when others struggle through challenges. It reinforces that each element is supportive of the others at different times, much as all elements of biodiversity are necessary for successful sustainability.
Yours in Conservation & Agriculture,
General Manager: FHE